Before, The Man Born Blind, and After

The Gospel lesson of John 9:1-38 which gives us a narrative of Jesus healing a man blind from birth.  It is one of the Post-Pascha Sunday Gospel themes and so continues exploring in the Orthodox liturgical context the Resurrection of Christ.  The blind man is told by Christ to wash in the pool of water–a baptismal theme  important for the continued spiritual development of those new Christians who had just been baptized at Pascha.

In the Orthodox Church on this Post-Paschal Sunday we read John 9:1-38.  It is worth considering the verses right before and after that pericope as they help set the context of the Gospel lesson and give it additional meaning.  The scripture just before the blind man pericope, John 8:56-59, takes place in the Temple precinct and has Jesus saying to the Jews:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

The text relates a debate which occurs between Jesus and His interlocutors regarding the interpretation of Scripture.  Jesus maintains throughout His ministry that the Old Testament Scriptures are mostly a prophecy about Himself (see for example John 1:45John 5:39-47, Luke 24:25-49).   Jesus says Abraham spiritually saw ‘Christ’s’ day – He is making the claim that the way to read Torah is as a prophecy of Christ, but those debating with Him see the Torah more as Law or the Teaching about how to live rather than as prophecy referentially pointing to something or someone else.  Those arguing with Jesus not only disagree with Jesus about how to understand the Torah but they don’t at all understand Jesus.  They hear Jesus say ‘Abraham saw my day‘, but then twist His words around and incredulously challenge him as they know He is lying if He claims He has seen  Abraham.  But Jesus is telling them the Torah is prophecy (that is how Abraham saw Jesus), and Abraham was a prophet looking for the Messiah.  This is not something all Jews believed.   So they are rejecting Jesus’ interpretation of Torah and denying that the Torah is what Jesus says it is – prophecy of the coming Messiah.  Jesus tries to show them what Torah is about but they refuse to see.

The narrative of the man born blind is preceded by a question about what is Torah? and Who can interpret it?  The Jews are arguing the Torah tells them how to live, Jesus says Torah helps them see and He claims to be the light of the world.  In other words, Torah reveals Him and He reveals the meaning of Torah.

After this discussion, Jesus leaves the temple:   The temple was a sign of God’s presence in Israel — the Temple itself was a place for the people to encounter God, to encounter God’s message, to hear God’s prophecy, God’s word and to know what God is doing.  But in the temple the people have just shown they can’t see God there and aren’t interested in what God is doing and are not willing to hear what God’s message is.  Thus, they want to stone Jesus.  Torah offered them an encounter with the living God, but they turned it into words carved into stone (so too their minds and hearts turned to stone!  See  2 Corinthians 3).

In this Gospel lesson it is outside the temple that Christ gives sight to the blind man.  It is outside the temple that the blind man’s eyes are recreated.  Outside the temple  Jesus proclaims Himself to be the light to the world.  Those in the temple are still in darkness as is shown above in the conversation they have with Jesus.  In the temple they remain spiritually blind.  The Great Temple in Jerusalem with all its correct liturgical ritual fulfilling Torah and claims of being the place where God dwells on earth did not give sight to the blind, nor to the spiritual leaders of the Jews.  Without Christ, even with the Temple and even within the Temple,  there is spiritual blindness – the people cannot see what God is doing.   So Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”  Those in the temple are judged, it is outside the temple that people are enabled to see what God is doing, in fact to see God.

Jesus claims to be the light of the world.  It is in Jesus and through Jesus that we see what God is doing.  When we see the Torah as prophecy we see what God is doing, we see Christ.  The Temple itself turns out to be no help to us in knowing God.

John 9:1-38

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

[“Wash in pool of Siloam” – these words from the Gospel are being used liturgically in Orthodoxy as being a reference to baptism.  Baptism is not just for forgiveness of sins, but also for the healing of soul and body, it gives spiritual enlightenment, displays God’s work in our life, renews and regenerates godliness in us.  As we pray in the Baptism service:  “But show this water, O Master of all, to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is he”; others said, “No, but he is like him.” He said, “I am the man.” They said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was a division among them. So they again said to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age, ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.”

