Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lent III

John 4
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

They say ‘use the time like Sir Isaac Newton.’

The year was 1665, when the Great Plague hit London, and population centres such as Cambridge assessed the risk of the disease spreading beyond the capitol. Students at Trinity College, Cambridge were sent home, and young Isaac found himself in self-quarantine at the family estate in rural Lincolnshire. He used the time wisely.

In what was later described as his “year of wonders” (annus mirabilis), Isaac Newton invented calculus, experimented with prisms and developed a theory of optics, and then began to ponder the apple tree outside his window. We can’t say he invented gravity, but he developed a theory of gravity and motion that became a cornerstone of the scientific revolution.*

So we’re planning for a time away—no longer than a couple of weeks—we hope. We’re looking for ways to remain in touch, to keep track of each other as we would if we were gathering Sunday by Sunday. It’s hard to imagine this turn-of-events arriving, and harder still to understand when our community seems untouched by the virus. But we have been challenged to see this as an act of social solidarity, best described by Matt Pearce, reporter for the Los Angeles Times:

I imagine all the closures and cancellations give people a sense of ominousness. But it's really an amazing act of social solidarity: We're sacrificing so we can give nurses, doctors and hospitals a fighting chance. Start from there and hopefully we can figure out the rest.

We will be ardent in our prayers, that the illness pass quickly, that people remain calm in the face of crisis and that everyone treat others with compassion and understanding, even those who fail to rise to the challenge of this moment. And, these virtues— compassion and understanding—are also the themes of the day, and a link to the passage Bob read.

Gospel readings in Lent this year are a series of extended dialogues: with the adversary in the wilderness, with Nicodemus by night, with the woman at the well, with the man born blind, and finally, with Mary and Martha upon the death of their brother Lazarus. Each reading is a glimpse of God’s Kingdom, a look from a slightly different angle—shared through a conversation with Jesus.

Today, he meets a Samaritan woman at the well. He asks her for a drink and the dialogue begins: and before they’re done, they have a religious and cross-cultural encounter, they will discuss her past, and Jesus will make a very important confession. But before we get to any of that, we start with 'Why me?'

"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" John is helpful here, because he reminds us that Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common. This is a bit of an understatement, with centuries of conflict and mistrust in the background. But what stands out is the forthright way she expresses herself, insisting he explain himself in the face of this curious turn-of-events.

And since Jesus lives for this sort of conversation, he has an answer: 'if you knew me and knew where I came from, you would be asking me for water—living water to be exact.' Now they’re having fun. 'Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. How do you plan to get your living water? And then she gives him a history lesson: 'Are you greater than Jacob, who gave us this well in the first place?'

Maybe Jesus is feeling bested at this point, because he switches to creedal mode and makes his case: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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." I'm going to reread the next bit of dialogue, because it seems to be the heart of the reading for today:

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."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back."
The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"
The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

A couple of things to note here. First of all, Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He’s not trying to trick her here, or condemn her—quite the opposite. Jesus knows her situation and whatever hardship that led to this moment and still offers her living water. But it’s not a gentle moment either, rather it fits well into the context of the conversation so far—a challenge offered, a revealing reponse, and the sense that the concern of the Most High reaches beyond ordinary boundaries.

And that’s another important point. Once again, the disciples don’t get it: ‘Why are you talking to a woman,’ they ask. It seems remarkable that these guys have had a front row seat for all the teaching and healing and interacting to date and they still don’t get it. Obviously, old habits die hard, but Jesus will persist in teaching them. Jesus will teach them (or die trying), but they will get it sooner or later.

The thing they will someday get can be summarized as compassion and understanding. These are the twin themes that Jesus brings to every encounter, and brings them still. From the Sermon Mount, to the man born blind, to the tomb of Lazarus—Jesus meets everyone with compassion and understanding. It surprized people then and it would continue to surprise people, as the people called “Christians” made their way in the world.

And this takes us to another plague year, and another thinker, this time Bishop Dionysius of Corinth, writing in 260 AD. In a sermon he described the response of local believers: "Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains."

It was recorded that as Roman pagans fled in fear, the believers of Corinth and other plague centres remained with the sick. These same pagans were confounded by their behaviour, confounded that these ‘Christ-followers’ would act against their own self interest. I’m not sure much has changed, with people confounded by our desire to welcome the stranger, the ill, and those broken by the world.

Quoting Dionysius is not a call to take unnecessary chances, or ignore the authorities that are charged with keeping everyone in society safe. We can help others without adding to the problem or putting those closest to us at risk. Mostly I am making a case for the Kingdom, where the Spirit fills us with compassion and understanding, and leads us to help others while we help ourselves. God’s love extends to every member of the community, those who seek to live as one, and those who haven’t found this vision yet. May our example be God’s witness to others.

Go gently, then, as you plan how to use the time. Reconnect by telephone, check on friends and neighbours, get caught up on things set aside in the everyday rush of normal life. And pray. Pray that compassion and understanding enter every heart, and that the Kingdom Way of healing and wholeness reign.

I want to conclude with poetry, this from Charles Wesley, expressing the Kingdom vision we cling too:

Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.



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