In Striking the Rock, the theme of the biblical readings was water. Water in the wilderness in Exodus. Water at the well in John. Water from the struck Rock. Water that ultimately points to the water from the wounded side of Christ and, beyond that, to baptism.
Elsewhere in John, the theme is Light. Indeed, Water and Light dominate John’s gospel. We are to be “born again of water and the spirit” says the One who goes on to proclaim, “I am the Light of the World.” And in early Christian understanding, baptism-the “washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26)-was also called “enlightenment.” (Hebrews 6:4). That is why Paul quotes an early baptismal hymn in today’s epistle which sings, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). So it is not surprising that, in John’s gospel, Water leads directly to Light.
The blind man at the temple was born without light (John 9). In Hebraic understanding it was still a commonplace idea (though one repeatedly slapped down by inspired writers since the time of Job) that suffering was always inflicted on a person due either to their sin or to the sin of their ancestors. And so the disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus here introduces his disciples to the radical notion that those who seem picked out for special suffering may, in fact, be Blessed, not Accursed. This idea, which was already as old as Job in the days of the apostles, remains crazy to most of us to this day. Yet it is precisely what Jesus announces here. The man is blind, not because he is fingered by fate for special punishment, but because he is chosen by God to be a special sign of enlightenment.
And so the man is sent to wash in the pool of Siloam. This “baptism” immediately results in enlightenment. “He went and washed and came back seeing” as John puts it with typical simplicity.
But sin dislikes true simplicity and seeks false complexity. So a series of questions begins to pepper the newly sighted man; questions which appear at first to be trying to find things out but which rapidly reveal themselves as attempts to keep from finding things out. Again and again, the man is asked what happened. When he answers, the answer is subjected to a peculiar proscription, for the Pharisees demand he describe his healing, but do so without upsetting their prejudices against Jesus. He tells the truth anyway. His parents are consulted, they deflect the question back to him. He is asked again. He answers again, this time with some exasperation: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?”
And then he makes the fatal slip. He asks, “Do you too want to become his disciples?”
Ah-HA! The blind man is a disciple of Jesus! That proves…. well… it’s not quite clear what it proves. Yet on this pretext he is drummed out of court anyway and the miracle dismissed as somehow debunked, despite an inconvenient crowd of witnesses and family who can attest quite clearly to the fact that the man isn’t kidding when he says, “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
The blind man, significantly, is the only one who progresses in wisdom in this story. He was washed. He was enlightened. And as the story continues, he progresses from calling Jesus a “man” (v. 11) to a “prophet” (v. 17) to “Son of Man” (v. 35) to “Lord” (v. 38). Light dawns on the one who knew he was blind and the blind man not only sees light, he becomes “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). He himself becomes a sign of God’s glory.
But only to those who will see. Those who will not, who ask questions to keep from finding things out, cling tenaciously to the falsehood abandoned at the beginning of the story. Having sought to make true simplicity falsely complex, they now seek to make true complexity falsely simple. They declare a simple correlation between the blind man’s sufferings and his sinfulness (“He was born blind so he must have been born in utter sin.”) but neglect the possibility that they too were born in sin and offered mercy. The blind man’s story ends in sight. Their story ends in a willed and chosen blindness. That is the stark alternative the gospel sets before us.