When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).John 9:6-7, NRSV
The Pool Named Sent
1st Century Jerusalem stands unique in the Roman world for the size and scope of public pools for ritual washing. This includes the Pool of Siloam, partially unearthed in 2004, which is estimated to be slightly larger than two Olympic swimming pools sitting next to one another.
Three times a year the population of Jerusalem would explode for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The Law required every Jew making the pilgrimage to the Holy City would ritually wash in one of the pools on the outskirts of the city before entering the Temple for worship.
For more on these pools, their usage, and their uniqueness in the Roman world see: Gurevich, D. (2017). The Water Pools and the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Late Second Temple Period. Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 149(2), 103-134.
Who is the Law For?
“Who is the Law for?” is one of the most important questions a person of faith can ask.
Typically, we assume that the Law is for God. We define it as God’s holy standard. The Law serves as the measuring stick for righteousness. It is something we just need to do. The same then stands true for the Law’s purity code. It is all about what we need to do to make God happy after we offend God.
So in ancient Jerusalem, when the Law said to wash before entering the temple, those who assumed the Law benefited God, be it out of genuine piety or obligation, washed and believed it made God happy.
However, Jesus seems to throw a wrench in all of this when asked questions about the Law. In Matthew 19:1-9, Jesus declares that the Law surrounding divorce served to protect women by reigning in the destructive behavior of men. Similarly, in Mark 2:27, Jesus describes the Sabbath as made for people not people for the Sabbath.
While we typically assume that the Law exists for the benefit of God, Jesus suggests it is actually for human benefit. The instructions in the Torah are not a set of moral absolutes we need to obey to please God, but guidance for an ancient people to move them closer towards genuine love of neighbor. This love of God and neighbor is Jesus’ summary of the entire Law.
This perspective also fits with the context of God initially giving the Law to Moses: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (Exodus 20:1–2, NRSV). What follows is the giving of the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Mosaic Law.
These Laws are not about what you need to do to become the people of God, Israel already holds that status as the people God brought out of slavery. This is how they are to live as the people of God.
So how does ritual washing before entering the temple change when you see it as something for your benefit?
Ritual or Rutual?
Another way to think about this dynamic is the categories of ritual and rutual (as in, being caught in a rut). The idea is that all ritual is, by nature, transformational. However, when we shift from embracing the ritual to a stance of going through the motions, the ritual becomes rutual. In my experience, this shift often happens when we stop thinking about the ritual as something intended to transform us and instead see it as a tool to please God.
In my May 2020 sermon, Developing Love, I spoke about how the ritual of confession shaped my self-understanding as a child. At the same time, I know thousands of other people who went through the same ritual experience without the transformational deformation I endured. Several conversations on this topic bring me to the conclusion that many people go through the liturgical motions because they believe that is what God wants, rather than personally embracing the transformation the liturgy offers.
David and Transformation
But this is not just something from my own experience. In Psalm 51 where King David repents of adultery and murder. He writes:
For you have no delight in sacrifice;Psalm 51:16–17 (NRSV)
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Now, one could say there is no offering David could offer because the books of Leviticus and Numbers make it clear that the appropriate response is death. In other words, the only offering David could make to please God would be his own life. However, this fails to explain the rest of what David writes. God will accept a broken spirit and a contrite heart. In other words, God will accept transformation.
Isaiah and Transformation
This is also seen in Isaiah where God tells the people through the prophet:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?Isaiah 1:11 (NRSV)
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
Instead, God wants transformation:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;Isaiah 1:16–17 (NRSV)
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
All of this leads to the simple conclusion that all of the rituals laid out in the Law are not for God’s benefit. Rather, they are tools of transformation, designed to shape the hearts, minds, and lives of the people. Neither going through the motions blindly nor with the utmost piety accomplishes God’s intent.
Standing on the Edge of the Void
So how will the man born blind wash? Up to that point in his life, his blindness, deemed by the culture as a deformity, denied him access to the rituals of Temple life. But with the gift of sight, that life is now an option. Will he embrace it? If so, will he embrace the ritual or the rutual? Or will he see the belovedness that made him a spitting image and go straight back to the source?
This is the question I first proposed at the end of, A Better Question. How will the man use his newfound freedom? While birth took him from one form of presence to another, with sight, he can now choose to enter the void.
Wash in Love
The other time that John uses the word wash offers insight on what the man born blind’s life will look like if he chooses to remain in presence. In John 13, Jesus washes the disciple’s feet.
Most interpreters view this as an act of service on the part of Jesus, after all, in the culture of the day, the servant or slave who washed feet held the lowest position in society. However, the Gospel invites us to reorder society, not embrace existing social structures.
We see this reordering in John’s explanation of Jesus’ actions:
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.John 13:12–14 (NRSV)
Jesus did not wash the disciples’ feet as a servant but as their Lord and Teacher. Jesus did not descend into a societally defined social role but redefined how to live in society. It is not about status, but love for neighbor.
This aligns with the reading of God’s holiness I share in my ebook, “Connecting the Dots of the Bible” (I will send you a copy when you sign up for my email list). There I write that, contrary to the notion that Jesus died to appease the divine holiness that prompts a perfect God to turn away from sinful humans, Jesus’ death on the cross is what makes God holy. In other words, God is holy precisely because God draws near and loves the unholy.
So, how will the man born blind wash? The end of verse seven tells us he skipped the ritual and rutual and instead, returned to the place he met Jesus, able to see. He returned as one sent.