Today we have one of the big passages in John’s account of the Gospel: The man who was born blind. His sight is restored and those who had known him for years didn’t recognise him.

They couldn’t believe it was the same man. And then the religious leaders didn’t want to believe it.

Two points:
1. Some couldn’t believe
2. Some wouldn’t believe

Firstly some couldn’t believe, and still can’t.

I was watching a documentary last week with Martin Amis, son of Kinsgley Amis. It was on Englishness. Amis spoke of his desire as a teenager to better himself.He became fascinated with class. Asking his father about it Kingsley said that they were too intelligent to bother with what class they belonged to. Undeterred Martin set out to complete a questionnaire published by the Daily Mail. The questionnaire was to determine how posh you are.

Martin mentioned a few questions.For example: Which term do you use sofa or settee? Dinner or tea? All was progressing well for the young Martin until he reached the questions on what you would name your son – Montague, Montgomery or Martin? It was too much for the young Martin, his name gave it away, and he wasn’t posh after all.

The community couldn’t believe that the man with sight was the same man they had known for years. How could it be? He just wasn’t the same. Was his identity all tied up with his blindness? Could he only be recognized because of that blindness?

It is interesting to consider how we identify people. For the community the man born blind was the man born blind probably little more. For us it may be their dress, their appearance, their history, their job (if they have one), where they live, what accent they have, what is their name even.

I often found it amusing to see people in the supermarket who seem shocked that the minister should be shopping.

Many moons ago one toddler in church summed it up in such a way that only a toddler could, pointing to the communion table that more resembled an altar and asked: ‘Do you live in that box?’ I think some adults have a similar view. Ministers are often identified by the collar round their neck and without it, on the street or in the shop they become unrecognizable to some.

Victor Meldrew is not alone in saying ‘I don’t believe it!’

Why? Because firstly we often can’t, it’s simply too much of a shock for things to be any different to what our preconceptions have thus far been.The community couldn’t believe the man born blind could now see. They couldn’t believe it was the one and same man they had known for years.

The second reason for not believing is that we won’t.

The religious leaders wouldn’t believe it. There is a subtle but important difference. This isn’t about preconceptions but presuppositions. The religious leaders found it difficult, as many still do to this day, to have their beliefs challenged.The moral and religious framework that has sustained them and given them meaning and purpose is not as well constructed as they believe.

Today the issues may be different but the impact of exploring what God is saying to us through those about us is just as threatening to those who are certain of their beliefs.

I dread to think what I may have said in sermons thirty years ago. But I am glad of the journey from there to here. If I were still preaching the same stuff thirty years on, there would be a real problem with me and the content of my sermons.

What are the challenges to our presuppositions today?
Is God telling us something through our greater understanding of human sexuality?
Is God telling us something through our greater contact with those of faiths other than our own?
Is God telling us something about our greater knowledge of the impact we are having on our environment?

To all there questions I would have to say yes.

If I were to say no then I would be no better than those religious leaders who refused to believe that Jesus had given sight to a man born blind.

Thirty years ago I would have been sceptical of a gay or lesbian minister. I no longer am because I have come into a more developed understanding of what it is to be human and how God uses us all.
Thirty years ago I would have been judgmental of a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim. A Jew I could cope with, after all Jesus was a Jew. But today I see God at work not only in people of another Christian denomination but in those of an entirely different creed.
Thirty years ago I didn’t give environmentalism a second thought. Now as the years pass I am concerned about legacy and what sort of world I will leave to the rising generation.

And in all of this, the journey from thirty years ago to here has been about recognizing that I do not have all the answers; that I am constantly surprised by God’s love and God’s many ways of speaking to us.

I remain excited at what lies in store. We are not the finished article – if we were we would be perfect, maybe even God himself. But I know I am not perfect. I do not have all the answers and I am certainly not God.

So who am I to judge? What right do I have to cast the first stone?

The community couldn’t believe that standing before them was the one and same man they had known for years, the change was too great for them to believe.

The religious leaders wouldn’t believe that Jesus had given sight to a man born blind; the fact was too great a threat for them to believe.

The question is – do you believe?

Last Sunday we heard of a man who went to Jesus at night; this Sunday we reflect on the encounter between Jesus and a woman at noon.

