The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2020

“Then I went and washed and received my sight” (Jo. 9:11).

In early April of 1862, in another spring time over a hundred and fifty years ago, two armies met on a battlefield at a bend in the Tennessee River not far from here, at Shiloh. Almost a hundred thousand men from Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana; from Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, and other places, fought over a long and deadly day. After night had fallen, and the exhausted soldiers paused in place, George Smith from Illinois heard from the no-man’s land between the lines the sound of a voice. A wounded soldier lying on the field was singing Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus, lover of my soul,” and soon others took up the tune (Woodworth, Nothing But Victory).

“Jesus, lover of my soul, / Let me to thy bosom fly. / While the nearer waters roll; / While the tempest still is high. / Hide me, O my Savior hide! / Till the storm of life is past. / Safe into the haven glide, / O receive my soul at last.” What George Smith was hearing was the voice of Americans from all over, cut off and isolated between the lines, united in extremis, turning to God in prayer and song in the very “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4).

Some people have compared our struggle against COVID-19 as a war, of sorts; one fought on our part with soap and water, sanitary wipes, and social distancing. Well, that may be; but in any case, it’s not a war fought against a human enemy, but against a force of nature, a part of the fallen creation that fights against us. It has deadly force, no doubt, like any powerful enemy; its ways are also largely unknown and unseen at this point. We have limited intelligence and limited weaponry. Like that field of battle at Shiloh, this virus too can bring us in extremis as a society.

Yet it can evoke our faith. Again, “Jesus, lover of my soul, / Let me to thy bosom fly. / While the nearer waters roll; / While the tempest still is high. / Hide me, O my Savior hide! / Till the storm of life is past. / Safe into the haven glide, / O receive my soul at last.”

 Our Gospel today, from John, is an invitation to faith, addressed to the church collectively at the midpoint of Lent. In the reading, Jesus heals the man born blind, anointing his eyes with clay made with spittle and earth, and sending him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The man’s a beggar, working his patch around the gate of the Temple. Afterward, when the man is questioned by his neighbors, he offers testimony to his healing. “Then I went and washed and received my sight” (Jo. 9:11), he tells the crowd.

It’s easy to take these words at face value, and to miss their significance for faith. The formulation, “received my sight,” can be understood as receiving again what was once lost; or, (a second meaning) of looking up to see. Now, the first meaning doesn’t really fit here, because the man was born blind. What’s he talking about, anyway, in getting his sight back? His neighbors know he never possessed sight, so he could not receive it again.

Unless, that is, there is a greater meaning to his blindness, and a deeper meaning to his words. The “sight” that he’s lost is not just the physical sight of an individual, but the spiritual sight of the human race. “I once was blind but now I see,” in the words of another hymn; speaking to our spiritual blindness and incapacity to see things as they really are. So, when he says, “Then I went and washed and received my sight” (Jo. 9:11), his words evoke the sight that humanity was first given in paradise, the ability to see with clarity and perception beneath the surface of things, now restored through the healing power of Christ. Given once again, in that sense, to the man born blind.

Then to the second meaning of the formulation, “received my sight”: of looking up to see. We know from the way that the story concludes that this is a story of faith. The man says to Jesus at the end, “Lord, I believe.” Then it says, “And he worshipped him” (Jo. 9:38). These are the words of faith. But already, here at the very beginning of the narration, the man is “looking up” to Jesus. Faith is already in play, foreshadowed in the way the man describes what’s happened to him. He’s looking up to Jesus, putting his faith in him, from the very beginning of the story, reaching out to know and understand what has taken place.

Our Gospel is an invitation to faith, for us today, in our own extreme situation. It’s an invitation to look up to Jesus. The battlefield of this fight is on our home turf, domestic in its very nature. We are isolated in new and frightening ways, in a seeming no-man’s land of our own devising, yet we are united in prayer and song. May we to his bosom fly! The Gospel invitation is to put our faith in Christ, who will keep faith with us, no matter where on the field we find ourselves.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee