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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Isolation. Social distancing. Quarantine.
These are words that barely registered in our vocabulary just a few days ago, and know they are all anyone can think about. Schools, sporting events, concerts, and yes, churches, are shut down so that we can isolate ourselves from others, particularly the aged and vulnerable. We are being called to practice social distancing. Especially here in Washington state, the current epicenter of coronavirus in the United States, we’re all supposed to be in some form of self-quarantine.
I can’t think of a better gospel reading for the situation we’re in than this story of the woman at the well.
This woman was isolated from other women. Historians of the ancient world tell us that going to the well was a morning chore that most women did together. It was a time to visit. You might think of office workers gathering at the water cooler as a modern equivalent.
But this woman came at Noon, in the heat of the day, after everyone was gone. This woman came alone. Later in the story we find a likely reason for her isolation. She had been married five times, and was currently living with a man who was not her husband. There are lots of reasons why a woman in the ancient near east might have been married that many times. Mortality rates were much higher, so it as at least possible she had been widowed that many times. Men could initiate a divorce for just about any reason, and frequently did so, so it’s at least possible she had been abandoned that many times. We don’t know if perhaps she had her own moral failings or character flaws that led to these broken marriages. We do have what seem to be two little clues in the text: As Jesus points out, she is currently living with someone who is not her husband. There is a strong implication here that she is enjoying the intimacies of marriage without the promises of marriage. And then later she tells the crowd that Jesus “told her everything she has ever done,” perhaps implying she has done something to contribute to her martial history and current living arrangement.
Whatever the case, she is isolated from her community. Rather than cheerfully doing her morning chores with the other women, she is isolated from them.
When Jesus comes to the well where she is drawing her water, this woman knows she is supposed to be practicing social distancing. First of all there is the issue of a man being alone with an unaccompanied woman – which was a big no-no according to the boundaries training seminars of that culture. Moreover, Jesus was a Jew and she was a Samaritan, and as we are reminded more than once in parenthetical notes by John, Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common.
But here comes Jesus, asking her to give him a cup of water. She can hardly believe her ears, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” We might be tempted to think of this as a patriarchal move by Jesus, like Archie Bunker or Homer Simpson barking at their wives to fetch them a beer, but no – so much more is happening here. Jesus is honoring her by submitting himself to her hospitality. He is establishing a relationship with her by daring to cross those boundaries of Jew and Samaritan and man and woman. Jesus is also breaching those walls of isolation, flaunting the rules of social distancing, in order to offer this woman something even better than a cool drink of water in the noon day heat. Jesus offers her living water welling up to eternal life! Eventually Jesus even lets her in on the truth about who he is. At one point the woman says, “I know that the Messiah is coming.” And Jesus replies to her saying, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
And off she goes. She leaves her water jar sitting there by the well and goes back to the city to tell people about Jesus. After they hear her testimony, they invite Jesus to stay with them for two more days. Later they tell 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.”
There is some beautiful evangelism happening here, but don’t miss this important detail: This woman was brought out of her quarantine! She was brought out of her isolation! She went back to the city. She spoke and people listened to her. No matter what the details of her past may have been, because of her interaction with Jesus, she was restored to her community.
We have some challenging days ahead, friends. We are going to feel isolated. I am especially concerned about those who live alone and will have little opportunity to be with others as we practice social distancing. I hope you will be intentional about being in touch with each other by phone. I hope the phone lines are lit up every day with brothers and sisters in Christ here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church calling each other up for a chat. But we are, in a sense, going to be alone at the well for the next few weeks.
Thankfully, Jesus isn’t deterred by social distancing. We are never really alone, because Christ Jesus is always with us. He enters into our loneliness, making himself known to us. He establishes a relationship with us, no matter what kind of tragedy or shame might be in our history, or what kind of fear or anxiety might be in our present, or what kind of difficulties might lie in our future. He comes to us and offers us living water welling up to eternal life. He reveals to us that he is the One, the Messiah, the Savior. He has come to speak to us of his mercy and grace.
And one day soon he is going to restore us to each other as a community. He is going to break us out of this quarantine so that we might bear witness to him together, side by side, hand in hand, sharing all kinds of things in common without fear.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church