The differences do not end there:
• a named man, an unknown woman
• the man went to Jesus, Jesus went to the woman
• the first encounter took place at night, the second in broad day light

And there are more:
• He was a Jew, she a Samaritan.
• He will have received a formal education, she didn’t.
• He was an upright member of the community, by going out alone in the mid-day sun when the norm would be for woman to collect water together as a group at a time of day when the temperature was lower, she has been deemed to be anything other than an upright member of the community.

There are other contrasts though with a little more subtlety:

Nicodemus is left speaking about God, the woman hears that Jesus is God – ‘I am he’
Nicodemus goes away and it is still night, in other words still in the dark, still not convinced to reflect on the conversation. We don’t hear from him again until the trial and the burial by which time he has worked things out and Jesus is now fit to be buried as a King and Nicodemus provides sufficient oils to ensure that is so.

Meanwhile the woman has no doubt, she doesn’t have to think about it any further and rushes back to tell the community, the community that many preachers assume had cast out this apparent harlot but conveniently overlook that the very same community now hears her message.

Clearly Nicodemus and the woman are of different personality preference types. Someone should put them on a Myers Briggs course. They would probably find them to be of shadow personalities.
• The introvert and the extrovert
• The reflective and the impulsive
• One could be an INTJ and the other ESFP

Then there is that extraordinary comment by Jesus that fascinated me for years:
‘Go call your husband,’ he says. But she has no husband – and he knows it – in fact he acknowledges it –so why does he say it?

So was Jesus making a mistake?

No Jesus doesn’t make mistakes especially not in John’s account which is based on highly developed Christology.

And John doesn’t include anything that is superfluous; which is why the placing of the woman at the well immediately after Nicodemus is worth exploring and comparing.

No it’s not a mistake that Jesus should call the woman’s partner her husband, that is probably what he was being passed off as and this could well be Jesus getting alongside the woman in a gentle way.

He clearly uses different techniques to get alongside people. He uses what is appropriate for them.
• With Nicodemus he is teasing; whilst he takes the woman seriously.
• Jesus is hard on Nicodemus but gently nudges the woman onto a different level of awareness

It is so that Jesus adopts different and appropriate models to suit the situation.

I once met a man who had served on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. For me it was real eye opener.

I had been used to relating to Holocaust survivors but now I was having to relate to someone with an altogether different experience; yet I was to love him just the same.
Survivor and perpetrator.

We are somewhere in between, you and I.

It is unlikely that we are at the extremes.

We are somewhere between Nicodemus and the woman at the well.

Like Kermit we are neither at the bottom nor at the top.
But this is the stair where we always stop.

Neither wholly right nor wholly wrong,
Neither in the night nor in broad day light.
Neither totally and unreservedly embraced by the community nor exactly excluded from it.

We will have been abused in some way over the years and we will have done our fair share of setting the agenda in such an order to get our own way.

Let’s not be deceitful in this. We are somewhere in between.

We are neither as good as we like to think we are, nor as bad as our enemies claim.

‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ (Romans 7.19)

So, which one of us could cast that 1st stone?

As Bonheoffer was to write:
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I, they mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am thou knowest O God, I am thine.

Three temptations. Three responses.

Firstly : as the resources of Jesus were running low the devil invites him to turn stones into bread and the reply of Jesus is clear ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’.

It is tempting to spend a little time on the food crisis. The fact that half a million relied on food aid last year. That foodbanks up and down the country reported a huge increase in the numbers of those who needed their help. That over 5,000 people were admitted to UK hospitals suffering from malnutrition. That the majority of those are going hungry are not those who are out of work but in low paid jobs. It is tempting to tear apart the Coalition Government’s welfare changes that have brought misery to millions.

The response of Jesus is not ‘you don’t need bread’ but ‘you need bread and much more’.
For the preacher struggling to prepare a sermon for next Sunday one could read ‘One does not prepare a sermon by the internet alone but by the personal experience of God in one’s life.’
That is not to say that the internet is of no use, that we should discard the thoughts and inspiration of others found on the internet, in the books on our shelves or the stories others have shared with us but we need much more if we are to be effective communicators of the Gospel; we need to know and to share what God has done and is doing in our lives in such a way that it becomes infectious.

