Living Water – Despite Social Distancing (March 15, 2020)

This reflection was offered by the Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller, president of the Northern Province Provincial Elders’ Conference, during an online service on Sunday, March 15.  We thank Betsy for sharing her words here.

Third Sunday of Lent; Psalm 46; John 4:5-17

I don’t know about you, but up until last week I had never heard the term ‘social distancing’. How many of us imagined that we would be encouraged not to go to church, not to welcome strangers, not to reach out and touch someone? Over these past days and weeks, we have all been through tumultuous times – when all that we took for granted has been turned on its head. We went from, “this is a problem in China,” to “what do you mean, I shouldn’t fly to Florida on vacation,” to “how can they cancel March Madness and the Masters Golf tournament and Broadway?” to “how am I going to work from home?” and “how am I going to work and take care of my children now that they are home from school?” to “how am I going to get enough disinfectant wipes?” I have found myself disoriented – trying to wrap my mind around changing realities that I had never encountered before. My mental thought process was trying to catch up with situations that changed faster than I could adapt. We have lost some equilibrium. It seems that everything has changed.

On this Third Sunday in Lent, I boldly proclaim that at least one thing has not changed. God is still the source of our being; God is still the Creator of all that is – the author of our lives; God, in Jesus Christ, is still walking with us on this journey. The message of Lent reminds us that God chose to share our existence through the incarnation – Immanuel – God with us. This means that God is with us in our fear, our suffering, our uncertainty, and our disequilibrium. As the Psalmist says, God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble. God is in the midst of the city, and the countryside, and the grocery stores, and the nursing homes, and the halls of Congress, and the testing labs. God is with us – and through the power of God’s omnipresence, still embraces us all. Despite all government warnings, Jesus Christ is not practicing social distancing.

The people of biblical times were no strangers to social distancing. It wasn’t practiced on a mutual basis – rather outcasts were ‘socially distanced’ by others. They were called unclean. They were pariahs. They were isolated and the clean people were afraid to touch the unclean people. Think of the woman with the flow of blood. Remember the ten lepers. And today, we read about the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Judea to Galilee and “had to go through Samaria.” Who would want to go through Samaria – where all those foreigners lived? Who would dare make themselves unclean by coming into contact with one of “those” people?

Jesus sits by Jacob’s well in the heat of the day while his disciples go to town to look for hand sanitizer, frozen pizzas, and toilet paper. In the middle of the day, none of the women from town come to draw water – except one who has been socially distanced by her peers. She gets no town gossip while drawing water. No one asks how her kids are doing. No one wants to be near her. Except Jesus – who chooses to be near her. “Give me a drink,” he says. He engages her in conversation. He notices her, validates her, needs her to quench his thirst on a hot day. She, who is, by the way, nameless – another form of social distancing, can only react from her worldview. Why would you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink? Jesus disorients her with his presence and with the gift that comes next – living water. Living water – welling up from the deep – to satisfy a profound thirst for life, meaning, value, purpose, hope, eternal life. This rights her upside-down-world and changes her forever. The rest of the story, as we know, recounts her past and then her testimony to the people in her town. Jesus removed the bondage of social distancing and more. Jesus gave her life back.

What does this story say to us today? I am not suggesting that you suddenly go kiss someone who has tested positive for COVID-19! Please practice this awkward new thing we are calling social distancing. Practice it physically – but don’t practice it emotionally, or spiritually, or virtually. We prayed the liturgy for Christian Unity to remind us that viruses cannot separate us from the love of God. Viruses cannot separate us as the body of Christ from one another. We are united as people of God – in this together – and we walk together – with God – on a journey.

In the days and weeks ahead, some of us might be exposed to the virus or test positive for COVID-19 and be quarantined. I invite you to resist the temptation to see everyone you meet as a potential threat. When I took a walk yesterday afternoon, I found myself wondering if the people I greeted on the path were carriers. I had to force myself away from that fear. While we may want to keep our distance, we do want to acknowledge that God loves all of us – no matter what. So, as we find our way in this new reality, how will we offer the gift of living water – while still staying safe? What alternatives to Christian community might we explore? Today’s worship is one example. There is still the good old-fashioned telephone or a note in an envelope with a real stamp on it. Check in with people isolated in nursing homes and hospitals, missing the physical company of loved ones. Call or write, not just once, but every day. If you are healthy, offer to shop for someone who shouldn’t go out. Use social media. Explore ways to safely provide food for the children who count on schools to feed them breakfast and lunch. Consider ways to support those who are out of work because no one is traveling, shopping, going out for dinner, attending sporting or theatre events. One pastor is working with community leaders to create hand sanitizer stations around town for the homeless. If you are one of the people that shouldn’t – or can’t go out – pray. That’s one thing we can all do. Prayer – and God’s love and grace – and healing power – transcend social distancing.

Brothers and sisters, let us remember and find comfort in the promise – God is our refuge – a very present help in time of trouble. We are walking through Lent – but Easter is coming. Amen.

-Betsy Miller