Sermon text: John 4: 5-42
At Taize Tuesday this past week we reminisced about summer—for many the favorite season of the year. Summer was a favorite because of the beach, camp, the pool, vacations, sunshine, warm weather, being outdoors, and the all too important break from the everyday grind that it offers, especially for those with children.
I certainly agree with all of those reasons to love the season of summer, but after that conversation I remembered a part of summer that was inevitably a letdown: the doldrums of summer.
I was probably as active as the next person during the summer. There were sports, church camp, vacations, band, and getting together with friends. All those things were well and good. But during the summer there was always a small period of the doldrums, when absolutely nothing happened, despite your best efforts to find something to do. I can remember being bored out of my mind for a few days—no activities on the schedule and somehow all of my friends were out of town at the same time. Those days lasted forever, especially for an extravert like me. They were draining.
It was during those times in the summer, when every hour felt like a day, that I learned a valuable lesson: Isolation is awful. It stinks. Isolation is painful. It is not what humanity was created for. There’s a reason why prisons use solitary confinement as the most extreme, and frankly most inhumane, form of punishment. We are social creatures.
The Samaritan woman at the well knows the reality of isolation, except her isolation isn’t a random week in the summer, it is an everyday part of her life.
The first clue is the time of day. Just like we are being told to go to the grocery store during non-peak hours, early in the morning or late at night, the Samaritan woman goes to the well during the unpopular hour of the day—noon. In a hot, arid climate, you don’t go to draw water and carry the heavy load back to your house at noon. No, in ancient Israel the women went to draw water in the morning and in the evening.
The time at the well was more than just a time to gather water for all of your daily chores. It was the ancient equivalent to the water cooler, or the church coffee hour, the place where everyone shared stories, concerns, rumors, and gossip. For many it was probably a favorite time of the day to reconnect with friends and to laugh or cry or vent off some frustration. And that is precisely why the Samaritan woman in our Gospel story meets Jesus at the well at noon—she is outside of the community; outside of that normal social cluster. She is in isolation, either forced or self-imposed.
The best guess for her isolation comes later in her conversation with Jesus:
The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
At first glance, these words from Jesus seems harsh, but in reality he is really not questioning her morals. Instead, he is showing this woman his power and insight as a prophet, helping to move the two of them into a deeper conversation. But the comment does shed some light on the woman’s social situation. Even though the most likely reasons for her marital history are not her fault, having that long of a history probably would have pushed her into the margins of society in this Samaritan village.
And yet, Jesus is the one who enters into this woman’s life and into her isolated and lonely existence. Not only that, but Jesus smashes through a variety of social barriers to share his good news with her. The list is substantial:
-He is a Jew. She is a Samaritan.
-He asks to share a drinking vessel.
-He is a man, she is a woman.
-He is a holy man, a rabbi, speaking to an unaccompanied woman in private.
These are all barriers that Jesus crosses to reach this woman.
There is a long standing tradition that Jews and Samaritans would go out of their way to avoid contact with each other, and Jesus simply doesn’t care. He sees a person in isolation and he wants to bring her into the presence of God, the great I AM.
Right now, isolation is a very popular topic that is on everyone’s radar as we wade into the pandemic of the coronavirus—COVID-19. Healthcare experts and government officials are instructing us to practice “social-distancing” to help slow the spread of this virus. The reason is simple: resources. In particular, healthcare resources. In the United States there are only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, and if we continue to live as if nothing is happening we will quickly overwhelm our capacity to care for the sick. That is why everything from school districts to colleges to sporting events to Walt Disney World are shutting down, to slow the rate of infection. Churches are doing their part as well, and we at Zion will follow suit.
In the end this is more than just a snow day and a time to be cavalier. Lives are at stake. Our actions matter. If we do our part it will seem like an overreaction. If we don’t, we risk repeating the events of Italy and Iran.
However, “social-distancing” does not mean isolation in terms of communication or faith. The woman at the well was ostracized from society and there is no reason that we, today, cannot remain connected through all of the different means available to us. COVID-19 has been a pandemic of disappointment, cancelling many pieces of our life that we know and love and enjoy. There is no reason why it must cancel our ability to reach out, call, connect, and minister to our friends and neighbors to check on their wellbeing.
Our Gospel lesson also shows us that Jesus goes beyond the isolating factors of this world to provide care and nourishment. There is not a barrier in this world that can prevent Jesus from having a presence in our lives, to provide in us a spring of eternal water that bubbles up, and to cover us in the blessing and love of God. This virus will not be an insurmountable barrier for Jesus as he reaches out to us.
So as we enter into this time of “social-distancing,” or as the church may we reframe it in this Lenten season as “social-fasting,” let us remember that Jesus will cross all boundaries to bring us peace, comfort, and consolation. And as his church, as his body, let us continue to care for each other as we do our part to keep each other healthy and as we do our best to serve the most vulnerable and at-risk among us. AMEN