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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Neither 4 years of seminary training, nor 30 years of parish ministry has prepared me for the challenges of today’s corona virus. Scripture should be a source of wisdom, but the best I could find was a small verse in the Book of James. James 4:8, “Wash your hands, ye sinners.” That may be practical advice, but not very edifying. Some in the church might say, “Well, pastor, you’re a doctor. Surely, you know what to say.” Unfortunately, I have been scarred by my sons who humbled me when they were young. They were sitting at an airport with friends, and they heard the announcement over the PA system. “Dr. Haug, if you are in the area would you please pick up the emergency phone.” With that announcement, one of their friends said, “I didn’t know your dad was a doctor.” My youngest son answered, said, “Yes, he is.” And the older added, “but not the kind of doctor that does any good.”
Logistically, as a congregation, we needn’t worry about 250 people gathered in our sanctuary. If there were that many parishioners here, the State Fire Marshall would be visiting instead of the CDC. The building itself is licenses for only 240 people.
Of course, we could turn to church history for guidance and perspective. In the face of yet another plague in Germany 1527, Martin Luther counseled, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.”
On top of all this we have this morning’s odd and wonderful story from St. John’s gospel of living water. It is the story of Woman at the Well in Samaria whom Jesus met one noon time. I wouldn’t dare to say that she was social distancing herself, but she was certainly not filling her jar with water at the regular hour when the village women would have gathered.
That pretty much summarizes the concerns and convictions many of us gathered today facing the realities of the corona virus. We are a people, who place their trust in a loving and caring God who mercifully protects us. We are a people, who need the community of faith to strengthen and nurture each other in that confession. We are people , who are intimately connected to others who are vulnerable, both physically and spiritually in the face of a dreaded disease. And we are a people who people in the work of the Holy Spirit. So, how are we as a community of faith called to act? I dare say, how are we to walk as thirsty people in a time of drought.
No story in the Bible, tells of thirst and longing more than the chance meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Historically, the story of the Samaritan women has been grossly distorted. A single verse spoken by Jesus has been misinterpreted throughout the history of the Western church. Jesus said to the woman, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” And ever since knowledgeable theologians and common preachers have repeatedly taught that this is a sinful woman longing for forgiveness for her loose, immoral life.
If we read St. John’s gospel closely we discover that neither the Evangelist nor Jesus ever says that the woman’s station was the result of sinful behavior. Nor does Jesus admonish her to repentance or speak of sin at all. There is no doubt that she suffered greatly. She might very easily have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but in the ancient world, not impossible. Further, she could have been living with someone such as her late husband’s brother who had taken responsibility for her. Perhaps, that is why she had self-distanced herself. She was look down upon by her neighbors for her plight, so she came to the well at noon, a time, when no one would criticize or belittle her.
How odd that Jesus would come to the well at that hour. There were no relations between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus and his disciples could have easily chosen the normal route from Jerusalem to the Galilee along the River Jordan, but for some unexpected reason, Jesus journeyed on the road less travelled through Samaria and met this woman at the well. She was merely going through her daily routine seeking the water she needed to move on from day to day. As for Jesus, he was preparing his announcement that would turn the world upside down. And he would share it first with a woman, and more shocking than that- a Samaritan woman. Yes, he was preparing to announce that he was the Messiah for all nations- for Jews and Samaritans alike.
The two spoke in riddles, as they gazed together into the watery reflections of Jacob’s well. They gazed at their images side by side on the water’s surface. Jesus told her her life story, and she listened to his compassionate voice, and then trusting that he was a prophet, she asked him the one question which separated the Jews from the Samaritans. “Where is the proper place of worship? You worship in Jerusalem and we worship on Mount Gerazim.” Jesus then spoke of a coming age where there would be no temple in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerazim and that all would worship the Father in Spirit and Truth. Nodding in agreement, the woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming, and when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” To her surprise and to ours, Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
It was there in the presence of Jesus that she encountered the movement of the Holy Spirit that would change her. It gave her a peace of mind, a comfort she had been longing for, a solace that had seem impossible to grasp, – and nothing could prevent her from telling others about the gift she had received in Jesus. That is the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and we know, once we have experienced it that we simply cannot face an uncertain day without it.
My friends, we are all living and looking at an uncertain future. Will the next two weeks turn into four weeks, and then into the foreseeable future? We simply do not know. In the face of that uncertainty, we recognize that we need something that will give us strength, security, comfort and hope for the challenges ahead, whatever the corona virus brings. As a people of faith, we trust that God alone can provide that living water in this time of drought. It is our core conviction and what we are called to share. It is also our deepest loss and regret. For when we cannot taste the living water, our faith seems to shrivel up and die.
Like the woman at the well, we are all searching in different places, sheltering ourselves from voices that can hurt us, gathering up what we can when it is available, and erecting protective walls that allow us to feel safe. But it does not feel good to be alone. The surprise in this morning’s gospel is that Jesus comes to us in the least expected times and places, and he will not let us go. That is why the work of the church is so important at this time. As a community of faith, we believe that Christ comes to us anew in the preaching of the word, in the sharing of holy communion at the table, in the united prayers of God’s people and in the mutual sharing of joys and sorrows. So how do we do this work faithfully in a time of drought when we must also support and protect the most vulnerable, the aged, and those at risk?
It is not easy, but Christ assures us that church is not limited by place and time. We can worship him in all places in spirit and truth. So let me assure, as your pastor, that this congregation, its staff and its leadership will not let you go. We will continue to find safe ways for you to gather in spirit and truth around the word and sacrament. Today, we are experimenting with “live-streaming” of the worship service. We may try this again with our Wednesday Lenten service. We will work to keep the church offices and social spaces a place where people may gather for sharing in the word and mutual concerns. We will have the sanctuary open, so that you come and sit, light a candle and pray. I will continue to be available to visit and to share holy communion with you whenever and wherever.
This is what we will do for you. And what can you do for Lake of the Isles? Pray for the congregation. Pray for your pastor. Pray for the sick. Pray for the anxious and for the vulnerable. If you are not feeling well, do not feel obliged to participate in the worship service here. Practice social distancing even when you are here- even during the sermon. I am very forgiving person, and will not take it personally. And feel free to call friends and members of the church. There will be others struggling at this time as who will want to hear from you.
My friends, as a church, our work does not just disappear because there are challenges before us. Indeed, the work becomes greater. We must continue to witness to the good things God has done for us, and will continue to do for us in the future. St. John records that “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” Yes, people believed because of the Samaritan woman’s testimony. In the face of the corona virus, will the same be said of us, that people believed because of our testimony? Amen.
God, our peace and our strength, we pray for our nation and the world as we face new uncertainties around the coronavirus. Protect the most vulnerable among us, especially all who are currently sick or in isolation. Grant wisdom, patience, and clarity to health care workers, especially as their work caring for others puts them at great risk. Guide us as we consider how best to prepare and respond in our families, congregation, workplaces, and community. Give us courage to face these days not with fear but with compassion, concern, and acts of service, trusting that you abide with us always, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.