THE GOSPEL OF John, which our Church reads at the Divine Liturgy during the paschal season, focuses significantly on water. Near its beginning we read of the Lord Jesus telling Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
We may recall that three sources of water are prominent in the Gospel passages read on the Sundays after Pascha: the pool at Bethesda, Jacob’s well at Sychar, and the pool of Siloam. The ultimate source of water, the inexhaustible living water which is the Holy Spirit, is Christ Himself, as He proclaimed in the temple, the passage we read on Pentecost: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).
The Pool of Siloam
Often mentioned in the Scriptures, this pool, outside the old walls of Jerusalem, was a freshwater reservoir, possibly used by pilgrims to purify themselves before entering the Holy City. It was filled in and covered over after the Jewish revolt against Rome in AD 70. The pool was excavated in this century by an Israeli group seeking to expand a Jewish presence in what is presently the Palestinian district of Silwan.
Unlike the pool at Bethesda, Siloam was not known for healings. It figures in the healing of the man born blind in a different way. The healing is described as follows in the Gospel: “[Jesus] 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” (John 9:6,7).
Later writers have commented on how this process resembled our rite of baptism. The catechumen is anointed (with the “Oil of Gladness”), washed in the baptismal font, and emerges “seeing,” illumined with the light of Christ. Those newly-illumined at Pascha could hardly fail to see this man and his healing as an image of their own baptism.
The Blindness of the Pharisees
Much of this Gospel passage describes the disapproving attitude of the Pharisees to Jesus. They doubted the healing on several counts. First of all, some did not believe that the man was actually blind from birth until they had interrogated his parents. Others refused to see the healing as from God because, they said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath” (John 9:16). By making clay and anointing the man Jesus had violated their strict interpretation of “work” prohibited on the Sabbath.
Others questioned Jesus’ origins, saying “We know that God spoke to Moses; as for this fellow, we do not know where He is from” (Jn 9:29). Being a Galilean was enough to disqualify Jesus in the sight of many. Being from Nazareth was even worse. John had recorded Nathaniel’s skepticism when he heard Philip praise Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
The blindness of the Pharisees was exposed by the man who had been healed. “Since the world began,” he insisted, “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” (John 9:32,33). Giving sight to the blind was one of the signs some Jews traditionally associated with the Messianic age. At the beginning of His ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth (see Luke 4:19 Jesus had applied to Himself the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1,2 (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good tidings to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, declaring the acceptable year of the Lord…” – LXX). As an unheard of cure, the healing of a man blind from birth should have suggested to religious Jews that the Messianic age had come. The Pharisees, however, did not see.
The Blind Man Sees
Our passage climaxes with the formerly blind man’s confession of faith. Jesus asks 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 9:35-38). The man’s journey to faith in Christ marked, for many Church Fathers, a second recovery of sight. Thus Theodore of Mopsuestia wrote: “Now he who was believed to be blind, twice received eyes to see. He received bodily eyes and, to the perfection of his soul, he received saving teaching” (Commentary on John 4.9.39).
The blind man exits the stage at this point, but the Gospel continues with the following explanation (John 9:39-41): “And Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.’”purpose of Christ’s coming is that all may be saved. The outcome of His coming is that some people will accept Him while others refuse to do so. The “judgement” is not the pronouncing of a sentence but a recognition of what happens when people reject Christ. His coming has the effect of making evident the division between those open to what God was doing and those who were content in their self-righteousness.
The passage concludes, “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, “We see.” Therefore your sin remains.’”
St Augustine compares these Pharisees to their namesake in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee: “… the Pharisees… were obviously like the man who had gone up to the temple and was telling God, ‘I thank you, because I am not like other people, unjust, adulterers, rapacious,’ as though to say, ‘I thank you that I am not blind but can see, unlike other people of the same sort as this tax collector.’ (Sermon 136B.2).