Last night California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide mandate that people stay at home until further notice in a continued attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus over the next weeks and months. As of this morning, the governors of Illinois and New York have issued similar mandates, with potentially more to come. As we move further into this season of ever-deepening isolation and required distancing from one another, how are we meant to respond? As Brené Brown has shown in her research on connection and vulnerability, humans are “hardwired for connection.” So what happens to our connection when we are meant to keep our distance for the safety of others? Is there something deeper that we are being invited to discover?
In chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John there is a story about a woman who meets Jesus alone by a well in the middle of the day as he passed south through Samaria travelling south from Galilee to Jerusalem. In this story, it seems that this woman has been isolated from the community that has sustained her for her whole life. She has been told to stay home, to keep her distance, though it was not because of any physical threat of illness, but because of a social and spiritual one. When we read this story from John’s gospel there is an implied question from the very beginning: Why is this woman alone at the well in the middle of the day?
In that moment in history, it would have been expected that all of the women of the town would travel to this well together in the early morning, before the heat of mid-day set in, to collect water for their households. The fact that this woman is out by the well all alone in the middle of the day indicates to us that for some reason she has been ostracized. She has been cast out and isolated. She has become untouchable. She is in the middle of an uncertain time, in a place of social disconnection and suffering. To what will she return when she goes back home that day? An empty house, a cold shoulder, a judging glance? Who can know? Who would possibly be able to tell her when she will feel normal again, whole again, connected again, safe again? So she sits by the well and draws her water alone, uncertain, and unsure.
But on this day, in the midst of this isolation and disconnection she meets Jesus, and she has what begins as a very confusing conversation with him. He approaches her and asks her for a drink of water from this well, the well that belonged to their ancestor Jacob. The well that had belonged to one of the last ancestors that they claim as common. See, for thousands of years the Jewish people and the Samaritans had been one nation and one people: the nation of Israel. Hundreds of years before this interaction at the well, Israel split into a northern Kingdom of Israel and a southern kingdom of Judah, and over the next millennium they grew apart, and grew a deep animosity toward one another as they fought and argued over the proper way to observe the rites and ceremonies of their religious lives. They began worshipping together, in the same place, with one voice, and at this moment they find themselves worshipping apart, in opposition to one another. And this is where things stand when these two people, this woman and Jesus, meet by the well today, one a Samaritan descended from the northern kingdom, and one a Jewish man descended from the southern kingdom, both of them, though descended from Jacob, the one whose well they both seek to draw water from on this day.
And in this interaction, where Jesus is crossing lines of isolation that date back hundreds of years, he mentions to her a living water that he can offer her, that is greater than the water she will find in this well, that will bubble up in her to eternal life. Soon she is intrigued and wanting this living water which she can drink of and never be thirsty again, she asks him for it, and what does he say? Not yes here you go. Not let down you bucket one more time into the well and you will find it. No, instead he makes what seems like a totally irrelevant request. “Go, call your husband and come back.” At first glance it appears like Jesus is taking part in a totally different conversation than this woman altogether, but upon further inspection we see the way Jesus works at a deeper level than we were expecting.
Because what has really happened is that Jesus has touched on and engaged her in the very source of pain and suffering that has left her ostracized. “Sir, I do not have a husband.” She says to him. And Jesus responds, “you are right, you have had five, and the one you have now is not your husband.” The non-answer from Jesus in response to the woman’s requests for the living water reveals to us just how Jesus goes about giving this living water. It is not a transaction, where one asks and the other gives. Instead, Jesus meets this woman across lines of prejudice and animosity, he meets her in the midst of a season of deep pain and suffering and isolation in her life, and in that moment he touches on her deepest source of pain, the thing that has kept her separated, and in so doing unearths a spring of living water that was already inside of her. He uncovers this deep well of connection and courage and power and freedom that was inside of her all along but had just been covered up by these years of separation and uncertainty. It is not that he needed to put the living water into her, any more than you need to put water into a well. No, you draw water out of a well from a source that you must dig down deep to find, and once you find it, it is fed from a reservoir that is never ending and constantly refilling.