He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.

What becomes obvious in the Gospel lesson is that seeing is  is not done only with the eyes.  Seeing can also mean understanding; one sees spiritually as well.  The healed blind man “sees” not only who Jesus is but also sees that the trouble with Jewish leadership is not that they can’t see with their eyes – they see clearly but don’t like what they see and so choose to blind themselves.  They can see Jesus and what Jesus is doing, but they refuse to accept what they see.  This leads them to put an evil interpretation on what is right in front of their eyes.  They are willing to blind themselves to the truth because they don’t want to admit Jesus is God’s revelation, and that the Torah bears witness to Christ who is the light of the world. They don’t want what Jesus teaches to be true.

We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him.

The blind man did not see Jesus first when his eyes were opened.  Rather his eyes were given sight and only later did this man physically see Jesus.  In fact when he sees Jesus with his eyes, he does not recognize Jesus!  But even before he ever saw Jesus physically, the man born blind clearly could see who Jesus is –the Messiah!  When at the end of  the Gospel lesson,  Jesus is standing right in front of the cured blind man he does not know he is talking to Jesus.  He came to faith, came to see and recognize Jesus as Messiah with the eyes of his heart, with faith, before he ever laid eyes on Jesus.  He sees the Messiah before he sees the man Jesus. That is the same way that any of us can see Jesus today.  The blind man is showing the way for all of us.  Even if we can’t physically see Jesus today we are like the man born blind and so can know who Jesus is and we can have him in our lives.  The Gospel is giving us encouragement – though we can’t see Jesus today, we know who He is and we know He is doing God’s will.  We know He is our salvation, our path to God, our union with God. We each are born blind, we don’t see Jesus, but we learn about Him, and even when we can’t see Him with our eyes we come to know Him and we come to see He is God’s Son and our Messiah in and through the saints and the Church.  As it turns out this person’s story is the story of each Christian.  This Gospel lesson is about you and you are in the Gospel.  The Gospel lesson tells us that physically seeing Jesus is of no advantage to a person – see also the account of the disciples who walk with the resurrected Jesus and don’t recognize Him in Luke 24.  Those living in the First Century have no advantage over us living in the 21st Century.  God is not visible to our eyes, but to our heart.  What we need to see is not the physical traits of Jesus but rather we need to see the Messiah, the incarnate God.  This is what an icon of Christ also reveals to us – not just a human, but the Messiah and Lord.

John 9:39-41

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.

If we don’t see our Lord, it is because we choose not to.  We can’t just use our eyes for this, we have to use our heart, our faith, our love.  If we think Jesus is nothing but a nice man or a miracle worker, then we aren’t seeing Christ.

Two additional notes:

1]  Jesus says the man was born blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him — we so often see our limits or handicaps as deficits which depress us that we aren’t like others.  But in this Gospel, we see that whatever we don’t like about ourselves might also be used to display God’s power in us, it can even serve to protect us from committing the sins that everyone else does.  God might help any one of us overcome our limits and shortcomings in order to display His power to others through us.  Don’t put yourself down or feel sorry for yourself because you are not like others or feel you are somehow aren’t as good as others.  God may be protecting you from making the mistakes and sins others do, or God may use your “weakness to accomplish” His will.  As St. Paul said of himself:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  [ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

2]  “Why me?” that’s the common questions we ask when something goes wrong in our lives.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind – Why him?  What did he do or what did his parents do?

We act as if we believe in magic – do good and nothing bad can happen to you.  Jesus refutes this attitude and acknowledges there is a spiritual warfare raging in the world.   Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”    Jesus says there is a war going on between light and darkness,  and He is here to bring light to the world.   The blind man’s condition is not the consequence of some petty sin but rather is part of the cosmic battle in which evil wants to destroy life.  We are able to see heaven opened and to see how Light overcomes darkness.  We are able to receive the Light that is not overcome by the night and to enter that Light.

