The Two Sinners

Rev. Scott L. Barton
March 30, 2014
John 9:1-41


Most of you know who Heller Keller was, right? 1880-1968. Born in Alabama, at nineteen months of age she got scarlet fever or meningitis, which left her unable to see or hear.  It’s almost impossible to imagine, isn’t it?  How could she ever learn, or feel connected, or love?  But she had a remarkably persistent teacher, who put up with all sorts of abuse, and believed she could break through the incredible barriers that threatened Helen Keller’s very life.  One day she succeeded.  The miracle happened.  Holding Helen’s hand under the running water in the well house one day, she spelled out the word, “water,” first slowly, then quickly.  “Suddenly,” Helen Keller later wrote, “I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.  I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand.  That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”   
I think of Heller Keller when I read John’s story of the man born blind, a man set free.

The drama has a large cast of characters, which you can imagine from the Rembrandt drawing on the bulletin cover.  There’s Jesus, right in the middle, and his disciples on the left, and a crowd of nosy neighbors sort of under the archway, some Pharisees on the far right, probably the man’s parents, far away on the other side of the courtyard through the archway, and the man himself.  The two in the center get all the attention. The ones called sinners.  

We like stories about sinners, don’t we?  Anybody read the police blotter in the Amherst Bulletin? It’s quite entertaining, like this story.

So we have two so-called sinners, the man born blind, believed to have been judged by God; and the man who broke one of the Ten Commandments by healing the other man on the Sabbath.  

Most of the drama surrounds the first man. He doesn’t have a clue as to why such a powerful thing has happened to him, but everybody besieges him with questions about it.  It’s like a crowd of people coming down the steps of a courtroom that you see on TV, where something big has just happened, but the person in front of the microphone keeps saying, “no comment” because he or she either doesn’t know the details the reporters want, or doesn’t want to be caught on the record.  In our case today, the man just doesn’t know, but that doesn’t stop people from trying to find out. They ask reporter-questions: Who opened your eyes?  What did he do?  When did it happen?  Where is he? And, of course, the big one, why and how?

The more they keep it up, the more the man isn’t sure he knows much of anything anymore, because the way the world was, the way everything had been his whole life, is all different! He’s barraged by so many questions, it’s easy to imagine that he thinks whatever happened was a bad thing.  It’s as if blind is right, and not blind is wrong.  

His answers are at first quite timid.  “I’m the man,” he offers.  “The man called Jesus made some mud, and put it on my eyes, and told me to wash.”  “I don’t know where he is.” But then it’s as if the scene changes from outside the courtroom to inside.  And the more the man is put on the spot, the more eloquent he becomes.  When the Pharisees get into the picture, he tells them again what Jesus did, but then he points out, as if they haven’t gotten the picture yet, “and now I see!”  All of which starts a debate amongst the Pharisees.  He’s a sinner!  How could a sinner do that?  So they ask the man’s opinion, which seems to me in a court of law would be just hearsay, but the man, even more exasperated, blurts out that his healer is a prophet.  

Bzzz! Wrong answer! So they go get the man’s parents. They want to expose the whole thing as a hoax. They begin to give the parents the third degree. But they’re as perplexed as their son.  It’s as if, with all the guilt they must have felt over the years, they’ve distanced themselves from their son, and they pass the buck back to him. And they’re afraid, too. So the Pharisees haul the man back. It’s the proverbial wearing down the witness. But he can’t believe this is all they care about.  His courage grows: I’ve already told you what I know!  He dares to ask them, “Why do you want to hear it again?  Do you want to be his disciples?” Well, they don’t know where he’s from, is their answer. And the man formerly blind is astonished at such pig-headedness, gives them a fine lecture in theology, and declares that if this man isn’t from God, he’ll eat his hat.  

Now, the room is suddenly quiet.  A nobody, a sinner who 45 minutes ago was blind as a bat has just told the Hadley Church Council that they couldn’t see God if God bit them on the nose; he’s just told Hampshire Association of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ to go to hell.  This blossoming courage doesn’t go unanswered. They look down their unbitten noses into his now furious eyes, and say, “You were born entirely in sins, and are trying to teach us, fine upstanding members of the congregation all our lives?” And they throw him out of the congregation because he’s proven that even though he now sees, he’s still a sinner, like the one who healed him.  