I once heard someone say that you can’t tell if someone prays or not. Maybe not every time but much of the time you can. And a preacher that has no real sense of the presence of God is an empty vessel.

Preaching is not a purely academic exercise; it is not merely a public speech; it is not merely the bringing together of various sources and interpretations, important factors though these may be. No preaching is much more; it is first and foremost the conveyance of the truths of God through the mediation of a personality made in the image of God, cherished by God, upheld by God, redeemed by God in Christ and inspired to share the Good News of sight for the blind and death overcome.

Secondly : as the devil places Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple he invites him to prove himself to be the Son of God by throwing himself off so that God’s angles would rescue him Jesus replies ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

We will have all heard the overused joke about the overworked minister who goes into the pulpit and apologises to the congregation: ‘I am sorry that I didn’t have time to prepare a sermon for today – I am just going to have to leave it to the Spirit, but next week I promise to do better.’

A minister recently told me that she had no warning prior to arrival at a united service that she was to preach the sermon. She hastily arranged a few headings and got on with it. At the end of the sermon she returned to her seat in the congregation and held her head in her hands, utterly dejected. At the benediction one or two began to move towards her and just as she was about to apologise the folk began to wax lyrical on the wonderful sermon she had just delivered. As she recalled this experience she jokingly said to me, ‘I don’t think I’ll bother to prepare a sermon again’.

Tempting but no. The reasons why the sermon was so well received are at least two-fold; one, she had spent twenty years in ministry, more than thirty as a disciple of Jesus Christ, many many hours in daily devotions, she had visited the sick, she had prayed with the bereaved, she had rejoiced with those who had good news to share – and these things were more than sufficient preparation to deliver a sermon that was not only worthy but truly effective. The second reason why the sermon was effective was because she had not gone to that service deliberately complacent. She had gone not knowing that she was to preach. And when she was made aware of the breakdown in communications the Spirit carried her through.

‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ could be for the preacher ‘Be neither lax in your preparation nor unappreciative of a lifetime of devotion and test the Lord’s support in your idleness’.

When I sit in a congregation I can recognize whether much time and effort has gone into the preparation. To fail to prepare is disrespectful of the congregation and disrespectful of the Lord. Now as an experienced preacher of over 30 years I guess you could say that I am bound to spot such laxity; that is true, but even if the congregation can’t spot it as clearly as I can I remain pretty sure that most sense it subconsciously.

Thirty years ago, as I was about to set off for theological college, the widow of a local preacher invited me to take books from her late husband’s library. Bill had worked at the local coal mine. As I took each book off the shelf, many of them the old SCM Book Club volumes, and opened them, page after page had copiously handwritten notes in the margins. And the endpapers and inside covers recorded Bill’s thoughts. He had spent decades developing his understanding of theology and biblical criticism.

Bill came from an aspirational generation that was motivated to better themselves in intellectual pursuits. And the preaching of God’s word was one such expression. So serious was it that much, if not the whole of life was dedicated to formulating sermons that were built on experience and accumulated wisdom.

This is our responsibility as preachers today – to give of ourselves, all that we have and are, all those experiences that have tested and tried us, lifted us and fulfilled us in formulating a few minutes of an encounter through word of the Word made flesh, incarnate, transcendental, eternal, Divine.

Tall order. Big responsibility. Huge privilege.

Thirdly : as the devil took Jesus up a mountain he promised him all the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship him Jesus replied ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’
A parent was once boating to another of her child’s ambitions and stated that she wanted to be famous one day. The other quipped ‘If they are that clever they won’t want to be famous’.
We may live in an age of celebrity where some of the famous are only famous because they are famous but it remains a very critical generation anxious to cover a fall from grace.

The tabloids, or red-tops as some will name them are so adept at hypocrisy that they will make all sorts of allegations about someone without a hint of shame at their own shortcomings. It is an extraordinary world in which you and I live. And that filters down into our own attitudes and behaviours. Few of us see little wrong in poking a finger while ignoring our own misdemeanours. Specks, eyes and logs come to mind but even many in the pew or pulpit seem to notice. It is the malady of our age. Everyone has to complain.

‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’ needs no rewriting but could for the preacher become ‘make sure you are doing what you do to bring not attention to yourself but to the One beyond us all, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.’