My beloved friends in Christ, I come before you in these strange circumstances, as we face danger like none we have ever known before, in the midst of overwhelming fear, anxiety, and growing isolation. Even as we struggle to make sense of all of this, struggle to figure out what to do, struggle to survive, we also see signs of God’s grace and mercy. I am so very grateful for your prayers for me, our staff and lay leadership as we work to respond to this situation. I am grateful for the volunteers who offered to help with the phone tree that was implemented yesterday, to provide us with yet another means of communication. I’m grateful for Vikki and the food pantry volunteers who continued that vital ministry in these difficult circumstances. I’m grateful for others who have reached out with words of encouragement and offers of help.
These are trying times, made especially so because our human instinct to come together, to gather in the face of crisis, is made impossible by the need for social distancing. The comfort and strength we gain by meeting together is lost to us. That is one reason I decided to offer online worship this morning; as a way to gather, if only via the internet, to hear familiar words and say familiar prayers, to gain strength and to receive grace from the Eucharist, even if we can experience it only visually and spiritually.
When we gather, our fellowship seems easily to nurture community. We greet each other, share polite conversation, shake hands while passing the peace, talk during coffee hour. But ours is primarily a Sunday congregation; most of us have other relationships with friends, family, and coworkers that sustain us and support us. We don’t often pay close attention, tend, or nurture any of those relationships. Proximity makes such relationships relatively easy to maintain. Now we are in a different situation. Our physical separation means that we must find new ways to build and nurture relationships. We must be more attentive, intentional. It is my hope that our experience in the coming days and weeks will create new and deeper connections that will continue when we are once again able to gather together physically.
I was moved by the power and relevance of Paul’s words in today’s reading from Romans: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” May we gain strength for the days to come from these words and may we all experience the hope that comes from the love that God pours into our hearts.”
Today’s gospel reading offers insight into our situation. The story of the Samaritan woman is a familiar and beloved story. It’s a story full of symbolism and like so many stories in John’s gospel, it gains deeper significance and meaning when we read it in light of the rest of the Gospel. So for example, we could contrast Nicodemus, last week’s gospel reading, with this story. Nicodemus was a Jew, a Pharisee, the consummate insider. He came to Jesus by night. The Samaritan woman was the consummate outsider, both in her own community and in relation to the Jewish community. Yet her encounter with Jesus took place in the blazing midday sun. Is this an allusion to chapter 1: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome (grasp) it”?
Or perhaps another allusion to chapter 1. After John the Baptist identifies Jesus to his own disciples, pointing to him and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” Andrew and another one follow Jesus. When Jesus notices them, he asks, “What are you looking for?
They respond, “Where are you staying?”
To which Jesus responds, “Come and see.”
In this story, after her encounter with Jesus, the woman runs back to town and tells the people, “Come and see.” She is the first to identify Jesus as the Messiah, the first to share the good news of Jesus with others, the first evangelist.
But there’s more to the story than that. And it’s hard not to read our own situation into the Samaritan woman’s experience.
Social distancing, a concept that was unknown to us two weeks ago is now on our minds constantly. But even if we didn’t call it that, social isolation and ostracism has been common throughout human history. Indeed, the Samaritan woman herself experienced social isolation. She came to the well in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the day, alone, because she was marginalized by her community. Tasks like these were most often communal ones in premodern, rural cultures. Women who had to do the same thing did it together, so women would come together to the well, chatting, gossiping as they did. It was a time of fellowship. But this woman, because of her status came to the well by herself.
But when she arrived, she discovered someone else was there. And when he asked her for water, she practiced social distancing on him, reminding him of religious and cultural convention that prohibited their conversation, and prohibited him from drinking water from a jug that she had touched. Contamination, you see.
As their conversation deepened, they broached the cause of the division between Samaritan and Jew. Samaritans had built a temple to worship God on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews believed the only temple where valid worship could occur was Jerusalem. As they continued to chat, Jesus said:
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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
I am saying this in an empty nave, a place where people have worshiped for more than 160 years each Sunday. It is a place that we cherish; a place we gather to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and where bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. It is a place we love; it is a place where we encounter God, where we are the body of Christ. But today and for the foreseeable future, we will not be able to gather here for worship and fellowship. Our relationships with God and each other will be nourished not by hugs, or by bread and wine, but by all of the ways we connect thanks to modern technology—the telephone, social media. Even as we often criticize such technology for distracting us or for loosening the ties that bind us to our faith or our communities, now, we are going to have to rely on that technology and learn new ways of connecting.
Worship in spirit and in truth. It’s almost as if we are given a way forward. Jesus is reminding us that the building doesn’t matter all that much. He’s reminding us that in spite of the fact that Christianity is an embodied religion, that we worship a God made flesh, who lived among us, a God whose body suffered like ours do, a God who died like we do, but was raised again, worship and relationship happen in other ways, too.
May we find ways to nurture and deepen our relationships with each other and with God, and may we find ways to share God’s love in these difficult days.