Sermon by the Rev. Dean Byrom
Pastoral Assistant of St. Andrew's Church
John 9: 1-41
The Siloam Reservoir
“The Placebo Effect”
Do you have something that’s ailing you? I have just the cure for you! A small dab of mud will definitely get you to feeling better. You don’t believe that? Pity. If you did believe it, you’d probably feel much better. You might even be cured.
It’s not magic. It’s the placebo effect – the mysterious ability of our bodies to sometimes heal what ails us, if only we believe.
Placebo in Latin means “I shall please”. In medical research, placebo refers to a pharmacologically inactive substance – like a sugar pill – or a phony medical procedure that is administered as a control in testing the effectiveness of a drug or a course of treatment.
Walter Brown, clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University, is at the forefront of research into the placebo effect. He and others are trying to learn why about 30 to 40 percent of the people who suffer from conditions ranging from asthma to high blood pressure to depression actually benefit from taking a placebo.
In the ninth chapter of “John”, a man born blind receives sight. Jesus puts mud on the man’s eyes, tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and when he comes back he is able to see.
At first, the man says that he doesn’t know who Jesus is. Then he says that Jesus is a prophet. Finally, he stands before Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe.” Although he never figures out just how Jesus has healed him, he knows that if Jesus were not from God, He couldn’t have done anything.
Call it the Messiah Effect – the mysterious ability of people to be healed, if only they come into contact with Jesus. But, at the same time, it is a placebo effect, because a mud – and – spit poultice plays an important part in this miraculous healing.
What a strange and wonderful story this is! Jesus refuses to put the label of “sinner” on either the blind man or his parents, but says that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
With such an introduction, one might think that Jesus would go on to treat this man with courtesy and respect, but He does exactly the opposite. He treats him like dirt. Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud with His saliva; then He spreads the mud on the man’s eyes.
Note that He uses wet, sticky, soft, dirty earth. He uses mud – a symbol of all that is degrading, such as when someone’s name is dragged “through the mud.” Jesus puts this man in an awkward position. In effect, Jesus may have been the first person to utter the humorous drinking toast – “Here’s mud in your eye” (hardly the sentiment you expect to hear from a teacher who is healing by the power of God.
And yet, the man born blind believes. He believes enough to follow the command of Jesus to “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” and to stumble through the streets of Jerusalem wearing a ridiculous mask of mud.
We don’t know exactly how far the man had to walk after receiving his mudpack in the eyes, but it could have been quite a hike. “John” tells us that Jesus encountered the man after leaving the Temple, but he doesn’t reveal the precise location of their meeting.
If Jesus puts mud on the man’s eyes right outside the Temple compound, then the man had to walk at least 500 yards to the pool of Siloam – the length of five football fields! That’s quite a distance for a blind man to cover, groping and stumbling and trying to ignore the jeers of the crowd:
“Hey, filth – face!”
“He’s got mud balls for eyeballs!”
“What happened? Kids play mud pies on your noggin?”
“Nice look! Be glad you’re blind, boy!”
So it’s not a pleasant walk. It’s degrading, embarrassing, humiliating. But the man has been in touch with Jesus, and for some reason he believes. He believes that this teacher who calls himself “the light of the world” is somehow going to bring an end to his life – long darkness.
Besides, what does he have to lose? His pathetic progress down the dusty streets of Jerusalem would be mocked by some people whether he had mud on his face or not.
So he goes and washes – and comes back able to see. The dirt and spit poultice opens his eyes, and he proceeds to testify that it was Jesus who had given him his vision.
Standing before the Pharisees, he says, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see…. He is a prophet.”
When they counter that Jesus is a sinner, the man says “I do not know whether He is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
And the man asks the Pharisees mockingly. “Do you also want to become His disciples?” He might as well have said to these religious leaders: “Here’s mud in your eye!”
Finally, face to face with the One who healed him, the man discovers that Jesus is none other than the Son of Man.
“Lord, I believe,” he says, and he worships Jesus. It is important to note that his healing comes BEFORE this statement of faith. The man does not believe in Jesus prior to His touch, the man receives the touch and then believes. The mudpack acts as a placebo, inspiring the man to trust that he will be healed.
Does this sound crazy? Whatever you do, don’t scoff at the power of the “powerless” placebo. Don’t assume that dirt and spit had nothing to do with the healing of the blind man. At the very least, it helped to focus his faith.
What helps to focus our faith? Sometimes it’s the unpleasant experiences that life throws at us. In such circumstances, when we take even a small step of obedience, despite the uncertain path ahead, we discover that Christ Jesus is alive and active and working for health and wholeness. There’s nothing magical about it, but it certainly is mysterious and miraculous. The application of a “mudpack” can lead to the healing of our bodies, minds and spirits – if only we believe.
The question is: What are the dirt – and – spit placebos that Christ Jesus would use to help us believe? Surprising healing can happen when a person is in close touch with Jesus.
Oddly enough, one of the placebos that can help us to be healed is pain itself. Yes, pain. Pain is as unwanted as a mud ball in the eye – physical, emotional or spiritual suffering, in ourselves and others. We may want to deny this pain that threatens to disrupt our happiness and destroy our well-being, but we should not, because pain can be the megaphone that God uses to arouse a deaf world.
So pain can be a placebo: a surprising bit of mud in the eye that reminds us that our true good is in another world, our real treasure is in Christ Jesus, and our ultimate dependence should be on God.
Struggles in this life can take our eyes off worldly pleasures and give us a vision of the joy of God’s reign. Financial problems can focus us on the priceless treasure of an investment with Christ Jesus. Even illness can help us to see that health is much more than freedom from disease – it is rooted instead in a life-giving and eternal relationship with God. Pain can have a placebo effect if it leads to reconciliation with the Lord.
Surprising healing can happen when you listen for God’s Word, and when you move close enough to Jesus to get a mudpack placebo!
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.