It’s Sunday morning. Why am I not with the church?
Beloved in Christ,
This just feels wrong. Sunday morning and I’m drinking tea, and I am not with the body of Christ that surrounds and fills me and gives me life. I’m not at church at 6:00 a.m., greeting James, getting ready to greet you all. Pray with you. Eat and drink God’s life with you. Sing and talk and listen for God with you. Share peace with you. This happens on vacation, yes. But this is not vacation.
Sometimes the right decision doesn’t feel right in some important places of the heart. This is one of those times. It’s still the right decision. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel deep sadness at what we miss when we’re not together.
So here are some thoughts on the Third Sunday in Lent in year A. Not a sermon; those are preached words, they’re shaped differently, too. Not worship; that’s much more than words, and what we do together isn’t replicable online any more than preaching is. But your staff is already working on some creative and imaginative ways to connect online with song, proclaiming Word, prayer, in ways that might bless us all and keep us connected. Watch for that (and thanks for the ideas some of you have already sent.)
In the meantime, it is 3 Lent, and the Gospel for today is John 4:3-42. Go ahead and get out your Bible and read it. (Out loud would be really helpful.) I’ll wait.
Are you back? Good.
Here’s my question: is Jesus being a little mean to this poor woman?
She’s hot and tired, hauling water at noon. She has to be thirsty. Now she has to deal with a Jewish man breaking rules and interacting with her. As a man, he’s not supposed to talk with an unrelated woman in public. As a Jew, he’s not supposed to share vessels with a Samaritan. He’s a bother. And he asks her for a drink.
But here’s the strangest thing. He tells her that if she knew who he was and what he could give, he’d give her living water. A phrase that could be used to speak of a spring or a brook. Running water, maybe. She’s thrilled she might be able to avoid all this dragging of water in the heat of the day. Then he says, “No, I’m not talking about water like this. I’m talking about something inside you, connecting you to God’s life.”
Well, that’s just fine. But it’s not what this hot, tired, thirsty woman needs. And it seems a little unkind to tease her with the idea of helping her physical need and then saying he’s got spiritual help instead.
We like to spiritualize this story, but we can’t skip over the bodily needs so quickly.
Imagine if you or I were sitting on the steps of Mount Olive this morning, with the doors locked, sad that we are reduced to staying away from people we love so that we don’t make people we love sick. Imagine Jesus came and sat down, and said, “If you knew who I was, you’d ask, and I’d give you an anti-viral agent that would mean you’d never get sick again.”
Wouldn’t that be amazing? We’d say, “Yes, please, give us that. So we don’t have to worry about COVID-19 or anything else like it ever again.” And we’d even think how we’d share it with the world. But what if Jesus then said, “Well, I mean, I’m not talking about a real anti-virus to keep this or any other disease from you. I’m offering you an anti-virus for your spirit, for inside you, to keep you whole and healthy where it matters.”
I think we’d be at least as disappointed as that poor woman. It seems a little cruel to hint at a thing we desire deeply and then pull it away at the end.
But don’t mistake Jesus here: he cares deeply about her bodily, physical needs.
The Triune God came into our world and took on our human body. Incarnation means God cares about our bones and blood and cells and organs and breath and pain and sleep and all that makes us animals, bodies, cares enough about all that to put God’s own self into such a body.
There are people who are thirsty and have no access to water. People who are hungry and don’t know if they’ll eat today. People who are sick and cannot get health care. Even our neighbors in this city, to say nothing of the world. The Incarnate, Triune God cares deeply about them. About you.
Which is why Jesus sends us out, as his follower James wrote in his letter, as Jesus himself said often, to feed and clothe and care for God’s beloved. You, and I, and all in the Body, are asked to make sure this woman gets real water if she needs it. We are not sent out to tell people with real physical needs that they just need to know God’s love and they’ll be fine.
God in Christ cares deeply about this health crisis. About all the people infected, about the isolation that keeping safe imposes, and how that isolation might harm people. No one on this planet is outside of God’s care in this. And you and I, and billions more, are God’s agents to work to mitigate this crisis, help each other, care for the sick, pray for all. We’re not at worship together today because as Christ we need to make sure we don’t hurt each other or our neighbors by spreading this virus.
And here’s the truth: this woman has a lot of needs, and only one is that she’s thirsty for literal water.
She’s in grief of some kind, over the loss of five husbands. Whether by divorce or death, she had no choice in ending any of those relationships, and she must still feel that pain. She’s possibly an outsider in her village. We don’t know, but it’s odd that she’s getting water alone, at noon, instead of early morning and twilight with the other women. She’s theologically hopeful, longing for a day when God’s Messiah would come and answer her and others’ deep questions and hopes.
If Jesus had made running water possible in her home, she’d still have all those other unmet needs.
And you and I, this city, this world, have more needs than an anti-virus for COVID-19, as real as that need is. We, too, have grief that needs comfort, fear that needs assuaging (whether of this disease or many other things), hopes and dreams that need God’s guidance and answer, longing for community that needs God’s embrace in other people. If God would miraculously end this health crisis this moment, all those other needs you have would still be unmet.
So while we help each other with the physical needs, what Jesus says to you today is: I can actually fill you up inside.
I can give you a spiritual anti-virus that protects your heart with God’s love and fills you with trust that nothing can separate you from God’s love. I can fill you with the life of God’s reign that I long for you to have, abundant life, even when viruses or death or loss or suffering happen. Even then, you’ll have life in me, hope inside, trust in God.
One of the biggest reasons we’re sad when sitting at home right now and not getting together is that we know that we get this spiritual anti-virus, this living water, this abundant life, when God meets us in our worship together. We come into that space expecting to meet God wherever we are in our lives. We don’t expect to leave with all our problems solved. But we do expect, because God is faithful and has given us this so many times, that God will be there in Word and Sacrament, and in the body of Christ around us. We know we will meet God’s love. We will sing God’s love. We will be filled with God’s love.
We always still need lunch after. Water. Some of us will take our medicines. But God’s living water, abundant life, unceasing love, will fill us to our core. And we know we are well. This we know, because this God has given week after week after week.
That’s what we’re missing this morning. But Jesus has good news for you.
It is Sunday morning. But I am, you are, actually with the Church right now.
Just as Jesus doesn’t offer a quick and easy solution that means we all can go to Mount Olive right now, Jesus also doesn’t abandon us.
You are Christ’s Body. So am I. And you and I are together, right now, in that Body. I am with the Body of Christ after all. Not physically, of course. But we know all about that. We know already that our loved ones who have died still gather at God’s Table when we do, and that in the mystery of the Eucharist the whole Church of all times and places gathers in song and is fed. Every time we eat the body of Christ and drink the cup of God’s salvation, we know we’re not just doing it with those we can actually see and touch.
This is why Jesus needs you to trust this living water he offers. You are embedded in God’s resurrection love, always, and if God’s Spirit is moving in you, and God’s Spirit is moving in me, and God’s Spirit is moving in all of us, we can never be alone.
This water Christ gives is “gushing up to life” in you, in me. Life in God’s new reign and reality. We just can’t physically see or touch each other right now.
But we are together.
Beloved in Christ, trust that. You are filled with life in God’s Spirit. In the prayers each of us offers this morning, we sing and pray together. And until we get to physically gather together in worship, since nothing can separate us from God’s love, nothing can separate us from each other, either.
God’s peace and grace be with you all.
In Christ’s love,