Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 15 2020, 9:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42
It is very strange to speak to you this way, in these very strange times. And it is hard to know what to say; it is a situation unlike anything most of us have dealt with before. But, as I have often said, our scriptures were written in bad times, and they were written for bad times; and they were written to tell us how, even in bad times, we may strive to be a community of love and justice. We are still that community, even if we are physically separated. And we must be that community now more than ever.
Last week we met Nicodemus, a prominent and cautious man, who came to Jesus by night – and who was told of an unpredictable wind shaking all his certainties, of change so great it was like a new birth – for birth contains both promise and pain. Sometimes moments of crisis come upon us, and we must choose. Nicodemus, you may remember, chooses very slowly and reluctantly, because that too is human reality; but in his small and cautious ways, he chooses. He works through his fear, bit by bit, and though he never does anything heroic, he is there at the hardest time, offering what he can.
Today’s first reading takes us into the desert. The children of Israel have been brought out of Egypt in the midst of a plague, into a barren and abandoned land. They are isolated and confused, and they are also, quite reasonably, thirsty. As people do in hard times, they get angry. If they had the opportunity, they would probably be hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper. It is predictable, but it is also part of how they have learned to be while they are in Egypt, in a society of injustice and inequality, where competition is the means of survival, where they have felt themselves oppressed and have, in their hearts, longed to be like their oppressors. The water struck from the rock is a part of the teaching which the desert brings them, the knowledge that we must not hoard or struggle against each other, that we cannot control life in the desert, but that we are not abandoned. That this wandering community will, if it holds together, have what it needs to survive.
Then we have an encounter which, I think quite deliberately, flips nearly all the significant features of the Nicodemus story, the account of the Samaritan woman at the well, which also tells us something about how we live in these days.
This woman is about as far as you can get from a socially integrated, educated, Jewish man. She is multiply marginal – a Samaritan, despised by Jews; a woman, structurally inferior; and, it would seem, a woman not very securely part of even her own community. She comes to the well in blazing light and heat, at noon, a time when it is not at all normal to be going out to fetch water, and she comes alone; the other women, presumably, came early in the morning, in the usual way, and she seems to be going out of her way to avoid them, or perhaps has been told to go out of her way. We don’t know why she’d had a series of husbands and was now living with a man to whom she wasn’t married—given the culture of the time and place, she’d probably had very little choice about it. Perhaps handed from relative to relative, perhaps repeatedly divorced because she couldn’t bear children, in any case probably a woman who’d borne the weight of powerlessness, and then been blamed for the way her society had manipulated her. The first thing she says to Jesus is, effectively, “Okay—so what’s your game?” What does this one, supposedly asking for a drink of water, want from her now?
But this man is someone, perhaps the only one, who has no game, who is not treating her as a means to an end. He doesn’t want to engage in a Jews versus Samaritans contest; he is talking about something beyond that. He mentions her history of husbands as fact possibly interesting, but entirely neutral, simply a thing he happens to know. Indeed, it is precisely this which he offers to her, an outsider among outsiders—that she is recognized, known, invited, in this perfectly straightforward manner, which simply walks across all human judgements and boundaries as if they did not even exist. Not ignoring her particularity, her history and her truth, but acknowledging them as a part of the truth of her life in God.
And in that acknowledgement, she is offered not the image of the wind, mysterious and unsettling, or of new birth, dramatic and painful and total, but of a spring welling up in the desert, the clear, bright, refreshing source of the water by which all our lives are constantly sustained. She is told that she already has this water potentially within her, that she, the disregarded and disreputable, can not only receive the life which is God’s love, but can be a channel of that love for others. She, as she is, is the rock from which the water may be struck.
And so, my beloved, so are we now. We are still the people who came out in the night through the plagues of Egypt, into the fearful desert of freedom. We are still the people who have searched for water in the heat of the noon sun, and found mystery and responsibility, have found that we are more fully loved and known than we could ever imagine, and that we are called to the tasks of love ourselves.
Be wise, but do not be afraid. You are called, this day, this hour. You are the rock, you are the water. This time is not easy, but it is the time we have been given. As we work out how to cope when we cannot gather as a community in worship, I think of Jesus saying, “you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” As deeply as I love this church, no place is the unique home of God; God is at home in all places. And right now, to worship God in spirit and in truth means refraining from being physically together. It does not mean that we cease to be a community. We must be a community now more than ever.
Of course, it is a strange irony that the key task to which many people are being called right now is staying at home. Some of you, I know, are front-line workers in services which must be ongoing – medical care, public transit, food and shelter for the most marginalized. You will all know already how important it is to be informed and measured in the risks you take, but we know that some of you need to take those risks so that the most important work of our society can continue; and it is a reminder to us all of what those truly most important tasks, in this stringent time, really are. For many others, the most important task is to stay well, to reduce the burden on the medical system by avoiding infection, by protecting yourselves, staying away from crowds, minimizing unnecessary contact. Some of you, already, have been required to self-isolate, and certainly this will happen to more of you in the coming days. Some are already ill, and are quarantining themselves from others to avoid transmitting this current virus or any other illnesses. These are, all of them, your part in God’s work.
And even if our task is staying home, there are other things we can do. If you are healthy, and not required to self-isolate, perhaps you can deliver supplies to people who cannot leave their homes. Be in touch with your neighbours; let them know that they can contact you if they are in need of help. Check in frequently with anyone who is elderly, ill, or alone. Be someone to talk to, a voice of care, even though it must be on the phone or by e-mail. Tell stories, tell stupid jokes. If you aren’t able to volunteer with the remaining street outreach programmes, you can support them financially, or just send messages of support. You can write to your government officials and ask, with urgency, for paid sick days for all workers, for mortgage and rent freezes, for new and safe shelters for the homeless. Make sure you have some supplies on hand, but do not hoard – I do not hesitate to say that, in this time, hoarding essential supplies falls into the category of sin. Don’t spread panic or rumour or despair.
Lean out the window and sing to your neighbours, whether literally or figuratively. Be the song in the streets when you cannot be in the streets. Be the water from the hard rock, the spring that does not run dry. We will come through this night and plague. Let us come through with the memory that, in this bad time, we loved each other, and we were loved.