These three middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings, from John, are overwhelming. Last week we had the Samaritan woman, this week the man born blind, and next week the raising of Lazarus. They are each about forty verses long, and every verse of John is packed.
The first thing to say about these readings is that the readings themselves are an initiation. Each one leads us through and into a deep encounter with Christ. We learn the grandeur of Scripture. We are called to revel in it. And as we listen, we are like the characters: like the Samaritan woman, we talk to Christ – and, more important, we hear him talk to us – and we are amazed and want to tell our friends; like the man born blind, our eyes are opened and we can only fall down and worship; like Lazarus’s sister Mary we weep at the horror of death and see the glory of Christ the Resurrection.
No commentary can do justice to the grandeur of these readings. Lent is about initiation; these readings are themselves an initiation. Enjoy them!
A first theme in this Sunday’s Gospel is sin and suffering. We think suffering is a sign that God does not love us – the reading opens with a question about whose sin caused the man to be blind.
But Jesus shows that that is not at all what suffering is about. Suffering – also the disastrous love life of the woman at the well, or the death of Lazarus – is an opportunity for us to discover God’s strength in our weakness. “It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
At the end, Jesus turns their thinking inside out: the Pharisees think only the ones God hates suffer things like blindness – but Jesus says, “if you were blind you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘we see,’ so your sin remains.” When I am weak, then I am strong – but when I am too strong for Jesus, then I am weak.
That’s one of the things we learn in Lent, isn’t it?
Phariseeism takes us deeper into this weakness. The strangest detail in this reading is that Jesus makes clay out of spittle and rubs it in the man’s eyes. Jesus does not need clay to heal. So what is he doing?
The clue comes when the Pharisees notice that “Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.” The clay is a provocation, a little extra work to get their goats.
It brings to light their deeper blindness. They think the man is a sinner because he is blind, they think Jesus is a sinner because he cured the blind, but in fact the weakness of the man and the strength of Jesus are the revelation of the glory of God. They can’t see it, because they are too busy condemning, too confident of their own perfect vision.
Lent calls us into humility.
And a third element is sending. Jesus sends him to the pool of Siloam, “which means Sent.” John gives so many bewildering details.
But then you notice there’s a lot of sending. Jesus has just said he must do the works of the one who sent him. He sends the man to the pool called sent – and going out, the man encounters others to whom he must preach his good news. His parents fear he will be put out of the synagogue. And he becomes
bolder, and is in fact thrown out.
Initiation isn’t such a neat orderly thing. It isn’t that he’s formed, then sent. His sending is part of his formation; it is in speaking of Jesus that he discovers Jesus. We cannot meet Jesus unless we are also bearing witness. Always he is sending us.
The same thing happened with the Samaritan woman, whose faith grew as she went out to tell her friends about Jesus. The same thing will happen to Lazarus’s sister Mary, who has to lead the mourning and unwrap her brother and bear witness to others. Our action is inextricably bound up with our contemplation, our witness with our witnessing.
The other two readings draw our eyes to seeing and blindness.
Samuel comes to Jesse looking for a David to anoint king. He says, “Do not judge from his appearance. Not as man sees does God see, the Lord looks into the heart.” We need our eyes opened. And then he sends for David, and anoints him, which is a kind of sending. We see in being sent, and are sent by our seeing.
And St. Paul tells us we are called out of darkness into light. He talks about things we want to hide in darkness, and the need to wake up and open our eyes and go into the light. We need to see and be seen, to see and be sent.
Where do you need to go to better see Jesus?