Rev. Kati Collins
The Beauty is in the Reflection
I used to love to read this story when I was a kid, because I just couldn’t believe that Jesus would spit! And, this wasn’t any normal spit filled with germs and bacteria, this was the holy spittle of God carrying the water of life.
Read the scripture from your Bible: John 9:8-17, 31-41 (If you’re at home, just read chapters 9 and 10;)
Now as an adult, the story makes me really uncomfortable. Besides the timely fear of spit droplets, I mean, seriously, The health department would be all over him right now!
There’s also the fact that Jesus never asked the man if he wanted to be healed. I’m pretty sure I would freak out if a man I didn’t know and couldn’t see was suddenly putting mud on my eyes. Was he making fun of me? Won’t they just leave me alone?
It also bothers me that the man’s blindness is seen as such a disability that he can’t do anything but beg on the side of the road. I know a lot of magnificent people who are blind. They are smarter, kinder and a lot more forgiving than most of the people I know that have no visual impairment.
Then there are those frustrating people who keep asking him to tell his story over and over, as if he’s making it up and he’s going to mess up and reveal his lie. How frustrating! To have had this experience, suddenly be able to see and now no one believes you? Not your parents or your neighbors or your rabbi?
Stories like this are what make it hard for people to talk about their faith. “My faith experience is too personal, they could never understand. If I tell other people about my faith experience of Jesus, they would just get angry and disown me as a friend. They will look for all of the reasons I must be wrong, they will never understand.”
And that’s exactly what happens, they cast the man out of their faith family.
This is the part of the story that sends up a red flag for some scholars. Christians were not excommunicated or “kicked out of the synagogue” until several decades following the death of Jesus and the importance of the synagogue didn’t rise until after the destruction of the temple during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem, about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
I prefer the view that this story is layered with puzzles and facts about life living with Jesus for those who followed him before his death and for the communities of people who were baptized and followed him decades after his resurrection.
The book of John carries a lot of symbols, first with the code words for Jesus as the Word and the Light present with God at the beginning of creation and sent to guide us through the darkness of life. Then there is the new vocabulary for being born again by the Spirit, which we don’t really get in the other gospels, but is so central to our understanding of becoming a disciple of Jesus. And here we have a man who was born blind who becomes excommunicated from his faith family when he reveals himself to be a Jesus follower.
This story is not a parable or a myth, it is more of a transcribed story about something that happened to different people. Yes, Jesus healed people who were blind and gave them the gift of sight, we have that from many sources and here we see the aftermath of what it was like for people to be received, or rejected rather, in their community. Then there is the layer of experience from the people who were given sight when they came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior of the world. This knowledge and understanding didn’t come all at once, it came through many experiences and even a few encounters with Jesus, before they fully accepted Jesus as Lord of their life. For this man, the more he had to answer for his faith, the more he was forced to face what was going on and really think things through. If only they would have accepted him, he would not have criticized their belief, and yet they rejected him before they could take the time to understand him.
The first community of readers or listeners to this gospel would have heard this with a heavy heart of compassion. Many of them were also kicked out of their faith families or found themselves no longer fitting into their previous life. This story would have brought them encouragement to know that others have been rejected and misunderstood, and the journey of honesty about our experiences leads to self discovery, even in isolation.
When the man was left alone, it was easier to listen to Jesus, to regain focus, and finally see the face of God. Jesus comes to us in our isolation, he calls us by name and he gives us a new way to see.
As much as we talk about community, isolation is a very common Christian experience. Our human desire is to be connected, and so we tell our stories looking to find someone who understands what we are going through, but the benefit of telling our stories isn’t necessarily changing the mind of someone else, or finding someone who gets it, that’s something Jesus does.
Over the last several decades speech and art therapists have shown that the telling of stories can have a connection with our own personal health. Back in the 90’s there was a series of studies which evaluated the health benefits of physically writing about traumatic experiences. In a typical study, the participants wrote for a period of fifteen minutes for four consecutive days either in a control group writing about non-emotional subjects or in an experimental group writing about traumatic experiences. Simply writing in itself was moving for the participants, even though they were merely telling the stories to themselves. But these studies also observed health responses such as doctors visits, immune system and chronic pain. At first they did not focus on the content of the essays because they did not have a comprehensive way of evaluating the material. Years later they developed a computer program to evaluate the word usage and found that the more a person used positive-emotion words, the better their health and personal achievement, and the writers who used a large percentage of negative-emotion words also increased in health and found jobs at a high rate. The short repeated sessions of writing acted more as a catalyst for organizing traumas.
Another study was done with some Holocaust survivors who were interviewed on video and then given the recording. 70% of these people had never shared or discussed their experiences and after the study almost all of the applicants reported re-watching the tape and sharing it with friends. These methods of story telling initiated a journey towards wholeness as the participants began to integrate their experiences in their conscious and in their social experience.
When we tell our stories, it does more for us than it does for the other people. Telling our stories is healing in itself, and the more we tell the stories, the closer we get to understanding ourselves and seeing the face of Jesus.
If you have been joining us in our Lenten Devotional you will notice that we have already been practicing the art of storytelling. By simply writing about your spiritual experience, you are finding words to describe your faith. Each spiritual practice in our workbook is followed by these reflection questions:
What surprised you about this spiritual practice?
What part would you like to do again?
What made you uncomfortable?
Does this stretching and growth draw you closer to God or frustrate you?
The glory of God is revealed not in the gaining of physical sight, but in the journey of faith and discovery of God’s love for us. Knowledge is given by God as we stumble through telling our stories, not through the accomplishment of special tasks. This personal experience of the presence of God is a gift to be received, a puzzle to be turned and wrestled, a life to be lived.
The beauty is in the reflection.
Let us begin with reflecting on our emotions and experiences during this time of separation and isolation, and may we become a reflection of the love, grace and power of God. Amen.