I saw a cartoon earlier this week that showed a person and their dog. The person, not the dog, was wearing one of those translucent plastic “cones of shame” around their neck that dogs sometimes have to wear so they don’t lick a wound that needs to heal. The dog is looking at the person, whose face is totally obscured by this ridiculous contraption, and then the dog says, with a sly smile: “it’s for your own good; you have to stop touching your face.” I had to laugh, because it nearly perfectly encapsulated what the last week or two has felt like: the world turned upside down, all of us doing things that would have seemed utterly ridiculous just a week or two ago (like holding a worship service that we’ve told everyone not to come to!), and avoiding things that we never really questioned or even thought about until now.
I think the hardest part of all this, aside from the danger of the epidemic itself, is that the very things that we rely on most to comfort and support us in times of anxiety and fear and isolation and despair are the things that we are being told are most dangerous now: gathering together in groups over meals and in public places to show solidarity and express support for one another; gathering together in twos and threes to talk and laugh and hug and hold each other’s hands; gathering together as a church in worship to experience the comfort of community in seeking the reassurance presence and peace of God. “Social distancing” has become the catchphrase of this crisis, something that most of us had never heard of before. Social distancing, as I sincerely hope you already know by now, means a range of actions and modified behaviors that keep people from interacting closely enough to be infected by a developing epidemic.
The problem with social distancing, of course, is that it can quickly become social isolation. My own brother, who is a creative director at the Cartoon Network in Atlanta, travels frequently to Japan because of the importance of the animation industry there, and happened to be on a trip there right as the pandemic was beginning to truly break out there a few weeks ago. When he returned, he decided to self-quarantine at his home out of an abundance of caution for his co-workers and others in Atlanta. He is both a socially engaging and a physically active person, though, so being cooped up in his house for two weeks had him crawling the walls before very long, especially given the anxiety he was feeling about potential exposure. So after a few days of working remotely, he decided to take the radical step of actually calling people instead of emailing and texting them like usual, just so he would have some personal interaction, some personal connection with other people. And he said that alone made a real difference to him in terms of not feeling so alone and isolated and dwelling on why he had cut himself off from others in the first place.
As it happens, the Bible has a LOT to say about social distancing, quarantining, and isolation. In Biblical times, it was common to impose this sort of thing on people with corrosive and contagious diseases like leprosy, often in ways very injurious to the sick person’s dignity and well-being. Which is why there are multiple stories about Jesus healing people with leprosy in the Gospels. What we sometimes miss in those stories is that Jesus is performing a miracle that results not just in physical healing, but in social healing; he is restoring the sick person back to their place in society, reconnecting them with others from whom they had been isolated and rejected.
Because human beings don’t just need physical health in order to really live. We are social creatures, designed to rely on each other in community for physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance. And that means social isolation always causes harm that requires healing: if we are cut off from the rest of society, even for the good of the community, it does damage to our well-being; to our very humanity itself.
But, interestingly enough, the Gospel reading that is assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Scripture readings for Sunday Christian worship that is used by many churches across the world, is also about social distancing and isolation. Jesus is journeying through the region of Samaria on his teaching tour as the story opens up. Which itself is significant in terms of social distancing. As you may know, in Jesus’ day, Jews and Samaritans were divided in a deep and bitter conflict that had theological, social, historical, and ethnic dimensions. It was so bad that they viewed each other in almost pathological terms, as if the other carried a disease that you might catch if you got too close. Forget about elbow bumps; they wouldn’t even touch food or drink that the other had touched first, viewing the other as spiritual lepers, ritually unclean. And yet Jesus not only goes through Samaritan communities, he stops in the middle of one, and asks a Samaritan woman who comes to the well he’s resting at if she’ll give him a drink. That’s one of the main reasons the woman is so shocked: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she asks.
But there’s more going on than that. Now, you may have heard sermons about this woman being scandalous and immoral because she had been divorced five times and was now living unmarried with a sixth man. But I don’t agree with that interpretation. First, it’s important to remember that, at that time, divorce was essentially a male prerogative. So instead of judging her for having five husbands, we should actually be sympathizing with her, because those marriages almost certainly ended by the husband either dismissing her or dying, and in either case leaving her socially and economically isolated in that society.
