Seeing, seen

A sermon for Year A Lent 4, John 9

On Ash Wednesday, to make my confession, I changed a few words when I read aloud our Litany of Penitence. Specifically, I confessed that we had averted our eyes from human need and suffering, rather than repenting of our blindness; and I confessed that we had refused to listen to God’s call to serve as Christ has served us, instead of confessing that we had been deaf.

I suppose I was taking something of a liberty, but I take some comfort from Jesus’ assertion at the very end of this gospel reading that it is no sin to be blind; just as at the beginning of the story, he rebukes his disciples’ assumption that someone must have sinned for the man that he healed to have been born blind.

(As always here, I have to note that the translators made some choices. Jesus said that “this happened” so that God’s power might be revealed. “This” could have been the meeting, the disciples’ question; the translators we heard this morning decided that it meant the man’s congenital blindness. But for those who may well find that idea disturbing, it is not, by far, the only interpretation of Jesus’ response.)

No, says Jesus, but now you will see God’s power working in him.

I changed the words on Ash Wednesday because they have a tendency otherwise to perpetuate the disciples’ (ableist) mistake: to assume that if someone is disabled there is, to put it crudely, something wrong with them, or that if someone is unfortunate, someone must have done something to deserve it, or that, to push the analogy a whole lot further and into another realm, if someone is oppressed, reviled, or subjected to state-sponsored violence, it must be their own fault. The Passion and the Cross, if nothing less, are a repudiation of that, and yet it’s a lesson that we’re still struggling to learn.

The antagonists in this story – some of the Pharisees, some of the Jewish leaders (notice, their opinion is divided; we can’t paint them all with the same brush. Again, assumptions will tend to cloud our spiritual vision) – anyway, the antagonists are the ones who refuse to accept the man’s healing. They either insist that it can’t be the same man, or they insist that the healing cannot have happened at the hands of Jesus, or they pitch a tantrum, throw the man out of their community, so that they can try to pretend that none of this happened, and that their little system for deciding who is respectable and who is less than can remain undisturbed.

Jesus is nothing if not disturbing to neat little systems, social stratifications, and self-justifications.

Jesus disturbs the people who say, “I had to pay my dues, why should they get loan forgiveness?” instead of celebrating the jubilee. 

Jesus disturbs the people who say people who use benefits don’t deserve a break.

Jesus disturbs the people who say if you help an unhoused person on the street they’ll only waste the assistance, as though we always and only ever spend our money on bread and vegetables.

Jesus disturbs the people who say, “She should have fought back,” or, “He shouldn’t have resisted,” or “Crucify them.”

But Jesus doesn’t only challenge the meanness of the people who refuse to celebrate that a man they have known forever is suddenly given his sight, the envy of those who would rather see him stay behind his begging bowl than give thanks to God for sending such healing. 

No, Jesus also corrects and rebukes his disciples, who are as contaminated as the next man by the lazy and privileged assumptions of that and every age that inequality, inequity, and injustices are God-sent, rather than the product of our envy, fear, and pride.

But God doesn’t see as we see, as the Lord tells Samuel; we look upon the externals, while God sees the heart of the matter: that this man was as deserving of mercy and miracle as anyone else on this earth, and that no one could stop Jesus from loving him enough to change his life.

Jesus heals the man, who is nobody’s underdog, who gives as good as he gets to his elders and, as they see it, his betters. And the man refuses to deny who he is, nor who healed him, even though it gets him thrown out of polite society. And when polite society has rejected him, then Jesus comes back to find him once more, and now, he humbles himself before the Son of Man, and worships him.

This is how we bring people to Jesus: not by judging them, or evaluating their worthiness, or making assumptions about how they got to where they are, or who they are, but by recognizing them, seeing them, hearing them tell their own story, and loving them for it.

Because that is what Jesus does for us. He rebukes his disciples for their, pardon my ableist language one more time, short-sightedness, but he doesn’t dismiss them. It is no sin to be blind, but it is sinful willfully to avert our eyes from injustice, to pretend to see no evil, to blur out the blemishes that spoil our vision of our own lives, our own country, our own souls. “You who say you see, your sin remains,” he warns us, we who have seen the light, who have been awoken. 

And yet he carries our sin to the Cross, and crucifies it there, and buries it in the tomb. Having loved his own, he loved them to the end. We will see the resurrection, but our sin will not.

Because Jesus is the one who truly sees us, begging in the shadows for mercy: 

10 Hide your face from my sins * and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, * and renew a right spirit within me.
18 The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; * 
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51)

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Today’s little Lenten story
is a secret
so I can’t tell it to you,
but you can whisper it
so that only your body
and your breath
and God
and the cat
can hear it.

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Quick, quick, slow

A little Lenten story

When my children were small, I didn’t forget their names – how could I? – yet as often as not my tongue would take two or three wrong turnings on its way to the beloved standing in front of it, and bewildered.

I decided one day that it was a failure to pay attention.

I do not know if this was right or wrong, and once, anyway, the eldest called me by the cat’s name before finding the word for mother.

I do remember that when I paused, took the fraction of a breath to focus, to see the child, the wondrous creature the broke the mould of God’s image when they were born (as every child will), I rarely misspoke their name.

Lately, I’ve been confusing Wednesdays and Thursdays a lot.

I put it down to the pace of life, the busyness, a lack of sleep, too many things to plan ahead and remember and drag along and things undone and things to do.

Perhaps if I would pause for half a hair, look into the eyes of the One who created Wednesday, Thursday, and the dark times in between, I would stand less chance of stumbling.

Image: Photo by Arkadiy on Unsplash

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Living water: A love story

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A; John 4:5-42, the woman of Samaria at the well

In the beginning, when all was formless and void, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of creation and brought those waters to life (Genesis 1:1-2). The Spirit didn’t only populate the waters with living things, but She formed and shaped and infused the water with life, with creation and creativity and sustaining, even healing properties. In the beginning, when the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep, living water happened.

There is more to this story than we see on the surface, deep as it is, buried under the bucket wheel of the well at Sychar, in the heart of Samaria. 

The well at which Jesus and the woman of Samaria meet has a long and deep history, stretching back to the legends of the patriarchs: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers. And in that family history, when a man meets a lovely woman beside a well, and asks her for water, it should be the beginning of a love story, of a marriage made by divine coincidence and the alignment of ancestors (see Genesis 24,29). 

On the surface, they appear to come from different traditions, diverged long ago after the exile and before the restoration of the temple; but beneath their divisions lie the legends of the ancestors, and their love stories, contracts made out of meetings beside the well, covenants made with the living God. Read in a certain way, the banter between Jesus and the woman can sound almost like a flirtation; but the spark is the long, slow heat of the love of God that has drawn each of them to an understanding of how God so loves the world.

In the noonday, the sun has stood still as they linger in the light of eternity.

“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)

No wonder the disciples are lost on their return. They are distracted by day to day divisions and details; Jesus and the woman are on a whole other timescale. By asking about her life, breaking open her personal history, he brings that, too, into their scheme of eternity; hence, she tells the city that he has told her everything that she has ever done …

The disciples, when they went to the city, were focused on buying bread, or something to eat to get them through the journey through uncomfortable territory and out of there. But the woman feeds her people with the gospel – Come and see, she says. Can this be the Messiah?

Jesus tells his disciples, confused and bewildered as they are, in essence to be grateful, for they are reaping what others have sown. They are living into and off of the labours of others. The grace that they are witnessing and experiencing in their travels with Jesus is the product of the labour of the Spirit of God, who brooded over creation and laboured it into life.

And what are we to take from this encounter, if not that every person we encounter, however estranged by personal circumstance, history, demographic, presentation; everyone we come across, dressed in a habit or done up in drag, delivering packages or driving us mad, smiling or scowling at a cruel world – every person we meet has been laboured into being by that Spirit who brooded over the waters of creation, the waters of God’s womb. Every person we meet is a product of that love story, a love child of the living God, who bears God’s image. 

If we are bewildered by them, or feel divided from them, perhaps it is worth remembering that we have only walk-on parts in their love story, which stretches into eternity. Others have laboured, and we enter into their labour, and reap from it.

One day, I met a woman by the lake. Now, where I was brought up, we didn’t really talk much to strangers, except to pass the time of day. And, at least for now, in the quiet of the day, this woman was quite visibly the only Black woman at the beach, where she had never been before, which was foreign to her. Perhaps I looked just odd enough myself, emerging from a swim, a deep dive into the well while everyone else was respectably dry, that she thought it worth the risk of talking to me, asking me to take her picture in front of the water. And then, for a few minutes set aside from our separate days, she invited me into her story. With the lake as our matchmaker and our mediator, we didn’t forget our different backgrounds and journeys, but they were united by this moment, in which we were two women drawn together by the water.

In the beginning, when all was formless and void, the Spirit of God brooded over the waters of creation and brought those waters to life. The Spirit didn’t only populate the waters with living things, but She formed and shaped and infused the water with life, with the love of God. In the beginning, when the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the deep, living water happened.

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A little Lenten story, based on Psalm 104:29-30:
When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

The sun turns a cold shoulder,
shrugging with it its blanket of warmth.
The earth shivers with heat’s dissipation.
The water quakes
and waves are frozen in their disarray.
The lake looks like someone
whose mother said if you make that face
and the wind changes you’ll be stuck that way.

I heard of frog whose heart can survive the freezing.
Turn your face toward us;
melt our marrow into living water.

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Living water

A little Lenten story

Bundled into the car by night to avoid the crowds
(it didn’t always work; there was that time
when the silver scales of traffic sat basking
for hours between the impossibly bright sky
and the impossibly black tarmac;
with sticky feet we wandered the motorway,
weaving between overheated motors
to the ice cream van that had opened its awning,
yawning for customers before
the freezer gave out),
under the observant lens of Venus,
following the isthmus until day, when all around us
we would see the sea: the brine of God’s womb,
the animistic fluid of creation.

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A meditation on the Cross

I imagine they made it of living wood; 
the tree itself shared your fate,
cut down in service of hateful violence,
its beauty overlooked, its sacrifice, 
turning our exhaust into air, sweet bitterness 
of fruit and pollen, its praise of heaven, 
limbs raised high, razed to the ground 
with you. They did not see 
or understand that its roots 
already harrowed earth 
so that from its demise 
a thousand creatures might arise, 
give thanks to their Creator 
for the tree of life.

This meditation also appears at the Episcopal Journal

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Running out of water in the holy lands

A little Lenten story

First in the north, 
between fruit trees and shade, 
it seemed it should be more difficult 
than this to die, 
except for the envy 
of avocadoes and apricots, 
hoarding the hidden streams 
of mercy for themselves;

It made more sense
in the south, where sand slips
beneath the feet, dry
as a memory carved into crumbling 
rock, worn away by storms 
long forgotten by the sky.

In between – 
because when will I learn – 
somewhere on the roadside, 
rescued by the kindness of strangers 
who made their children share 
with the foreign fool 
something of their life.

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Sinking sand

A little Lenten story

An English seaside town, its name suffixed with something left behind by the Romans. A sandy beach with buckets and spades, Punch and Judy, donkey rides, sandwiches gritty with their namesake, seagulls looking for leftover ice cream cones. At low tide, the channel drains like a bathtub toward the ocean, exposing broad mudflats. Sent to wash off her sandpaper ankles, a child might find herself sucked knee-deep into the mire. A slosh and a paddle in the sea still leave the dilemma of how to come back clean. The little pail of water she could scoop in the shallows would not do the trick; the stuff was too sticky. Did they not know, the weary ones worn out by a day of childish joy, who sent her to wash the evidence away, that there was no way, unless someone were to carry her?

A note on the featured image: this beach is not that beach.

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Born of water and the Spirit

I am not preaching this Sunday, and there was no little Lenten story/legend this morning, so consider this an offering to replace them both.


You know, although it wasn’t recorded,

that when God made Adam —

dust of the earth in human form —

there was water.

Imagine it: trying to breathe life

into dust — it went


and everywhere was so new.

The bible says, there were streams

bubbling up from the underground,

secret sources whispering,



scooped a palmful of water,

pressed the dust into beauty,

breathed life, Spirit —

call it what you will —

that first kiss left traces of mud

on the lips of them both.


Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:4-5)

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