John 4:5-42 The Woman at the well
It has been a week like no other. I suspect that we might all be feeling a bit shell shocked by the events that have taken place over the past couple of days. No matter how hard we try, it is almost impossible to not get caught up in the worry and anxiety about COVID-19. Grocery store shelves are empty, people wonder how they will balance work while also taking care of their kids who will be out of school for at least three weeks; for many, there is added stress over lost income and inability to take care of mortgage or rent payments. We worry about the ability of our health care system to respond to a growing number of patients requiring critical care. And, of course, most of all we worry about the people belonging to the so-called high risk groups – our friends and neighbours and family members who are vulnerable and are more likely to be severely impacted by the novel coronavirus.
What makes this particular situation so difficult is the sobering advice from medical professionals that requires social distancing and, in many cases, self-isolation. As the body of Christ in the world, the church has always been a place of community – a place that welcomes the stranger, the sick, the homeless. In a time such as this, all of these very basic building blocks of our identity are being re-evaluated. If we are not able to gather physically as a community in the coming weeks, how do we continue to carry out our calling to be members of Christ’s body, actively engaged in sharing God’s love for the world? It is somehow strangely fitting that all of this is happening during Lent – the wilderness time of the church year. It really does feel like we are wandering in the desert, feeling our way forward in some peculiar new reality, trying to make sense of the landscape that keeps changing around us.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard a story about a Samaritan woman at the well who has a long conversation with Jesus. In fact, it is worth noting that this is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in all of the four Gospels. This is rather interesting especially in light of the fact that this woman is an outsider with a capital O. First of all, she is a Samaritan, which makes her a half-breed and a pagan by the standards of her day. Secondly, she is a woman – a person with no place in public life; someone who should not be seen nor heard. And thirdly, she is also a “fallen woman” as some may call her; someone who had been married many times – maybe not by choice, since women had no rights when it came to marriages or divorces. Perhaps her husbands had all died and she was passed down from brother to brother. We will never know. What we do know, is that this woman was ostracized – cast out by her community. Usually, in those days, women would go to the well in big groups in the morning. They would talk and sing and socialize. It was safer that way – and it was part of communal behaviour.
But this woman, she was at the well by herself in the noon day heat. And on this lonely, isolating, daily trip to the well, she is surprised by the presence of an unknown man, a Jew – the enemy, more or less, who is asking for a drink of water. It is scandalous that she is talking to him with no one around, even more scandalous that she offers to help him. But then we have this strange exchange where Jesus and the woman enter into a deep conversation about spirituality and religion. And throughout the course of that conversation, Jesus reveals to her that he knows about her situation – that he knows about the deepest shame that she carries within her, and despite that, he offers her the opportunity to drink from the fountain of living water. And she, on the other hand, becomes the first person in John’s Gospel to come to know who Jesus really is – the Messiah. This all takes place in the desert, in isolation. Jesus and the woman are drawing from the deep well of wisdom and tradition. There is enough time and opportunity for her to come to see something anew; to realize something about God. The scene eventually closes with the disciples coming in, but what is more important, is that the woman goes back to her community and shares the news about meeting this stranger – she tells others about the Messiah that offers living water. She becomes a preacher, an evangelist, who spreads the Gospel of Good News.
Maybe it’s a stretch, but I wonder if this time of isolation and social distancing can be a deeply spiritual experience for us too. In the stories of the New Testament, we hear over and over again that Jesus goes to people who are alone, in the desert, or on their way somewhere – it may be the road to Emmaus, or road to Damascus, or Jacob’s well – there are endless examples. In the Old Testament, God almost always shows up in the wilderness or the desert. The prophets don’t receive their revelations in the midst of large crowds. Now, I’m not suggesting that that we will all have a completely transformative experience while socially distancing, but at the very least, this current situation is forcing us to think seriously about Lenten practices. We are essentially forced to go back to the basics. There are no sports or shopping or community events available to entertain or distract us, so we are free to study scripture, to pray for each other and for our community, to hold the Christ light for others (maybe from a distance), to take the time to ask ourselves and God questions that have been left by the wayside for too long. I do not want to make light of this incredibly difficult situation, but I want you to see it as an opportunity too – an opportunity to take Lent seriously and to deepen our spiritual practices. This is an opportunity to encounter Jesus in the desert and to drink from the well of living water; to let God in and to expose some of our deepest fears and let go of the shame that we might be carrying inside – just like the woman at the well. At the same time, let’s remember that we are still very much members of Christ’s body in the world, even in these pandemic times. As Christians we will pray for each other, we will support each other and we will help each other – this is how the church has always responded to times of struggle and anxiety. Today, I will close with the words of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky that were written as a response to the coronavirus situation: “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.”