(NB: This is the first week that our Sunday Gathering has been suspended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. So this Reflection is first and only delivered to us all electronically, rather than just as an on-line record to refer back to after being heard live in our church community.)
As usual, I read the lectionary readings a few weeks ago, knowing that life is busy, knowing that what I would say in the reflection on 22nd March would cook away slowly in the back of my brain.
As usual, I thought about the right hymns for the texts. I thought about how to craft a liturgy, how the prayers should work with the readings and the music and whatever was going on in our church family life. We at Aldersgate are called to be the people of God in this time and place – in March 2020, in our beautiful new building, only just opened and celebrated after our long earthquake exile.
Last month, I wasn’t particularly thrilled at the gospel appointed for today – John 9, 1-41. It’s 41 verses long for a start, and that’s a hard slog for any reader. And it’s confusing!! Jesus is walking along past a man who was blind from birth, and his disciples ask him whose fault it is that the man is blind – the man himself or his parents? Then Jesus heals the man, then the people have an argument about what has happened, then they take him to the Pharisees, and the Pharisees condemn Jesus
because he has healed someone on the Sabbath. And then the Jews get stuck into the argument and suspect that the man wasn’t really blind in the first place, and then the parents get dragged in, and basically ‘wash their hands’ of their adult son, because they are scared of saying the wrong thing in front of the Jews. Then the Jews interrogate the newly sighted man about what he believes about Jesus. Then the man asks why they’re so interested – ‘do you want to become his followers also?’. And then the authorities get really cross with the newly sighted man and emphasise that they are in the right because they follow Moses, whereas the newly sighted man is now a follower of Jesus! So they drive him out. (I’m not sure what that means but it doesn’t sound good). Then when Jesus finds out (he has obviously moved on and left this whole argument to play out without being there), Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man, and the man asks for clarification about who the Son of Man is, and Jesus identifies himself as the son of man. And the newly sighted man worships Jesus. And Jesus says to him, ‘I came into the world for judgement, so that those that do not see may see, and those that see may become blind’. And then the Pharisees pop back up, having heard this and say ‘Surely you don’t mean that we are blind?’ and Jesus says something cryptic – ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say ‘we see’, your sin remains.’
Did you get all that? It’s more complicated than recapping a Swedish thriller on Netflix. So I wasn’t thrilled to have to engage with this gospel reading, and I have been thinking about it for a few weeks, and wondering what to say to you all. (I have also been wondering whether I needed to stand on Philo’s soapbox or not, given that I haven’t led worship in the new building yet, and I am taller than Philo but not as tall as Warwick or Terry – now I’ll just have to wonder for a bit longer.) And the bit of the reading I was most uncomfortable with was the bit about the healing itself – the bit right at the beginning of the reading where Jesus spits on the ground, makes a paste of mud and saliva, and spreads it in the man’s eyes. That is a vivid image. It was gross four weeks ago when I read the lectionary and it’s frankly shocking today, in a world held hostage by COVID19, where we’ve spent the week trying to guage whether we are safe to meet sitting 2 metres apart from each other.
For a world where cough etiquette is an obsession, Jesus spitting is now at a whole new level of shock.
I work in public health. Usually it’s pretty difficult to explain what it is we actually do – we don’t do operations, or physios, and we don’t do any prescribing of drugs. If asked, I usually say something about being the bit of the health services which tries to ensure the community keeps well – that the air is breathable, the water is drinkable, that people can be well in the places where they live, learn, work and play. Suddenly now, everyone knows what a Public Health Unit does – we’re the ones at
the airport border, asking people how they’re going to manage self-isolating for the next 14 days; we’re the ones phoning people who’ve been identified as having been in contact with someone who has the virus, checking that they’re currently well, and can stay where they are, and that they know what to do if they start getting symptoms. Our office has been flat out, day and night, for weeks, and we are back to the old earthquake mantras – ‘this is a marathon, not a sprint,’ – we have always
known this day would come, we have always been planning for it, and now we are in the long haul to keep our people well where they live, learn, work and play.
So having spent numerous years reminding people that handwashing and drying, and coughing into your elbow, are ways to keep us all safe, I was pretty grossed out by reading again what Jesus did to bring healing. Spit and mud. Right into someone’s eyes. What on earth!?
A fortnight ago, I would have written something about the Pharisees’ position, or what the Jews were thinking, or tried to wrestle with Jesus’s self description as the Son of Man. But now here we are, caught up in the tsunami of a terrible pandemic. So much has happened so fast, and on a global scale. Each of us is reeling, and struggling to get our heads round it, and sometimes we might feel beside ourselves, or that the whole thing can’t be happening. A tsunami of confusion, a whirlwind of
emotions, making it hard for us to find the solid ground. So now, when I read the story, I find I’m most interested in the blind man. We don’t know his name, just like we don’t know the name of the woman at the well, who we read about last Sunday. The man is not even a central character at first – he is just a learning opportunity, a passing discussion point for the disciples as they walk past him. The man doesn’t ask to be healed. He may not even have known that Jesus and his crew were walking by. So what a shock for this man, to be minding his own business, to become suddenly the focus of someone else’s conversation, to be grabbed by Jesus, armed with spitpaste, and have this rubbed in his face, into his eyes, such a sensitive and private part of our bodies.
But the man must have known something big was happening because the first time Jesus speaks to him, telling him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam, the man instantly obeys. It’s clear that regardless of the arguments between the Pharisees and the Jews and the parents and all the bystanders, this man has instantly connected with Jesus, because he returns from the pool immediately, to tell them he can SEE! What a lifeturning moment – nothing will ever be the same fo that man again. To be disabled in 1st century CE Palestine was to be ostracised and marginalised. Jesus’ gross act brings the man back into society. Life will never be the same again. Something brutal and unexpected is transformed into something liberating. It won’t be easy now for the man, because in all the kerfuffle, he’s offside with his parents, and the Jews, and the Pharisees and who knows who else. But he sticks to his story – he is made to tell the simple facts more than once and finally refuses to tell it again, stubbornly stating ‘ One thing I do know, that I was blind, and now I see’. He is even brave enough to try some theological argument with the authorities, saying
“Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
He’s courageous, this man, especially when he must have still been shocked and disbelieving himself of the radical change in his life. And the response is ‘How dare you lecture us? You were born in sin.’ The more I read about this man, the more I warm to him. The more I think about what we are currently experiencing, as a congregation, as a country, as a world, the more I identify with him.
This story happened on the Sabbath, and this is the main reason why the authorities are so angry with Jesus. Last month, it would have been hard to know what Sabbath meant for contemporary Christians in a first world city – the supermarkets and malls were open for business, emails and media never stop, the planes flew in and out taking us wherever we wanted. How different now. I have no idea whether you will read this. I won’t see whether you are yawning, or shaking your head,
or nodding in recognition. Feel free to call or email, now we can’t shake hands at the door, or linger over coffee. We are in enforced Sabbath – finding out what happens when we need to slow down, in order to slow down a virus which threatens life as we know it. It’s a rude awakening for us all – as shocking and unexpected as getting an eyeful of mud and spit must have been for our friend, our brother, on that long ago Sabbath.
I’m seeing the world differently this week. I’m trying not to touch my eyes, or my face. I’m washing my hands more frequently. I’m talking more often to my beloved sisters, self-isolated in England. I’m feeling the same disbelief and confusion, fears and information overload, that we are all feeling. And I am wondering about this God, whom we profess, who made this world as a delicate eco-system, full of dynamic, fragile, incredible, ever-evolving life. I am looking at the Port Hills from my kitchen window and feeling grateful that they are finally getting a little rain. I am noticing the Autumn tinge creep into the trees along the river. I am seeing the tiredness and the determination and the gentle humour of my colleagues. I am seeing as I have never seen before.
Prior to spitting and rubbing and healing, the reading records a remarkable and emphatic statement of Jesus – “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” We are the people of God in this time, this remarkable and terrible time, displaced from our building, but socially united, theologically united in our affirmation that Jesus is in the world, in this pandemic, moving among us to bring comfort and hope, courage and light. May we see him afresh in our radically changed world. May his light guide us through the tsunami of emotions to the solid ground of faith. May we find ways of sharing his light with each other, and those who need our care through the coming days.
Pandemic: a call to worship
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
Lynn Ungar, 11/3/20