Knowing (Sunday Worship 4/3/11)


John 9: 1-41

As many of you know, one of my all-time favorite movies is When Harry Met Sally.  It’s a romantic comedy told in stages across many years, the love story of Harry and Sally who meet upon college graduation and eventually get together about 10 years later.  Interspersed with their story are vignettes of older couples telling the stories about how they each met.  One at a time, sprinkled throughout the main story, we hear little snippets of these other love stories.  Some are incredibly sweet and some are funny.

One of my favorite lines from the movie is when a woman tells about meeting her future husband at summer camp, where he crossed the room to talk to her, introducing himself:  “I’m Ben Small, of the Coney Island Smalls.”  She smiles, retelling this, and says, “At that moment, I knew.  I knew the way you know about a good melon.”

That’s a different sort of knowing than the kind most of you are engaged in on a daily basis in college.  You are trying to retain and memorize and answer correctly.  You are most often looking for the right answer, or at least one of the right answers.  Rarely does a professor ask you a question and accept the explanation:  I just know.

But this does happen sometimes, doesn’t it?  Picking a college, picking a major, saying “yes” to someone new in your life.  Sometimes you have made your list of pros and cons and you’ve looked at the financial aid package they’re offering…sometimes you know it doesn’t add up in any sort of strict accounting, why you’d want to study anthropology or spend time with this person… but you just know.

The “melon test” is something entirely different from most of the knowing you are here to acquire.  It’s about observation and experience.  That kind of knowing is a certainty without strict reliance on facts, but a certainty all the same.  At the farmer’s market (real melons here – not husbands) you feel the weight of the fruit, you smell the end where the vine was attached, you observe the color of the rind.  And you just know when you’ve found the one you’re taking home.  You don’t have to slice into it right then.  You have no proof that the inside will match your expectations.  What’s inside?  Don’t know for sure.  Is it ripe?  Seems to be.  Will it be as good as the one last week?  Hope so.  In the final analysis, all you can say with certainty is:  “I’m taking this one.”

This kind of knowing can be scary, especially for people who are used to getting the facts down and looking for the correct answer.  It is terrifying for the religious leaders and other bystanders when Jesus heals the man born blind.  But it’s in keeping with John’s Jesus, who earlier in the gospel, answers several questions with the inviting yet mysterious, “Come and see.”  He recruits his very first disciples and they have just this one minor question – Where are staying? – and he replies enigmatically, “Come and see” (John 1: 35-39).  Here we are eight chapters later and Jesus is pretty consistent, isn’t he?

Today’s reading is a long story, so let’s remember a few highlights.  There is a man who was “born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Jesus decides to offer him healing, so he spits in on the ground and mixes the dirt together, applies it to the man’s eyes, and then tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam, which means “sent.”  He comes back, now able to see and then there is a cacophony of voices from the crowd and the religious leaders:  Oh my goodness, it’s the blind beggar who used to sit begging near here?  …No, no!  It’s just someone who looks like him. …Hey, guys, it is me – I was blind and now I’m not.  …Well, how in the world did that happen? Over and over the man tells them it’s really him and the crowd keeps asking, Then how did it happen? And when he repeats it all – spit, mud, eyes, the Sent pool, viola! – they want to question the strange, purported healer.

The religious leaders most interested in right answers and rules, the Pharisees, are called in to straighten this out.  They make him go over all the details about mud again, then they add another wrinkle:  Yes, it’s interesting that this man appears to be healed of his blindness, but are you aware this has happened – illegally – on the Sabbath? Let’s speak to his parents, maybe they will be more helpful and level-headed. So his parents are summoned and asked if it’s true that their child was really blind since birth.  And what do they answer?

“We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes” (John 9: 20-21).  Then they add, quite practically, that the Pharisees should ask their son directly — He’s grown; you can ask him yourself.

