Crossing Barren Deserts and Passing through Raging Waters

Lent 4A

Sitting by the side of the road is a man, blind since birth, begging – as he does every day, day in and day out. Each day much like the one before. And, any thought he gives to what tomorrow might bring is void of imagination because he knows that it will be just like today.  Cast out by his family, cast out by the religious authorities, isolated by his inability to see and by the society which refuses to see him.  And along comes Jesus with his disciples and, as if it were possible to make things even worse, the disciples ask Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[1]  The beggar man is right there. He can hear them. And now, by the disciples’ inquiry, he becomes even less than a person – he is simply an object for their theological inquiry.  And perhaps at this point in his life he has become numb to the pain that such treatment brings.  After all, he is living in a culture that does, in fact, blame illness and physical impairment on sinful behavior and the punishment for sin is understood to be passed down from generation to generation.  Or maybe he is not numb but rather curious – perhaps he has spent lonely hours on the side of the road asking the same question – “What have I done to deserve this?” or “What did my parents do that I should be born this way?”
But then Jesus responds in word and in action. He tells the disciples that sin is not the reason for this man’s blindness; rather, it is “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”[2]  And the next thing you know, Jesus is making mud out or a mixture of the dirt on the ground and the spit from his mouth and he spreads it on the man’s eyes.  How bad must this man’s life have been that he would allow this to happen to him? How desperate must he have been to be healed that he would allow an unnamed stranger to smear this dirty paste on his eyes?  And how desperate and trusting he must have been to do what this unnamed stranger tells him to do: “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”[3]  And, the beggar man gets up and does as he is told.
There is a hymn that congregations often sing during Lent written by Bob Dufford, a Jesuit priest. 
You shall cross the barren desert,
but you shall not die of thirst.
You shall wander far in safety
though you do not know the way.
You shall speak your words in foreign lands
and all will understand.
You shall see the face of God and live.

If you pass through raging waters
in the sea, you shall not drown,
If you walk amid the burning flames,
you shall not be harmed.
If you stand before the pow’r of hell
and death is at your side,
know that I am with you
through it all.[4]
And since reading this gospel passage earlier in the week, this song has been with me and has taken on new significance. Because now I wonder, what would it take for me to allow a stranger to smear spit-filled mud on my blind eyes, let alone to compel me to cross a barren desert or to pass through raging waters in the sea?  What kind of desperate situation must I be in to think that doing these things would be better than my present life.
There is a desperation that drives refugees from Syria to traverse the barren Sahara Desert where, on average, 14 refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa die each day.  There is a desperation that drives refugees onto boats chartered by people-traffickers in an effort to cross the raging waters of the Mediterranean Sea where in the first nine weeks of this year, 521 people are known to have drowned.[5]  Add to that, an estimated 250 people who are presumed dead when two partially submerged rubber dinghies were found off the coast of Libya on Friday.[6] 
And yet, the refugees continue to make the perilous crossing because that’s what desperation does.  The desperation of the blind man on the side of the road in this morning’s gospel, of course, pales in comparison. But there is another parallel which has to do with the way in which society treats them.  Both the blind man and the Syrian refugees are outcasts and both have become less than human by the treatment they receive from other people.  In the case of the blind beggar, even Jesus’ disciples speak of him as an object to learn from – a case study in the doctrine of sin. And, once his sight is restored, he is a piece of evidence for the Pharisees as they consider whether or not Jesus is a sinner for healing on the Sabbath. 
In a review of the Viet Than Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize winning book Refugees in America, reviewer Joyce Carol Oates writes:

“the refugee loses his identity amid the anonymity of many others like him. In the way that enslaved persons are truncated by the term ‘slaves,’ defined by their condition, there’s a loss of identity in the category term ‘refugees.’”[7]

And, in the case of the Syrian refugees? They are no longer individuals but problems to be dealt with, a situation that needs to be managed.   I learned this week that 24 African countries receive money from the European Union to “deal with” the refugee problem.[8]  By the year 2020, it is estimated that these countries will have received more than 8 billion Euro to keep refugees out of Europe, to ensure that this problem doesn’t become Europe’s problem.[9]  I cannot even imagine what the same commitment of resources might do to change the lives of the people – not problems – the people who are fleeing Syria.  And here, in the United States, we have had two failed attempts this year by our president to ban refugees from entering our country; but will we remain vigilant to ensure that all such future attempts continue to be thwarted?
Of course, there is an alternative to seeing people as objects, as problems to be solved.  It is the way of Jesus.  Jesus sees a man on the side of the road who cannot see. And he stops, gets his hands dirty, and heals the man.  He treats him with dignity and with respect.  There is a refrain to Bob Dufford’s hymn:
Be not afraid.
I go before you always.
Come, follow, me
and I will give you rest.[10]
Who will you and I be in this story?  Will we be like the Pharisees who are willing to cast aside another human being – or to allow others to do so in our name? Or will we use the gifts God has given us to be like Jesus striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being?

[1] John 9:2
[2] John 9:3
[3] John 9:7
[4] Robert J. Dufford, “You Shall Cross the Barren Desert,” (Portland, OR: Robert J. Dufford, SJ and New Dawn Music, 1975) in Wonder, Love and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982, (New York: Church Publishing, 1997), #811.

[5] Hundreds feared dead in the MediterraneanSea,” Al Jazeera, accessed March 25, 2017.

[6] Ibid.
[7] Joyce Carol Oates, “Review of Refugees in America byViet Than Nguyen,” The New Yorker, February 13 and 20, 2017, accessed March 25, 2017.
[8] Caitlin L. Chandler, “Europe’s Refugee Colonialism,” Africa Is a Country, January 26, 2017, accessed March 25, 2017.
[9], Introvideo zumRechercheprojekt,” YouTube, accessed March 25, 2017.
[10] Dufford.