Social Distancing: A Means but Not the Dream

March 15, 2020

Church of the Servant, Wilmington, NC

3rd Sunday in Lent – Year A
John 4:5-42

(gospel text provided below)

Not part of my vocabulary just five days ago, I’ve now used the phrase social distancing at least a dozen times in the past twenty-four hours. In response to concerns about the spread of the new COVID-19 virus, we’re embracing the call to limit in-person social interaction in the hope of “flattening the curve” (another newly adopted term) of the virus’s reach. And while social distancing may be new to our vernacular, its existence is as old as time. Perhaps not so much the mitigating risk kind we’re enacting today, but the kind that results when we exclude others because of who they are, what they’ve done, or how they live.

The story told in John’s gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman demonstrates social distancing on multiple levels. The most explicit is when Jesus first encounters the woman at the well. We’re told that it was about noon and he was tired from his journey. The disciples had gone to town to find food, so Jesus was alone. The Samaritan woman arrived at the well and Jesus asked her to draw some water for him to drink. “The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” She later asks about why they worship separately, Samaritans on the mountaintop and Jews in Jerusalem. Both are examples of social distancing based on religious rules.

These forms of social distancing create barriers between people. Even between these two religious sects which have a common ancestry – Jacob (a/k/a Israel). This common connection is made explicit within today’s gospel story. The woman, responding to Jesus’ offer of living water, challenges him by saying: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Both Jesus and the woman claim Jacob as their ancestor, yet their religious factions have devolved to social distancing.

Throughout the centuries and even today we continue to see social distancing across and within the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s the cause of countless wars, genocide, anti-Semitism, and terrorism. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we could set aside these divisions – not creating a world where all must believe the same way, but to embrace God as big enough for different ways of understanding and worshiping God?

There’s also a more subtle depiction of social distancing in this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. We’re told that it’s about noon when the unnamed woman arrives at the well. She is alone. For first century hearers this would have seemed odd. Drawing water from the well was more likely done in the morning when it’s cooler. It would also be the time when women from across the region would gather. They’d surely share stories with each other as they waited for their turn to draw water from the well – a time of social interaction. So, the Samaritan woman wasn’t part of that time – a different kind of social distancing – being excluded. Not welcome.

We learn within the story why: “Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”

Having a husband was an expectation. Having had five, not so much. And now, living with a man to whom she was not married, really a problem. Thus, social distancing. The story doesn’t tell us what caused the woman to have had five husbands. It doesn’t tell us why she isn’t married to the man she’s now with. And while we can make up reasons, perhaps in an attempt to defend her, that’s all we’re doing, making it up. If the reason was important the author would have shared it. It isn’t what’s important. What is important is that the woman spoke truth. She didn’t hide who she was, even though there were consequences, and one of those consequences was social distancing.

My guess is that most if not all of us can point to times in our lives when we’ve experienced social distancing. I certainly have. The most challenging was when I was in my early twenties and I was trying to figure out how to reconcile being both Christian and gay. Somehow a new revelation, I discovered that the church community that raised me didn’t accept that my sexual orientation is how I was made by God. Instead it was characterized as a burden to overcome, conveyed in the “love the sinner, hate the sin” language that’s so problematic.

At some point I had to make a choice – to keep showing up at the “well” of my lifelong church each Sunday, acting as if I was like them, or be true to who I was and who I know God made me to be. That choice would mean finding another well from which to draw water. It wasn’t easy to impose social distancing on myself, but the good news is, Jesus wasn’t the one from whom I was distanced.

So, too, for the Samaritan woman. In fact, in the story Jesus affirmed her truth-telling. Not only that, Jesus offered her, in all her authenticity, the living water, “the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” In this way, Jesus made explicit that God’s dream does away with social distancing and God’s love extends to all people, no matter what religion, race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, mental illness, addiction, incarceration, and the list goes on.

And while social distancing is not God’s dream, it’s sometimes helpful for self-preservation. It was for the Samaritan woman. It was for me. Perhaps it has been for you, too. But only for a time. The goal is shown at the end of the story. The Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus, the one who saw her for who she was – authentically – and cared for her, gave her the strength to be authentic with others.

What came next was her being reunited with community. Most likely a community filled with individuals equally hungry to be accepted for who they truly are. Individuals who no longer wanted to pretend to be something else for the sake of fitting in or being included.

So, while I understand the need for social distancing for the sake of flattening the curve of COVID-19, humankind is meant to be in relationship. But relationship is only real when we are authentically who God made us to be.

As followers of Jesus we are called to make room for others and to accept and embrace others, even those different than us. That’s what loving our neighbor is all about. Amen.

Gospel Text:

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”


I invite your thoughts and insights.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: