The woman at the well, fleeing deadly plagues, and the era of social distancing

GOSPEL: John 4:5-42

5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (Read the whole passage)

In 1527, Martin Luther wrote an open letter entitled “Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague” as the Bubonic Plague passed through Wittenberg. In it, he gives detailed advice on how to care for oneself and for our neighbours in a very difficult and trying situation.

He wrote: “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

As you many of you have likely read, the letters coming from Bishops and from myself are not new ways of churches addressing a situation like the one we are facing with the outbreak of COVID-19 as a global pandemic. The Church has been here before, many times over the past 2000 years.

And yet, there is something eerie and disconcerting about our Lenten journey this year. Usually, as spring encroaches on us, and we enter into this season of Lent, the wilderness is a primarily spiritual one, one of devotion and practice, prayer and personal piety. Yet this year, over the past days and weeks, we have entered into a Lenten wilderness of a wholly different sort. A social wilderness, a time of enforced distancing and isolation.

I cannot help but see a connection between where the world seemed to be last Sunday, or at least where we seemed to be last Sunday as we heard the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, with questions that one would only whisper in the dark to today. Today, where we meet Jesus in the middle of blinding noon day sun. The light has been flipped on revealing to us the Coronavirus and the widespread panic, fear and hysteria that come with it.

As we hear this story of the woman at the well on this third Sunday in Lent, we see a woman who seems almost familiar to us in the midst of our situation. A woman who has come to the water well alone, in the middle of the day. She seems to be practicing social distancing, maybe even self-isolation. She has come to fetch water at a time when no one would be at the well. Women normally come to the well first thing in the morning and again in the evening, and they came together. It was a social event.

Yet this woman is at the well alone, in the middle heat of the day. As we discover, her story, her circumstances are tragic or difficult. She has been married five times, and now under the care of one who is not her husband. Now, don’t make the mistake of reading some kind of impropriety into this woman, the punishment of adultery was stoning. A woman married 5 times, was almost certainly a victim of tragedy. A woman who had had 5 husbands die, or who could not produce children as a proper woman should. And the fact that she was with one who was not her husband likely meant that she was being cared for by the brother of her deceased husband who was probably already married.

She was dead weight in her world. An extra mouth to feed, a cursed wife whose husbands kept dying, a cursed woman whose body would not let her become a mother.

She was at the well alone, not by her own choice entirely. She may have felt like a cursed person, but the rest of the community around her almost certainly agreed.

Sounds familiar these days doesn’t it.

Cough and people stare at you with distain and fear. Happen to have some toilet paper from a shopping trip a week ago in your front entry, and dinner guests look at you like some kind of hoarder (that may or may not have happened at our house). Get back back from an international trip, and you are now required to self-isolate like a pariah.

Even in regular life, circumstance easily defines us. Lose your job, and you are an unemployed burdensome statistic. Spend time the hospital, and you become a body in a bed in a gown. Become a public official or celebrity, and you become the larger than life persona that you portray in your work.

We know what it is like to be defined by our circumstances, to become only some event, to be only some job, to be only some characteristic that is but one part of our lives. We know what it is to make the people around us that.

But Jesus just strolls up to the woman at the well in the middle of the day and asks for a drink.

When no one even wanted to go to the well with her, Jesus asks her for a drink.

It is so shocking that the woman cannot believe it. Here she is, a woman, a Samaritan, a social pariah and this man, a Jew, a rabbi comes and asks her for a drink.

So Jesus offers her a drink! Of course he does!

He says that she should ask him for living water.

Jesus refuses to be defined his circumstances. He refused to define this woman at the well by hers.

Instead, he offers his real and true self. He offers the incarnate God made flesh, the source of all life found in the waters of baptism.

And then he sees the woman, even though knowing her circumstances, her five husbands, and current living situation, her social isolation… he treats her as a human being, as a person needed dignity and respect, needing love and care, needing the gospel.

Jesus breaks through circumstance, and sees the woman as she truly is.

Sounds like just what we need these days too.

As our world and communities succumb to fear and hysterics, as we begin to see one another as simply the circumstances that surround us, as we retreat further and further away from ourselves, Jesus continues to break through to us.

Jesus breaks through to see us as who we are, to see the real us beyond our circumstances, beyond our fears and anxieties, beyond our disease and isolation. And Jesus is breaking through to us in the ways that Jesus has always done – in Word, Water and Bread and Wine.

But also in these days to come, in phone calls and texts between neighbours and friends, in groceries drop offs and mail pick ups by those who can do those things for those who cannot. Jesus is and will be breaking through to the real us, as we comfort one another in this time of heightened fear and anxiety by the care that we show for another, by helping us to see beyond circumstance to ways in which we can be good neighbours and good siblings in Christ.

Today, we worship not knowing if we will gather again next week, or for a while after that. And yet the church has been here before. This is not out first plague and it won’t be our last.

And so Jesus reminds us that we do not stop belonging to one another, we do not stop belonging to God. Jesus reminds us to break through circumstance, and to see and care for another, as we are able.

And here on this third Sunday of this extraordinary Lenten journey, Jesus strolls up to us in our moment of social distancing and self-isolation and ask for drink of water, knowing that what he has to give and what we will need is the water of life.

Amen.

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