Now, the other sinner gets wind of this, and finds the man.  Remember, he’s never seen Jesus. He went away from Jesus to that pool before he ever saw anything.  Jesus asks if he believes in the Son of Man.  I wonder if the man at first wonders where this inquisition is going.  But the voice asking it is different.  It sounds familiar, more an invitation than an accusation.  So he asks, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”  After all, the Son of Man was the one who would make all things right, and all things have just been made right for this man. He just needs to hear who it is.  “The one speaking with you is he,” Jesus answers.  

It’s like that moment just before a mystery is solved, when all the facts are in place but you haven’t put it all together yet.  Suddenly it sinks in.  This is the man who healed him, the one who, over our 45-minute delay, the man has seen more and more clearly, even before he actually laid eyes on him. That is, he has seen firsthand, from neighbors, parents and leaders, how hard it is to believe that everything can be different. At first, Jesus was just the man.  Then he was a prophet.  Then a man come from God.  And now the ultimate statement of faith, “Lord,” he says, “I believe.”  

The funny thing is, this confession of faith doesn’t happen in the temple, in the synagogue, in the church, in front of a congregation of people presided over by someone with the proper credentials wearing a fancy robe (or a plain one!)  It’s made outside the bounds of religion, one sinner to another.  Traditionally, we like to blame the Pharisees for not recognizing Jesus.  John has actually contributed to the church’s attitude by his use of the term, “the Jews” throughout his Gospel, and misuse of these words has helped create a lot of unnecessary pain, and mistrust between Christians and Jews.  But what he really means in all those cases where he speaks of the Jews being against Jesus is the leaders of the Jews.  Because of course, Jesus was a Jew.  His disciples were all Jews.  The first church was made up of all Jews in Jerusalem.  It’s the leaders you have to watch out for; and that may have been John’s community’s experience.  Scholars believe that the community for whom John wrote was made up of people who had been thrown out of the synagogue because of their faith in Jesus. But even the leaders aren’t all bad guys for John. A couple of chapters ago, what we heard last week was Jesus saying, “Salvation is from the Jews.”  Nicodemus is a positively-pictured Pharisee.  Even some Pharisees in today’s text wonder how anyone who was a sinner could do such a sign as the healing of the blind man. 

I think John isn’t so much anti-Jewish as pained by how easy it can be not to believe anything we can’t understand.  It’s the leaders who are supposed to understand.  It’s the leaders who are supposed to have the answers. They don’t like it when they don’t. And maybe we don’t, either.

Maybe we forget what a miracle it was when we first had faith in the God of new beginnings. When, once upon a time, we really knew in our heart, we really saw, that God loved us. That’s what it was, wasn’t it, a miracle?  Maybe it wasn’t a flashing insight like Paul’s, or today’s man, or John Newton’s, say. He’s the one who wrote the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, that we’ll sing next.  He wrote it for his congregation in the village of Olney, England.  It was originally called, “Faith’s Review and Expectation.”  He wrote it as he reflected on his own move away from a sordid past as a slave dealer.  He didn’t want to forget that eye-opening experience.  And maybe that’s why the hymn is still popular.  Once upon a time we knew, not all in the same way, and maybe for just fleeting moments, but we knew that the way the world usually seems isn’t what it’s all about.  Once upon a time we knew that faith and hope and love are at the heart of it all.  How did we know that? Was it something we came to all on our own?  Or was it a gift we joyfully received and were as thrilled to know as Heller Keller when she knew that things had names, and she could therefore communicate with other people and be no longer cut off, and for the first time in her life look forward to another day?  Isn’t it a miracle when people come to have faith in God, not in some superstitious or magical way, not in the man upstairs, but as the bedrock truth that things aren’t fixed?  The only thing that’s fixed is the love that won’t let you go.

I don’t think such faith is static.  It comes and goes and comes again. I like to think a little bit comes each time we gather together in this place between unfaith and faith, between our defenses and our trust, between the ways things have been and the way things will be, between being once not a people, just a bunch of individuals with no real need to care for each other or the world, but now God’s people, who see.  

We dare not ever say, “We see it all,” because Jesus said that he came for judgment of that sort of thing.  But he also came to open our eyes when we were blind to the possibilities ahead.  As the writer to the Ephesians puts it, “Once [we] were darkness, but now in the Lord [we] are light.” Not even in the light, but light. 

I say to you today, one sinner to another, we are light that the world needs!  How astonishing!  How amazing!  How divine!