In the Bible, wells are meeting places. And at a time of fear and uncertainty, the need to remain connected is even more important. Being in together in relationship is what will get us through this public health crisis. But when we are restricted from gathering together, where are our wells? Where are our meeting places? How do we function as community of faith?
Reflection on John 4:5-42 / Lent 3A/ by the Rev. Tracey Kelly / presented to the congregation of St. Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, VA via Zoom conferencing platform / March 15, 2020
Good morning. If you have joined us this morning for our virtual, online service of morning prayer, you probably are familiar with the term “social distancing.” In the context of COVID-19, social distancing is not about emotional or cultural detachment. It’s about physical separation from each other. Staying apart and staying away.
But there’s something about that phrase “social distancing” that’s unsettling. I worry that for some of us, distancing will lead to social isolation.
There is solid evidence that social distancing slows down the rate of infection during a pandemic. The practice of social distancing eases the burden on health care systems. We do this not just to protect ourselves, but to protect the most vulnerable among us. That is an act of care that Jesus can get behind.
There are costs, however, of keeping our distance from each other, when we avoid being in each other’s presence. Economic costs. Emotional costs. Spiritual costs. It becomes too easy for one to feel separated and segregated.
Where do we meet each other, if we aren’t supposed to meet together?
Jesus and the Samaritan woman
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus is traveling through hostile territory. The Judeans and the Samaritans have a long history of animosity towards each other. And Jesus has chosen to take the short-cut, through Samaria, on his way to Galilee. This puts him in direct contact with others who are different.
Jesus arrives at the well and engages the Samaritan woman in conversation. She does not know who he is. She has not heard the rumors that he is a teacher. Instead, this man is a thirsty Jew who dares to ask her directly for a drink of water.
Water wells in the Bible are meeting places. In ancient Israel, the daily task of drawing water was necessary for agriculture, cooking, hygiene and drinking. And because of their centralized and open locations, wells became social gathering places for locals and travelers. For men and for women. For insiders and outsiders.
Moses met his future wife, Zipporah, at a well, when she came with her sisters to water their father’s flock. Abraham’s servant found Isaac a wife, Rebekah, at a well. Jacob met Rachel at a well.
And in today’s story, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus’ request for a drink of water crosses all sorts of religious, cultural, ethnic and gender boundaries.
The woman at the well was a marginalized person. She was subject to economic, legal and social exploitation. As a Samaritan, she was considered unclean and impure by the Jews. Her marital history set her apart, even within her own culture. Jesus knows that the Samaritan woman is among the most vulnerable of her society.
At this well, two cultures collided, two genders, two religions, two nationalities collided…. and the Samaritan woman engages Jesus in theological debate about worship. She accurately recognizes that Jesus is more than a thirsty Jewish traveler, that he might be a prophet. He might even be the Messiah. She heard what Jesus was saying and became the apostle of the good news to her people.
Time and time again, Jesus sought to bring the outsiders into community. When he healed the paralyzed man by the pool of Bethsaida, he restored the man’s place in society. When he healed the lepers, he allowed them to leave their place of exile and return to the community. When he sat down and shared a conversation with the Samaritan woman, he was healing a rift.
Healing for Jesus wasn’t just about physical infirmities. Healing was about the restoring the bonds between humans. Healing was emotional healing, spiritual healing, community healing.
Jesus was always doing thing like that that, ending social isolation and building community.
An opportunity to build new wells
We human beings were created to be in community with each other. We do not thrive when we are isolated.
And at a time of fear and uncertainty, the need to remain connected is even more important. Being together in relationship is what will get us through this public health crisis. When those around us are afraid and under stress, my ministry – your ministry – is to serve others and share the news that we are not alone in this.
But when we are restricted from gathering together, where are our wells? Where are our meeting places? How do we function as community of faith?
I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know how long we will meet using online technology.
This is what I believe: this time is an opportunity.
It is an opportunity to test out new ways of being church.
It is an opportunity to get creative about using email, social media, and video conferencing and even good old-fashioned phone calls, to stay in touch and to check in with each other.
It is an opportunity to get creative about how we care for the most vulnerable among us.
Already, I am hearing inspiring stories of care and concern. My husband sent me an article about an Oregon woman who encountered an elderly couple inside their car in the parking lot. They were too scared to go into the grocery store. She bought their groceries for them. I’m seeing many posts on the Great Falls NextDoor network that are offers to help – to run errands, to babysit for parents who must work, to share extra supplies.
Where are the wells in this public health crisis? Our wells are wherever we want to build them. The wells are a car in a parking lot, a post on social media, a zoom video conference. This is a time to rethink how we form a community of faith. To rethink how to practice the commandment to love God and our neighbor. To envision how we can be apart from each other, and yet, with each other.
Church is not a building, but a community gathered around the mission of Jesus Christ. What unites us is bigger than what separates us.
© 2020 Tracey Kelly. All rights reserved.
Resources: Caitlin O’Kane, “Woman helped elderly couple get food when they were too scared to go shopping during coronavirus outbreak,” CBS News, March 13, 2020.
Zoom conferencing Sunday morning prayer at St. Francis , by Patrick Killoran.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman . Romero de Torres, Julio, 1874-1930. Art courtesy of the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Art in the Christian Tradition (ACT) database, Vanderbilt University.