And second, it’s important to remember that men and women were also socially isolated from one another in general; it was taboo for them to speak to one another in public if they were not related by blood or marriage. So what Jesus is doing, in speaking with this woman in public (at great length, actually) and asking for a drink of water from her Samaritan hands, is breaching all the practices and expectations designed to keep him and her socially isolated from one another.
She actually recognizes this, which is why she then raises a pressing theological issue with him: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” she observes; “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Now, this sounds both obscure and irrelevant to our ears, but what she’s doing is going right to the heart of the biggest distance between Jews and Samaritans: the question of what mountain is holy to God, and therefore where God’s Temple should be located.
For Jews, it’s on Mount Zion in Jerusalem; for Samaritans, it’s on Mount Gerizim, near the city of Nablus in what is now known as the West Bank. She’s trying to gauge the distance between her and him on what to her is one of the most profound theological questions around: where do you believe we worship God? Where does God promise to be present to and among God’s own people?
Now having said all that, I’ll admit that, until this week, I always felt like this theological debate was the least-interesting part of this story; I always focused in on the “living water” conversation that comes before it, with all its metaphorical wordplay and spiritual insight. But this question about where we encounter and experience God in community with God’s people has a sharp and powerful relevance now that it never had before, as I look out across this empty sanctuary: not into your eyes as I usually do, but into the eye of this camera.
Listen to Jesus’ answer to the woman’s question: “the hour is coming,” he says, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Do you hear it? He’s saying that true worship is not about a place at all; it’s not ultimately about Gerizim or Zion, whether you’re Samaritan or Jewish or anything else. It’s about the power of God’s Holy Spirit to call us and gather us, to bind us together, whoever we are, wherever we are; to go across every physical and social distance and lift us up into God’s presence together.
That’s what is happening right now. Friends, the hour is now here in a whole new way in which we worship God in spirit and truth rather than in a particular physical place. Right now, you and I are in worship together, in Christian community together, no less than if we were all sitting together in the same room, because we truly worship God in and through God’s Holy Spirit, which is just as capable of binding us together through the Internet as it is across the normal things that may distance us from one another, just as they did at first between Jesus and this Samaritan woman: gender, ethnicity, beliefs, language, generation, class, culture.
In one of his social media posts from inside his self-quarantine, my brother called on people during this time to “join together…but a little apart.” Or in other words: social distancing doesn’t require social isolation, and we shouldn’t let it. In fact, it demands that we be all the more intentional about finding different ways to join together, different ways to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what we are doing here today, and what we will continue to do every time we worship and learn and serve together during this time of social distancing.
We may not always be able to join together in the ways we are used to; we do need to stay a little apart. But we can still join together in spirit, in love, in hope, in faith. We can still join together in service to those who are the most vulnerable, the most anxious, the most isolated. At the moment, after taking the precautions we need to stay a little apart, we can still run errands for those who shouldn’t go out in public; we can make food and bring it to those who need it. We can call up those who are feeling isolated and alone on the phone and express our love and concern for them. We can help those for whom technology and social media is unfamiliar to get connected online. We can experiment with other ways in which we can join together virtually, building community and offering love and support.
We’re going to be doing all those things and more here at First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem in the days and weeks to come. In one of the online discussions I saw this week, someone asked the question: “who out there is cancelling church this week?” And someone else quickly replied: “I hope nobody is. I hope church is just getting started.” Today, together, we are just getting started, and I’m not talking about online worship. I’m talking about listening to the one who is speaking to us, just as he did to the Samaritan woman; the one who is calling us and empowering us to go the distance even when we don’t know what lies ahead on this path, and to “join together a little bit apart” as we do so; bringing Christ’s social and spiritual healing not simply for each other but for every person out there who is feeling vulnerable or anxious or isolated. So let’s go; because church is just getting started.