Mud and Miracles – March 26 Sermon by Jennifer Brownell

Mud and Miracles
John 4:5-42


Fifteen years ago come May, our son Elijah was born, as we say in our family one full moon early, and then began a short but painful stint in the NICU – infant intensive care unit. Both my husband Jeff and I had spent time in the hospital, and because of our histories, hospitalization was the one thing we did not want for him.

Eli was just about 7 pounds when he was born, a giant by NICU standards. One respiratory tech took one look at him and proclaimed “I’m not wrassling with that one.” A young nurse complained to me that “he doesn’t want to behave,” whatever that was supposed to mean. 3 days into motherhood, I was realizing a hard truth about the world in a new way. It’s very hard to see the real person in front of us unless we intentionally look with the eyes of compassion every single moment. Without our compassion lenses in, what we see instead is expectations we have of them.

In our time disability (such as blindness) is not marginalizing in the same way that it would have been in Jesus’ time. We know and expect that people who have limited sight can and should have full and rich lives. Not so in the first century, when life for the disabled was severely limited.

Because we have different expectations, we don’t EXACTLY say “who sinned that this person…had this or that misfortune” any more. And yet, we are relieved when a REASON is discovered for a disease or disability – even if it is an uncomfortable one. (“Oh she smoked? that’s why…” or “he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.” Or “well you know that runs in the family…) We would rather have any cause, even one that unsettles us, than no cause at all.

The problem with this approach we too often attribute an effect to a cause that has nothing to do with what has happened.

Andrea Lasonde Desanto writes, “because we believe, for example, that character is largely dependent on genetics, we may act as if it is completely inflexible. This is partly due to a highly inaccurate understanding of genetic predisposition, but it is also influenced by our belief that an effect we have noticed (we are stubborn, for instance) is inextricably tied to a cause we happened to notice at the same time (our father is also stubborn). This is the equivalent of looking out your kitchen window while you are washing dishes, noticing that the moon is full, and ever after believing that the moon will be full whenever you are washing dishes.”

So let’s look at what Jesus did here. He Spit/made mud/put it on the man’s eyes

This was NOT a method hypothesized upon tested and rested and finally settled as the THE cure – here is no record of him healing this way before or after. Why did he do it this way?

David Guzik says, “not many people would appreciate having mud made with spit rubbed in their eyes. Some would look at how Jesus did this miracle and object, saying it was offensive, inadequate, even harmful to rub mud made with spit into the man’s eyes.” However, using saliva as a medicine upon the eyes was not so strange in the ancient world “ spittle, and especially the spittle of some distinguished persons, was believed to possess certain curative qualities”

Jesus knelt down, spit in the mud, as he had not cured anyone else, to show that sometimes that the cause and effect that we believe are linked are not what we expect.

Depending on cause/effect instead of compassion, can make us blind. We can be so busy looking for the reasons, the whys and wherefores, of a misfortune that we can be unseeing to the human being right in front of us.

We might be like the neighbors, who had lived with the man his whole life, who was so busy looking for a reason that he had been transformed, that they couldn’t even see the man they had known their whole lives.

We might be like the temple leaders, we cannot see the man either – only that the rules regarding healing had been broken – done at the wrong time by an unknown preacher passing through town. We all have times in our own life when we have only wanted to do things according to plan, and according to the rules that we have established and laid out and understand.

The reality is, how the cure was effected wouldn’t have mattered if it did not begin with compassion. The mud, the spit, the slight of hand trick was not the real miracle The real miracle was a stranger doing what the neighbors, religious leaders and family who knew the man could not do – look into his face with compassion. Touch him with a mixture that may sound icky to us but in dusty first century Palestine was soothing, cooling and carried known healing properties. It was the compassion, the love, that was the real miracle in the mud.

My colleague Rev. Tara Wilkins signs all her emails “the future is unknown because love changes everything.” When love is involved, there is no cause and effect. All that is known is that a change is coming. Unless it starts with compassion, no healing modality will work. Compassion, as those of us who have benefited from medical care know, isn’t all it takes, but it has to start there. The miracle of the mud is not some magic potion of spit plus dirt, it is the compassion that led a teacher to kneel in the dust in the first place.

I have a friend who gave birth to twins who are identical, except that one of the boys was born with CP. She has worked hard to advocate for both of her sons, getting them the care they need. On Thursday she wrote: “Taking my medically needy kids to and from an appointment this morning, listening to…congressmen argue for the AHCA….They are even now agreeing to remove essential benefits, such as emergency room care, newborn care, etc. I am so scared for a seemingly inevitable return to the days when families become bankrupt over a single emergency room visit or sudden unexpected diagnosis. I am scared that the benefits we received in the last couple years that have allowed my nuclear family to lead a relatively normal life will vanish and we will go back to struggling to make ends meet…A lot of families will suffer under this new bill, including mine.”

The compassion that is required for healing is not just an individual one, it is a systemic one. The system that the man’s neighbors, his religious leaders lived and breathed and moved in may have begun for compassionate reasons, but it become so codified, so concerned with its own rules and regulations, that compassion had been left behind, had been dismissed as impractical. But Jesus showed that compassion does not have be divorced from practicality. He loved AND he healed.

That is why we can rejoice that the new health bill my friend wrote about did not get voted on – not because people we wish to see humiliated or defeated were humiliated or defeated – but because this time, anyway, compassion won.

If we are followers of Jesus we are called to be compassionate one by one by one – and we are also responsible to create systems that are compassionate, and to operate with compassion in the systems of which we are a part. May it be so for us this week and always. Amen.

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