Rev Kate McFarlane
What a very anxious week we have had and what a host of new phrases are suddenly on everyone’s lips: ‘self-isolation’, ‘household isolation’, ‘withdrawal’, ‘lockdown’. Suddenly we are fearful of shaking someone’s hand, of hugging a friend. We must, we are told, constantly keep apart, keep separate. We may no longer share ‘one cup’.
The spread of coronavirus has seen some other things appear to spread too. The spread of a selfish concern with meeting my own needs, as witnessed by our shelves emptied of toilet rolls, paracetamol and pasta, and of racist abuse against Chinese people, who have been blamed as the cause of the spread.
At the same time we have begun to see public gatherings of people cancelled, with further events which serve to bring people together under threat. For some this feels like a breakdown in our society, a severing of all our normal relationships, in a situation which will uncover the deep flaws of our country, it’s selfishness and inadequacy.
It’s curious how apt today’s gospel then is. For here we have a self-isolated woman. It has long been suggested that Jesus finds this woman alone at the well in the heat of the middle of the day because she has chosen to come when no one else is there. She comes alone because she is contaminated, because she sees herself, and is seen by others, as set apart. Five husbands already and living with one who is not her husband, she is a figure of shame and guilt. All too aware of her separation from everyone else, ostracised probably by the good, clean people of her community, she draws her water alone.
Yet it is to her, a polluted, contaminated woman, a foreigner, a hated, despised Samaritan and an exile within even her own community, that Jesus comes, with full knowledge of her, yet without condemnation, asking her to do something for him: ‘Give me a drink’.
She is astonished ‘how is it that you ask a drink of me? Yet given confidence by his approach to her she then engages in the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the bible. He seeks out the one no one else would go near and offers to her the gift of God, the living water.’ The disciples’ surprise, when they appear on the scene is to us almost comic in its shockingly sexist bigotry; ‘They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.’
But Jesus’ treatment of her, his openness to her has changed something fundamental for her. Her isolation is ended. She can engage with people once more. Her hope is restored. She goes back to the city, she goes to where the people are and bravely urges them to ‘Come and See’, to come and see the incredible man whose generous love has drawn her back into community.
What will we do if and as and when we find ourselves isolated? What can we do for those who are already in self-isolation? We can withdraw into selfish self-concern, buying up things and then sitting alone in our anxiety, or we can use these curious days to build up our community, our family networks, our relationships with friends. We may not all be able to sit together over a drink as Jesus and the woman do, but our ubiquitous telephones, which so often switch us away from others with their endless distractions, are now the best tool we have for refusing to let coronavirus or any evil of our modern world isolate people.
So call those who can’t be here this morning, be spurred into contacting that friend, or aunt, or cousin, you’ve meant to call for months and never got round to, speak with your neighbour whom you rarely pause to address. Build bridges, nurture long-distance or long-frosty relationships. Offer friendship, ask what people need, give what you can.
Even if you find that you cannot come to church for a time, or even if church services must pause for some weeks, our church family can continue its life and it’s mission just as much as ever, and we may come to realise better than ever how important church is, and should be, to us. In these difficult days our sense of community need not be torn apart but greatly deepened.
I read this just this morning:
Conversations will not be cancelled
Relationships will not be cancelled
Love will not be cancelled
Songs will not be cancelled
Reading will not be cancelled
Prayer will not be cancelled
Hope will not be cancelled
Or in the apt words of today’s reading from Romans; ‘hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts’. With anything the next days bring, which seems to curtail and limit us, and in the midst of so much talk of ‘isolation’, ‘withdrawal’ and ‘lockdown’, let us each and all seek for every possible way to give love more generously, more openly, less guardedly, and to be the people of hope Christ calls us to be.