This is the living water that Jesus offers this woman at the well, and it is the same living water that he offers us now. This woman, in many ways, is where many of us are today. Feeling disconnected from our communities, disoriented by the waves of change that have washed over us as we continue to try to respond as best as we can to the realities of global pandemic, and uncertain about what tomorrow will bring. We are with this woman today, and she is with us. The distance we have created between ourselves is different than the distance imposed on this woman by her culture. We stand here in an empty church today not because we are ostracized from one another, but out of a deep desire to protect those most vulnerable in our community. At the same time, though, we share with this woman at the well the deep desire to be reconnected to the people and places that sustain us. To our churches, our schools, our jobs, our colleagues, our friends, our families. We can feel the disconnect. We feel the distance between us. We feel the upheaval and fear and frustration and uncertainty of the world around us. The uncertainty of our next paycheck, or our next school day, or our childcare, or our very physical health. Yet, as this story shows us, we can know that wherever we are in this season of uncertainty and disconnection, Jesus will meet us there. In our fear and frustration, in our doubt and confusion, in our overpreparedness and underpreparedness. Jesus met this Samaritan woman in her isolation, when reconnection and normalcy seemed impossible. Jesus meets her there, far from others, far from her community, in her fear and doubt, and reconnects her to something deeper within herself.
Jesus’ invitation still stands for us today, in challenging times such as these, when we are separated from one another, to take this moment, this time of fear and crisis, this season of desolation and uncertainty, and find what connects us beyond just our physical proximity to one another. Today we hear Jesus meeting a woman in her deepest suffering and through that suffering helping her unearth the deep reservoir of courage and perseverance and spirit that is within her. It is a well that bubbles up in her and overflows with life so much so that she cannot help but tell everyone in her community about it. She cannot help but respond with action, and connection, and relationship. She is not only reconnected to her community, and to herself, and to God, but standing by this well of their common ancestor, Jesus and this woman, who should not be talking, who should not be together, who should be separate and afraid of one another, find in the depth of their history and tradition a commonality that spans across these boundaries that separate them.
Today, let us recognize that we too have one of these wells in us. On the surface it looks like we are miles apart. It looks like we are all separate from one another. Isolated from one another. But just like the well from which the Samaritan woman drew her water every day, we are all connected to the same source at our greatest depth. We are all drawing from the same source, from the same depth within us, that connects us all. This moment, this time, this season, has a weight to it that makes us feel weighed down and stuck, but we can let the weight of this moment draw us down deeper and deeper into this depth of ourselves, the depth of our community, the depth of our common humanity, and find something there that is bigger than any moment. Deeper than any fear. More stable than any uncertainty. And we can reconnect to the Countless centuries of people who have persevered before us. Through times of trial and fear and doubt and pain.
We have the capacity within us for more perseverance and struggle and strength and courage than we think. We have this overflowing capacity within us to heal the world, to be transformed, to persevere in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
In this season of Lent, when many of us have now given up the last thing we would ever give up as a community, our corporate worship life together, let us ponder the important questions of our faith and our community that these circumstances bring about in us: What does it mean for me to be a Christian, a disciple, a follower of Jesus in the world today if I can’t gather in that building we call the church? What does my participation in the mission of God look like if it doesn’t include that important time in our common life? What is our place today as a community? How are we called now, in the midst of fear and crisis, to take part in God’s mission in the world?
Rather than overwhelm us, we know that if we can hold these questions, like the woman at the well, they will cultivate in us something more than we could have asked for or imagined. What are the practices we can cultivate that will help us hold the space for these unanswered questions and reconnect us to our depths? What are the practices that will sustain us in this time of disruption, disconnection, and suffering? How can we make space in this discomfort and uncertainty to find Jesus at the well, and dig down to a depth that we didn’t even know we had? And when it bubbles up to eternal life and healing, who will we tell about it? How will we respond?