Round two with the formerly blind man.  This time the authorities decide, not having gotten very far with this guy or his parents previously, to attempt their own explanation.  They want the man to denounce Jesus as a sinner.  What does he say?  “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25).  And they ask him the same questions over again:  How did this happen?  What did he do to your eyes? Finally the man decides to get theological with them.  He considers what has happened to him and says, Look, we know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but to those who worship and obey God’s will.  No one has ever heard of a healing like this before, so if this man doesn’t come from God, he wouldn’t be able to do anything. Then they drove him out and were done with him entirely.

I want to reflect on this story in two ways, thinking about knowing and about seeing God in our midst.

At the start of the story when they encounter the blind man, even Jesus’ disciples make the then-common assumption that someone blind like that must have sinned, or his parents must have.  Jesus sets them straight:  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (v. 3).  Is Jesus’ explanation much better?  On first listen, it sounds like he’s saying that the man was born blind because God afflicted him, in order to glorify God.

That one doesn’t pass my own melon test.  I just know that can’t be right.  It doesn’t sound like the God I know.   As I wrestled with that this week, I wondered if the meaning might lead in another direction.  I wondered if Jesus meant that, however we are born, it is so that our lives can reflect God.  Our very existence is the opportunity for revealing God’s works.  It was with relief and joy that I read a commentary headed in this same direction.  The writers cautioned against hearing Jesus’ words as too simple an explanation, noting that the phrase “he was born blind” isn’t even in the Greek text.  They go on to say, “The sense is that the presence of the blind man provides the occasion to do something about it, something that will glorify God.  Here and elsewhere, the Bible simply begins with the reality of evil, without providing explanations.  [Other philosophies claim] to provide profound explanations for the problem of evil, which the Bible leaves as a mystery” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 318).

So this man’s life (and his parents’ and ours) are just as they are – in all their complexity, mystery, frustration, joy, disability, and ability – as fertile, acceptable grounds for God.  For God to show up in and be revealed through.

The man knows this.  He doesn’t start with a theological treatise explaining away the miracle so that it will make sense and be depleted of its power.  He simply states what happens.  That’s enough.  I’m the same guy.  Jesus used saliva and dirt and made a mud pack for my eyes and sent me to that Sent pool to wash it off.  Then I could see.  All I know is I was blind but now I see.

Same thing with the man’s parents.  They steer clear of the trap set by the religious authorities, inviting them to explain what couldn’t be explained.  They chose to witness instead.  We know he’s our son and he was born blind.  We don’t know how this happened but clearly it did.

This I know:  that God shows up, over and over again, often in unexpected and inexplicable ways.  I know this happens.  I know we can trust it to happen again.  I know about God the way you know about a good melon.

Like the healed man, God calls us out of brokenness and pain, offers healing, washes us clean in the very waters that send us out into the world to bear witness to all this (www.gbod/worship).  All we need to see and know is the truth of our lives.  That’s why we are born like we are, that’s why we are the way we are – male, female, tall, short, biology majors, religious studies minors, rich, poor, lonely, joyful, broken, and whole – we are made in exactly these ways so that God’s works can be revealed in our lives.

The first step is to be looking for them.  Maybe it takes a while to spot, like bird watching, you can spend months in the same forest faithfully waiting on a warbler or finch or bluebird.  You wait the same way, binoculars in hand, every day.  With no warning, one day you can see it.  Was it there all the other days?  Was this the first flight through since you’ve been looking?  Hard to say, but there it is now.

I do think we get better over time.  Maybe it’s about learning to observe, trying out a few melons.  Maybe it’s education in what we are looking for – “OT miracles” or the more common “everyday miracles” of seeing what did not appear to be there just a moment before – a caring friend instead of a stranger, a child of God instead of an enemy….It’s not about getting it right, it’s about looking and being willing to reveal what it is you see – to say, “I don’t know why it’s so, but here is what I do know ….Here is where God shows up in strange and wonderful ways and I have seen it.”

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2011