Social Distancing and Community Spread: A sermon for the third Sunday in Lent

This week has been one of the strangest ever. And longest. And most confusing. We are not able to worship together as a congregation today because of a pandemic. Churches and schools all over the country have suspended in-person gatherings in order to encourage people to stay away from crowds. Because it seems that this virus has been penetrating our communities without our knowing and we are just beginning to see where it might have been. Someone described it as an echo - what we are seeing today is what was happening a week or two weeks ago. And so we are being asked to shut things down as best we can so as not to overwhelm our medical system as cases are turning up. We are trying to “flatten the curve.” “Social distancing” has become a common phrase along with “community spread.”

It’s always our work as followers of Jesus to look at what’s going on in the world through the lens of the Bible. And vice versa. One could say that the Gospel reading for today, John 4:5-42, features both social distancing and community spread. This story about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at high noon at Jacob’s well is one of my favorites. 

The Samaritan woman comes to get water at noon, an odd time, when everyone else would be coming in the morning or the evening; she turns out to have had a hard life, having been abandoned, apparently, by a series of men. Perhaps she is practicing social distancing. Keeping to herself, avoiding contact with neighbors. But whatever it is that has left her in this diminished social position, she is up for a deep theological discussion with Jesus when he begins speaking with her. Yes, at first, she thinks he is a dude claiming to have access to water without a bucket, but she quickly comes to see that there is more to him than she thought at first. They talk seriously about the big religious questions of the day.

Samaritans and Jews did not have much to do with each other, the story says. This goes back many hundreds of years, to the time when the kingdom of Solomon split in two when he died. The northern kingdom created its own places for worship, away from Jerusalem. Eventually the northern kingdom was invaded and defeated by a powerful Assyrian Empire, and in the eyes of those in the southern kingdom, Judea, the Temple in Jerusalem was the only proper place for worship. So Jews and Samaritans, even through they were all descended from Abraham, had become enemies.

Yet Jesus had to go there, the text tells us. He had to go there and meet this woman, an enemy. And as she talked with Jesus and he with her, she realized that he really saw her, he really knew her, and she ran off to tell everyone in the community that she had found the Messiah. And then the people came and met Jesus and had their own experiences and that’s where we get the community spread. They came because of her testimony (an important feature in John’s Gospel) and they believed because of their own experience.

So the woman, who for some reason was long described by commentators as some kind of sinner (Elizabeth Taylor minus 3) even though the Bible does not say she’s a sinner but just an enemy (Samaritan), becomes an evangelist. She spreads the Good News. She is a model disciple turned apostle, on par with John the Baptizer in recognizing Jesus and bringing people to him to see for themselves.

I love that Jesus had to go to her. I love how he had an intelligent, loving conversation with her. I love how he knew her and how his knowing her changed her identity from enemy to evangelist. And I love how the disciples come back from their shopping trip and see what’s been happening and are astonished but decide they’d better not get involved in this. I love how she comes to the well for water but she leaves her water jar behind to go tell everyone about Jesus. She drops her task and acts with new power. I love how Jesus offers living water that will become part of her and well up in her and overflow from her to others. I love how the people respond to her when she says "Come and see!"

I love that living water, too. It’s such a beautiful image. It reminds me of baptism and the ocean and waterfalls and rushing streams - a life-giving (and even powerful) force that is inside us and propels us and refreshes us and washes us clean. And I feel that we all need to feel it gushing up inside us today more than ever, to refresh us, to heal us, and especially to propel us forward in this uncertain and disconcerting time. They say that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in isolation thanks to the plague, but everyone I know is just trying to make it through the day. But I get the point: be creative. If you can't do what you usually do, do something new. It is times like these that God likes to do new things, and so can we. But still, it's early days and we are disconcerted.

So I don’t know how things are going to go over these next weeks or even months, how long we will need to practice social distancing, or what the cost will be to us as a society, a community, as individuals. It is hard to be isolated, even while we know that it is an act of sacrificial love to do what we must to protect the vulnerable. But how ever long we must socially distance ourselves in a physical way, we are still called to offer living water to others, perhaps in new ways. We can call those we know are alone and offer friendship if not hugs. We can run errands for those who need to be sequestered. We can volunteer at places that have figured out how to safely offer food to the hungry. We can pray for the doctors and nurses and technicians and public health workers and for those who are keeping things running the best they can from sanitation workers to shelf stockers, and we can look them in the eyes and thank them for their work. We can avoid panicking and rushing to the store to stockpile goods and sounding alarms that there is no more toilet paper at the Food Lion. And yes, we can stay out of the way of the virus so we don’t unwittingly become transmitters to others, another life-giving act of love. Living water will refresh us at every turn if we can be still enough to feel it welling up.

So let us end with the collect for today, which we always pray on the Third Sunday in Lent but seems particularly apt this year:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.