No doubt we have all heard the significant legal, moral, and structural challenges over the plan to create a seamless, concrete border wall between Mexico and the United States. But nothing is more challenging for the wall’s construction than the river.
The Rio Grande marks hundreds of miles of unfenced border between our countries. The river flows through Texas mountains, national parks, wildlife preserves, private property, and farmland. And, for those who spend their lives near the river, even the suggestion of a permanent, impenetrable border along the wide, blue water is perplexing.
The Hidalgo County constable stands staring over the cliff that juts out high above the river’s base. There simply isn’t space for a wall here, he tells a journalist. But that’s not all. “The river has a mind of its own,” he explains. “In inclement weather if it floods, we’ve had the park flood before. There’s no feasible way to put a wall right up on the river.”
The river has a mind of its own.
Those words caught my eye as I read an article about the proposed border wall in Texas. The river has a mind of its own.
Because that’s the story of today’s Gospel. That water finds a way, reshapes the plans for borders, unsettles the architects’ neatly drawn lines, the blueprints that show how to divide things up, who belongs on which side. Water finds a way. Rivers have a mind of their own.
As we have each of these weeks in Lent, we find ourselves in a story whose central character is water. This time it is the pool of Siloam, a word that means “sent.”
There’s a young man there, at the pool, probably no older than a boy. Later the Pharisees will assume he’s young enough that his parents still need to speak on his behalf. And we learn that this very young man has been blind since birth.
Blindness for this young man meant more than navigating a world determined by the sighted. Blindness carried with it the judgment of sin. Something happened, and blame is to be laid. Either the parents of the young man sinned, or the child himself sinned while still inside his mother’s womb, a sin so deep that its consequences separate him from the community. He cannot learn a trade. He cannot study the law. His profession will be to beg for alms, to depend upon the mercy of others.
So he takes up his place by the pool. There is no expectation from the young man that he’s going to get out of this version of his life. As Jesus passes by, the young man who is blind makes no attempt to reach out, no swipe at the hem of Jesus’ garment, no pleading for sight. The rules have been set. The boundaries have been drawn. His body is an answer to a riddle about human error.
And that’s how the story goes along, as it always has for the young man who is blind.
The Pharisees, the disciples, even the neighbors talk about the man as if he isn’t there. Who is it who has sinned, the man or his parents? The grapple amongst themselves.
But these architectural plans, this isn’t what Jesus sees. As it turns out, Jesus sees blindness where there is sight, and sight where there is blindness. Jesus takes dirt, mixes it with water, and he makes clay. It would be unmistakable to those hearing this story. Jesus takes earth, this play on words for the first earth, the dirt of creation, now in God’s hands again, recreating, making a new creation. Then Jesus tells the man to wash.
The river has a mind of its own. Water finds a way. Jesus tells the man to wash in the pool and the blind man sees. But more than seeing, the man is restored to himself. For the first time in the story, he speaks for himself rather than being spoken of by others. For the first time in the story he announces himself, “I am he.”
On the walls of the ancient catacombs, the earliest monuments of the first Christians, the drawing of this scene of the man born blind appears as an illustration of baptism. These early Christians knew that baptism was disruption, a river that resists the drawing of lines, an inclusion of discomfort. Baptism recreates. It is a river from which we emerge not only into a new community, but fully ourselves. Because baptism is a sign of wonder, a wonder at who God has let in and whose bodies are now considered within God’s belovedness.
While the man born blind is able to see, reborn into the sight of wonder, of being restored into a self, the Pharisees persist in their blindness. They pour over their architectural designs of the border, wondering how this river will fit into the plans that have been passed down, questioning why the river is in their way, interrogating the flow of the water. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”
For the Pharisees, God’s nature and human nature are a foregone conclusion. They already know what God does and how to assign human bodies. They have it all figured out—sin and salvation as a system, a map to position the people around them, to decide who belongs on which side of the boundaries. There is nothing left to wonder at, no bodies that do not have attached to them answers, presuppositions, expectations about how they fit into the security of their religious knowledge. They’re confidence is in their own understanding—that they know the mind of God, that their thoughts are God’s thoughts, and their ways are God’s ways.
They cannot see that the river has made it impossible for the questions they pose to Jesus to make sense any longer. They’ll need new questions, a new plan to adjust to the topography, a new map to make sense of the landscape, the earth reshaped by the water. Because the river has a mind of its own. The water finds a way.
I’m always amazed by people who manage a persistent wonder, who look around their world and remain curious. It’s difficult to cultivate that sense of wonder about others, to allow a body to simply be without jumping to classification, without having to figure each other out.
It’s hard to remain in that place, to give careful, attentive regard without skepticism creeping in – but that is the sight that Jesus offers the disciples in this story.
I have to admit that I felt bad equating the Pharisees with the protectionist policies associated with the border wall. I can readily identify with the Pharisees in this story. It is no easy thing to have the shape of the land changed before your eyes, to live with this constant unsettling, the river cutting through ideals and my notions about God and church and the Bible. I can understand their fears. Who will you let in next, Jesus? First, it’s the Samaritans, then the tax collectors, then Sabbath-breakers, then a woman caught in adultery? Where will it end? Who decides? How will we be certain? How will we know how to live?
And yet I cannot help but remember that my body, that women’s bodies have always been the source of questions like these. Many of us have bodies like that, bodies like that of the man born blind. If you are female, or a person of color, if you are sick or have an atypical or queer body, your body has been the subject of inquiry, the curiosity of the powerful. Your body has been a space for debate – whether we can preach or teach, serve bread and cup at the table, proclaim the Good News. What can your body do? Who decides what my body is for? What it signifies? The lesson it is here to teach?
In baptism our bodies are freed from those questions because the river has a mind of its own. Water finds a way. Your body becomes new – it emerges as fully a self, a member of a new body, a body where in which the defining trait is no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. Your body has been washed clean of suspicion, washed free of scrutiny. All that is left is wonder, wonder at who will emerge next, who else will come from the water to greet you here, on the other side.