By Rebecca Messman
Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon VA
March 15, 2020
5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Let us pray. Lord in anxious times and in joyful times, when we hold people close as their next breath and when we are afraid to be close, grant us your wisdom. And Lord in my words, offered in this new format, may your people hear your timeless word. Amen.
Social distancing. It’s a new term for us but the practice is ancient. Some of my friends are introverts. They have been preparing for days such as these their entire lives.
Today’s text has several forms of social distancing: Men, especially single men, should keep away from women. Jews should keep away from Samaritans. Those who are super religious should keep away from those with a checkered past. People should not trespass on other’s property. People who are thirsty should bring their own bucket to a well and people who are hungry should get their own food. And in general, people should mind their own business. And yet, Jesus, a man, a single man, a religious man, was at the well, property of the Samaritans since the ancient times, with a Samaritan woman, a woman with a checkered past. He was there with no bucket and no food and plenty of personal questions.
Social distancing. It’s a societal side effect of epidemics that we pray slows the spread of disease but it threatens the connections we have with each other. When natural disasters come, people band together. People rush toward one another. We shovel each other’s snow, lend a chainsaw to remove trees from another’s driveway, and make sure elderly neighbors have food, heat and medicine when the lights go out. But with epidemics, our instinct is to rush away. And it’s urgent that we do not let compassion die during these times of contagious fear.
During the 1918 Spanish flu, 675,000 Americans died by flu, that’s more than 10x the number of Americans lost in battle during WWI. But when pleas came from health agencies for help caring for sick children, no one responded. The director wrote disdainfully, “Hundreds of [people] … had delightful dreams of themselves in the roles of angels of mercy. … Nothing seems to rouse them now. … There are families in which every member is ill, in which the children are actually starving because there is no one to give them food. The death rate is so high, and they still hold back” (Brooks, 2020).
That might explain the puzzling cultural silence that shrouded the big flu. No plays were written. Few documentaries. It was like people did not like what the disease revealed about them. They emerged spiritually drained and ashamed. The story is told the tiny communion cups that began during those days, but that’s about it. We don’t have a common cup of wisdom to share.
So, there are two points from today’s text that hold us accountable to what it means to follow Jesus in a time of social distancing.
First, let’s fight the moral disease as well as the physical one. How do we do that? By nursing our connections. Jesus tended the places where society itself was wounded. The places burning with stigma and division. The places hot with contempt. The places feverish with scarcity. He went right there and doled out living water of compassion. And what happened then? It startled the society with generosity.
Notice: The woman in this story didn’t just give Jesus a small cup of water, she left her entire jar at the well. Compassion is also contagious. It’s important to remember that part. Our ministry right now might feel hamstrung. Our lives might feel rife with anxiety. We feel like there is nothing we can do. But we can’t forget what we do have. We have more ways to connect to each than ever before. We have networks of relationships in our pocket. We have money and information. We have this love in Christ that overpowers death. Church, we have jars of compassion and this text reminds us that when we use it, others will too. And we will witness miracles.
In the days of the early church, a plague of dysentery racked the Roman empire. When people contracted dysentery, they were put out of their homes and left for dead. In the midst of this, Christians would take in those with dysentery, keep them warm and give them fluids–which is in fact the treatment for dysentery. It turned out to be the greatest evangelism effort of the early church. People thought it was a miracle. It was simply loving care, which is in fact its own miracle.
If every single one of us made a sincere phone call to someone in this church and one other person to express love, that would be 1300 startling connections.
The second point is this: Stick around for the full story. Jesus stayed. Stayed beyond the easy quick first answer. Beyond the “socially safe” second answer where most of us dwell. Stayed until the bucket dropped all the way down into the deepest part of the story, stayed until he heard the splash of trust, the dawning of full disclosure, the place where humans feel what life and love are really about.
This month has been hard for me, as you know. As mom has battled cancer and entered hospice care, I’ve been keenly aware of the fragile ones. Being fragile means you don’t have easy answers to basic questions. “How are you?” Well, I am somewhere between fine and horrible, thanks for asking. “Where are you now?” Gosh, I am physically here. I am emotionally in Danville. I’m all over the place.
The Samaritan woman didn’t like being associated with a sad marriage history. And, at first I felt awkward being associated with something sad too. I always saw myself as a cheerful person. I did not know how to handle what author Kate Bowler calls “cocker spaniel face,” when people look at you like you have a big red sign on your face that says “sad.” But I’ve noticed the power of sticking around for the fuller story. I’ve started responding: “Thanks for asking about my mom. Have you been through something like this before?” I hear this splash of holiness with the stories that are shared. Usually the tears pool with the question itself. With the permission to mention exquisite details. “My dad always loved daffodils.” “When my mom died, I had a hard time with nights for about 18 months.” “That was why I left the church for about 8 years.” “That’s what made me come to this church for the first time, sat in that pew right there and cried.”
Some of you feel fragile around your health. Fragile around your job. Fragile around your family. And Jesus meets that fragility not by running away but welcoming it. By showing how freedom runs smack dab through it. When I get gummed up these days on simple questions, I remember Jesus turned fragility into freedom on a cosmic scale. It’s alchemy, that resides at the center of our faith, the alchemy of the cross and resurrection. And that means there is nothing to fear. There is only love.
So, church. Nurse the connections you have with all the tools you have. Stay in the longer story so you don’t miss the splash of real connection. While we might have some space between us these days, God is as close as breath.
Brooks, David (March 12, 2020). Pandemics Kill Compassion Too. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/opinion/pandemic-coronavirus-compassion.html?searchResultPosition=2