 

What the Blind Man Sees

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing. Therefore the neighbors and those who previously had seen that he was blind said, “Is not this he who sat and begged?” Some said, “This is he.” Others said, “He is like him.” He said, “I am he.” Therefore they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He answered and said, “A Man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and I received sight.” Then they said to him, “Where is He?” He said, “I do not know.” They brought him who formerly was blind to the Pharisees. Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also asked him again how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Therefore some of the Pharisees said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. They said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him because He opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind and received his sight, until they called the parents of him who had received his sight. And they asked them, saying, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered them and said, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.” His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So they again called the man who was blind, and said to him, “Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner.” He answered and said, “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.” Then they said to him again, “What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already, and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?” Then they reviled him and said, “You are His disciple, but we are Moses’ disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from.” The man answered and said to them, “Why, this is a marvelous thing, that you do not know where He is from; yet He has opened my eyes! Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.” They answered and said to him, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us?” And they cast him out. Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when He had found him, He said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” He answered and said, “Who is He, Lord, that I may believe in Him?” And Jesus said to him, “You have both seen Him and it is He who is talking with you.” Then he said, “Lord, I believe!” And he worshiped Him.  (John 9:1-38)

Two short meditations based on the Gospel lesson:

The healing of the man born blind highlights an essential and very practical implication of the incarnation. God is pure spirit. But when God the Word united himself with his material creation, the spiritual acquired materiality, and conversely, the material was infused with the spiritual. (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 41)

…when we imagine what it could have been when Christ healed the man born blind. He was born a blind child. He had lived all his life without ever seeing anything around him And the first thing that he saw was the face of God incarnate and the eyes of the divine Mercy and Love looking into his eyes. What an experience!  (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Churchiantiy vs. Christianity, p. 30)

Seeking God Means God is Present

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest.  (Psalm 22:1-2)

 How long, O LORD? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death; lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him”; lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. But I have trusted in thy steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.  (Psalms 13:1-6)

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted. But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands …      (Isaiah 49:13-16)

Archimandrite Aimilianos comments:

“When we consider the anguish of the person who desires and seeks God, who feels deeply God’s absence, the same holds true. My anguish and my searching are themselves the presence of God in my life. To search for God means that I have already found Him, for God is already present in my searching. That I experience this anguish demonstrates that what I seek for truly exists and indeed is already with me, actively working inside me. Why, then, should I see anything other than this?” (Psalms and the Life of Faith, pp. 337-338)

 

First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. . . . But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  (2 Peter 3:3-9)

The Acts of the Apostles and Evangelism

The Gospel lessons for the Post-Paschal Sundays are wonderfully rich and deep and give us a treasury of inspired ideas to contemplate.  The “other” readings we do each Sunday,  called the Apostolos or reading from the Apostles (which we frequently refer to as the Epistle reading) is also Scripture, the Word of God and so essential to our understanding God’s own revelation.  We might get the idea that since the Gospel lessons give name to each of the Post-Paschal Sundays (for example, the 5th Sunday of Pascha is called The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman), that the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is somehow of secondary importance, but not so!   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”   (2 Timothy 3:16).

Acts 11:19-30 begins by noting that the first Christians concentrated their evangelistic efforts exclusively on their fellow Jews even after Stephen’s death at the hands of the Jews.  Being persecuted by their fellow Jews did not detour them from trying to convince the Jews that Jesus is Lord, God and Messiah.  However, some of these early Christians, fleeing  the persecution that began in earnest after the martyrdom of Stephen, went to the city of Antioch starting a successful mission to the Gentiles.  It is in Antioch that the name “Christian” is bestowed on those who believe Jesus is Messiah. The Antiochian Christians are direct descendants of this original mission work of the early Church.  The Antiochian mission is the oldest of the Christian missionary endeavors.

Note that in Acts 11, it is nameless Christians who are doing the evangelism not the apostles!

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.

The text only identifies these evangelists only as “some of them” but they are not the Apostles.   This evangelism is not intentional church planting but rather the result of the Christians being persecuted and scattered through the countryside.  Fleeing persecution, they go into the city of Antioch and find people receptive to their message.  They are being persecuted and fleeing and yet they are proclaiming Good News!   What seemed so good to them that despite being persecuted, running for their lives and becoming homeless refugees, that they still believed they had a message from God to offer to others?   Today prosperity Gospel people try to sell others on the notion that “faith” will lead to prosperity and good times.  But the early Christians had to acknowledge the truth that belief will lead to persecution – as Jesus had warned – and despite this others still join them.  The Kingdom of Heaven was desirable even though one had to suffer for it.  We should be so faithful!  We are not to be fair weather Christians – claiming to be Christians because it brings us prosperity, because times are good.  We need to be Christians even if we are living in poverty or in persecution.  That is true faith.

Note also, the faith is spreading ahead of or beyond any organized missionary outreach of the apostles.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

The Apostles aren’t doing the evangelism, they hear that the faith is spreading and have to catch up with what the Holy Spirit is doing!  The Apostles are themselves learning what the Holy Spirit is doing throughout the world.  Rather than being led by the Spirit, the Apostles are following what the Spirit is doing elsewhere in the world.  Despite the fact that the Holy Spirit is leading evangelism far beyond the reach and knowledge of the Apoostles, the efforts of evangelism had to be approved of and endorsed by the apostles – already there is church structure and hierarchy, a recognized leadership – the apostles don’t accept that everyone can do and teach what they know to be the truth.  The Apostles insist on correct doctrine and church unity.  The apostles have the power to recognize which Christian communities are legitimate and they insure that correct doctrine is being taught.  They  are determining who is in communion with them.  On the other hand, the believers don’t wait for the apostles to tell them what to do, they are not looking to Jerusalem or Constantinople  to tell them when and where to start new missions.  All the believers are both living the faith and sharing it with others.  The Apostles however maintain the right to determine who is teaching the true faith.  The Apostles do send their representatives out to ensure there is correct doctrine and also that the new Christian respect apostolic authority.

Barnabus, the Apostle’s appointed delegate, looking at the new missionary effort and Christian community, “saw the grace of God”  – grace can be seen, it is visible.  He was able to see with his own eyes what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing.  The work of  the Holy Spirit in our own lives should be so visible to us, to the saints and to non-believers.

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.

Barnabus’ response to this new unplanned mission is joy and gladness.  He offers encouragement to these new believers.   He doesn’t feel threatened by or worried about the fact that new people are embracing Christianity even though the disciples themselves are not responsible for this church growth.  He exhorts these new disciples to continue with the Lord, to remain loyal, for discipleship is a continuous process of devotion.  Being a Christian is not a one time conversion but is a lifetime process of living the Gospel.

Note also when the Christians in Antioch learn of the impending famine threatening their fellow Christians, they don’t wait for fund raising letters from the Jerusalem or the Apostles, they take action themselves – they know what their response should be as Christians.  They understand their role in the church is to practice love.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

May we too be inspired to live the Gospel, to do what we know we should be doing as God’s people in terms of evangelism and charity.  Bringing both the Good News of eternal life to all as well as the love of God in the form of charity.

This brings us to the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).  First though I remind you of the words of our Lord Jesus:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.   (John 15:16-17)

Jesus goes into the land of the Samaritans – into a foreign land which belongs to those who consider the Jews their enemies.  Christ is showing us we are to have a relationship with the world – with those who don’t know the Gospel, who don’t understand God as, with those whom we may be suspicious about or consider them to be dubious people.  What should our relationship be with old friends and family who aren’t Orthodox?   The Samaritan woman shows us the way – she goes to them and talks to them about her encounter with Jesus.  She doesn’t tell these others how wrong they are in beliefs and practices, rather she extols Christ.

For His part, Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan woman for her life/lifestyle – she has been in multiple relationships with men, serial monogamy some would say.  He is irenic toward her, and calmly, wisely and gently leads her way from a worldly perspective to the truth.  But note first he asks her for help – give me a drink.  He helps bring her to the faith by first showing his own vulnerability, his own dependency, and that He needs the Samaritan woman to help Him.  That even becomes the basis of their conversation, for the woman quite rightfully can see the obvious – you can’t even get yourself a drink of water, how are you going to give me “living water“?     Jesus uses his obvious weakness and need to lead her into a conversation about the Kingdom.  He does not rebuke her sinfulness, but leads her to the kingdom.  Jesus fulfills what He has taught:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.   (John 10:14-16)

The Scriptures today show us two ways that we Christians might respond to strangers, to non-believers, to those we don’t like, and even to our enemies.  1) We might find that others reject our message and lifestyle, that others not only reject us but want to persecute us to change our minds or to drive us out of their towns.  We might have to find a new place to live and new people with whom we can share the Gospel.  Or,  2) We can show our humility by asking others for their help, showing our own vulnerability and humanness, recognizing that we are in need of and share their resources.  Only then, when we have established a human relationship do we  share with others the Good News of salvation as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman.  Instead of doing imperialistic evangelism (where we wrongly show our superiority and proclaim our triumphalism), we are to establish relationships with others first by showing we need them to be our neighbors.   [By the way, the Samaritan Woman is not anonymous, for in tradition we know her name as Photini.]

Whether we encounter people who are non-believers or are hostile to us, we are to respond as Christ did and as His disciples.  As St John Chrysostom once said, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.

The Samaritan Woman: Coming to Faith and Ending Religion

So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”  Just then his disciples came. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him. Meanwhile the disciples besought him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has any one brought him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:5-42)

Fr. Alexander Men referring to the end of the Gospel lesson when the Samaritans come out to see Jesus writes that today we are all like these Samaritans in how we come to faith in Christ:

Samaritans surrounded the Jewish traveller, not caring that He was from a hostile nation, and led Him to their village; we do not know what happened then, but the most important thing in this story is the result. After listening to Him, they said to the woman: “Now we see the truth; no longer because of what you said, but because we have seen for ourselves.

So now all of us are in the same position: at first we believe in the words written in the Scriptures and in other books, then we believe in what other people tell us. But the happiest moment in our spiritual lives is when we come to know the mystery of God, the mystery of the Lord Jesus, as revealed in our hearts, no longer through the words of others but through our own instincts and our own profound experience. We, like the Samaritans, guess at what is true and ponder on it. But He is near us, He reveals His word to us. Only we must also be ready to hear Him – like that simple woman of Samaria, like everyone who has ears to hear and hears. Amen. (Awake to Life!, p. 78)

Fr Alexander Schmemann comments on the Gospel lesson and how it shows that Christ was declaring an end to religion not creating a new one for Christ is calling us to life itself:

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. In the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus made this clear. “‘Sir,’ the woman said to him, ‘I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.’ Jesus saith unto her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father…but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him’” (Jn. 4:19-21, 23). She asked him a question about cult, and in reply Jesus changed the whole perspective of the matter. Nowhere in the New Testament, in fact, is Christianity present as a cult or as a religion. Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. (For the Life of the World, pp. 19-20)

Bearing the Burden of Being Christian

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.  In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

4549909196_3ded412513

Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.   (John 5:1-15)

16426634004_48a15a5332

Jesus said:  And he said to all, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.   (Luke 9:23)

The Paralytic in John 5 is commanded to rise, take up his bed and walk.  It turns out that his cross, the cross on which he had been crucified, is his own bed to which he had been nailed for 38 years of paralysis.   He picks up that cross so that he can walk with Christ and  follow Christ wherever Christ may go.

5729454201_3fe7828dcf_nToday’s Gospel lesson shows us how “taking up the cross” might be a very different experience than we usually imagine it to be – and it is possible that taking up the Cross is a blessing rather than a burden.  For most of us, there are enough trials and temptations each day of our life to make life difficult, and some would feel almost impossible to accomplish.  Why then would we want to take up the Cross to add to our burdens, sorrows and troubles?

What we learn from today’s Gospel lesson is that there are two kinds of burdens – the ones we should lay down and not carry because we follow God’s blessed Sabbath rest, and the burden we must carry In order to follow Christ – the cross that it is necessary for us to carry to follow Him. The issue is whether we can see what is the cross in my life that I have to take up in order to follow Christ. There are some burdens we must bear as Christians to be faithful to our Lord.

It is also true that in taking up the Cross we can find ourselves liberated from our own heavy burdens – our thoughts and ideas of justice, revenge, repentance, forgiveness, hatred and retribution.  These are the burdens we can lay down in order to hear and obey Christ.

Additionally, If we allow it to, the Cross can carry us through some of life’s trials.  Yet, this thought makes us squirm with discomfort for we are terrified at the thought of being lifted up on the Cross and we prefer an easier way in which there is no pain and no cost to us.

Today’s Gospel reaffirms the truth that God’s commandments are not heavy and difficult burdens.  God liberates us from our wearisome burdens.

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place at the sheep pool called Bethesda – a pool of water near one of the gates allowing passage into Jerusalem.  The sheep gate is first mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah, written about 450 years before the time of Christ.  Nehemiah records the building of the sheep gate.  He is one of the prophets who advocated that Israel must keep the Sabbath Day holy:

 When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, that no burden might be brought in on the sabbath day. (Nehemiah 13:19)

10352434244_7eaf34629c_nNehemiah’s prohibition against carrying a burden on the Sabbath day near one of the city gates is the basis of our the Gospel lesson in John 5.   The people in the Gospel account were practicing what Nehemiah commanded the to do when they confront the paralytic for carrying his bed on the Sabbath near the city gate.  They probably thought he was a bed salesman carrying his wares!   The Prophet Jeremiah adds:

Thus said the LORD to me: “Go and stand in the Benjamin Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the LORD: Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. ‘But if you listen to me, says the LORD, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the sabbath day, but keep the sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their princes, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall be inhabited for ever.   (Jeremiah 17:19-25)

No wonder the people were so upset with this paralytic carrying his bed on the sabbath!

So why would Jesus, the Son of God, tell this paralyzed man to carry his bed on the Sabbath at the very place where God had said through His prophets that it shouldn’t be done?

10238223875_e053b8a548_nThe answer becomes clear when Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?   Do you want to become healthy?”

For Jesus the paralyzed man’s burden is not his bed, but his paralysis.  His burden is also that though he is part of the people of God, he has no one to help him.   His sickness is the burden of His life.  And on that Sabbath Day, Jesus gave the paralyzed man rest from his burden for Jesus freed him of his paralysis.  [see my post The True Sabbath Rest]  When the paralyzed man picked up his bed, he was also finally laying down his burden, his paralysis and was given health.  For his paralysis had also burdened the man with bitterness and doubt, opening his heart to the oppression of Satan.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. For we who have believed enter that rest . . . For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  . . .  So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.  (Hebrews 4:1-11)

Yet some of those people in Jerusalem could not see how Jesus freeing the man from carrying his burden, his paralysis, was keeping God’s law.  That is why Jesus said to them:

I ask you, is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”  (Luke 6:9)

And Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. Then he took him and healed him, and let him go. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?” (Luke 14:3-5)

25019210099_68387bd801_n

Carrying a bed on the Sabbath as is shown in the Gospel might not be a violation of the Sabbath but rather might be a sign that one is entering into the Lord’s rest.  The burden which concerns God might surprise us, as Jeremiah says:

“When one of this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of the LORD?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says the LORD.’    (Jeremiah 23:33)

The people’s mistaken understanding of the Torah made them into a burden, which this paralyzed man also had to bear in addition to the burden of his paralysis.  But the paralytic shows himself to be following God’s command because he listens to the words of Christ and obeys them:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.   (John 5:24)

We have to discern what are the burden we carry from which God will free us?  Our sins, our debts, our guilt, our desire for revenge.

Sometimes, however, we act as if our burdens are prayer, fasting, confession, Sunday worship, reading scripture, forgiving others, apologizing for our sins, giving to charity, seeking forgiveness, being generous.

24878356506_e63d42795a_nWe ask: Do I have to come to church on Sunday?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I need to tithe to the church?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to go to confession?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to forgive those who sin against me?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: do I have to fast and pray and practice self-control?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask: Do I really have to stop looking at pornography or stop getting drunk or stop my bouts of anger and rage?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

We ask:  Do I have to stop hating people who are worthless and do I need to show mercy and be kind to those I don’t know and don’t like?  Jesus asks, do you want to be made well?

Jesus says to us:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we wrongly believe that the way out of our problems, our passions, our sins, is more effort on our part.  If only we have more faith or fast more or pray more, then God would help us.  But the paralyzed man couldn’t save himself, no matter how hard he tried, his problems were insurmountable to him.  He couldn’t get into the pool of water first no matter how much he wanted to.  This man had plenty of faith, after all he had been waiting at the pool for 38 years for someone to help him get into the water and be healed.  He believed God was present there and continued in this hope for 38 years!  Nonetheless, his salvation lay outside himself.  It wasn’t more effort on this part that were needed – he needed Christ, he needed to wait on the Lord, he needed Jesus to be his spiritual partner.

5729459039_ded2bb434d_n

It is possible, my brothers and sister, that there are people all around us, like this man paralyzed for 38 years and patiently waiting for help – people for whom we can be Christ and reach out to them and help them.  And it is possible that we have been struggling with some burden for many years feeling there is no one to help me, and the solution might be outside of myself – in seeking help from a neighbor or a stranger.  The lessons for us in this Gospel periscope are many, we need to know when we are to be Christ to another and when we need someone else to be Christ for us.  As St Paul said:  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.  (Galatians 6:2)

The Incarnation and the Resurrection

Through His Resurrection, Christ put an end to death, changing it into a necessary passage to immortality. Seen in this perspective, death frees us from the demands and conditions of the fall. Death, the fruit of corruption and “corruptibility,” allows us to move beyond time, which in turn abolishes the corruptibility of death. There is one condition, however: that this movement be an entrance into the Kingdom already present in this world. This is what allows Death to open onto eternity.

According to St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

This is why God cast [Adam] out of Paradise and sent him far from the tree of life; not because He kept this tree of life form him out of jealousy, as some have dared to maintain, but He acted out of compassion, so that man might not remain in sin forever, so that the sin which weighed him down might not be immortal, so that evil might not be without end and thus without remedy. He kept him from his transgression, therefore, by introducing death…giving him an end through the dissolution of the flesh which would take place in the earth so that man, having “died to sin” [Rom 6:2], might be “alive to God” (Adv. Haer., III, 23, 6).

Through His Incarnation, the Logos of creation penetrated matter, His own work. The Infinite became incarnate and subject to space; the Eternal entered time. By coming into the world Christ transformed time and space, effecting a revolution with profound consequences. As God-Man He did not merely assume the corporeal limitations of our condition, He surpassed them. Destined to die by virtue of His Incarnation, whereby He entered into time and space, the crucified Christ bears the suffering and death of every person throughout time and space. Through His Ascension and Resurrection, He leads us beyond the cycle of time, to the never-setting sun.”

(Michael Quenot, The Resurrection and the Icon, p. 210)

Melitio of Sardis: Homily on the Pascha

For, himself led as a lamb

and slain as a sheep,

he ransomed us from the world’s service

as from the land of Egypt,

and freed us from the devil’s slavery

as from the hand of Pharaoh;

and he marked our souls with his own Spirit

and the members of our body with his own blood.

It is he that clouded death with shame

and stood the devil in grief

as Moses did Pharoah.

It is he that struck down crime

and made injustice childless

as Moses did Egypt.

It is he that delivered us from slavery to liberty,

from darkness to light,

from death to life,

from tyranny to eternal royalty…

It is he that was enfleshed in a virgin,

that was hanged on a tree,

that was buried in the earth,

that was raised from the dead,

that taken up to the heights of the heavens.

He is the lamb being slain;

he is the lamb speechless;

he is the one born from Mary the lovely ewe-lamb;

he is the one “taken from the flock” (cf. Ex. 12:5; 1 Sam. 17: 34),

and dragged “to slaughter” (cf. Isa. 53:7),

and sacrificed “at evening” (cf. Ex. 12:6),

and buried “at night” (cf. Ex. 12:8, 10),

who on the tree was “not broken” (cf. Ex. 12:10),

in the earth was not dissolved,

arose from the dead,

and raised up man from the grave below.

(Melito of Sardis, Homily on the Pascha, from Paul M. Blowers’s The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 98-99)