As darkness fell in Siena, Italy on Thursday, neighbors struggled with the strain of social distancing. They prayed for the bereaved as 1,266 have died in Italy from Covid-19 and more than 17,600 have contracted the virus. Life has dramatically changed as those numbers continue to rise.
From inside their homes, people heard a familiar folk song echoing in the streets. They came to their windows and balconies. The dark street below was completely empty, as it had been for days. But one of their neighbors was singing … from inside his home. A voice floated out to the silent street. Soon other voices joined in, and in a rousing act of communal solidarity, grieving citizens were knit together as they sang into the distance between them. One neighbor captured the moment on video, which you will find embedded in this worship page here. Like many, I was deeply moved by the soulfulness of their song.
Our Psalm for today proclaims:
O come, let us sing to Yahweh; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise with songs of praise!
Those neighbors in Siena offered a powerful witness to the rest of the world. Even in a time of social distancing, we can knit our community together by our commitment to the health and well-being of others – especially our neighbors who are most vulnerable. One reason Italy is being hit so hard is it has a large population of older adults, who are particularly susceptible to the worst effects of the virus. When we sacrifice our own freedom of movement … to shop, to share in entertainments, and yes, to gather in the sanctuary we love, we offer our own witness. We love our neighbors.
In the last week, I have realized how much I depend upon physical expressions of care, care I receive regularly from our congregation and its partners serving this community. A kiss on the cheek from Betty each Sunday morning, a gentle hug from Joanne after Lectio Divina last Thursday, a pat on the back Tuesday from a fellow storyteller, and dozens of high fives from our young Dreaamers throughout the week. These first couple days of trying to keep a 3-6 foot distance from others feels … very strange. And lonely.
Reading the gospel today, I wonder about this woman at the well. She’s a Samaritan female who has been married five times and is now with another man, but not married. She comes to the well at the hottest time of day, long after the rest of the villagers have drawn water and retired to cooler places. She is practicing social distancing. But her choice to come when the crowds are gone is not motivated by fear of viral contagion. Her fear is viral exclusion. Had she come in the morning, it’s unlikely others would have draped their arms around her, or greeted her with a holy kiss, or even engaged her in conversation. More likely, they would have whispered behind their hands while they all agreed to keep her away.
When Jesus encounters her at the well, he breaks through this socially imposed coldness. He sings his love into the distance between them. They don’t share the same theology, nationality, customs, or socially perceived “righteousness.” Yet, disrupting all convention, he asks her to give him a drink. “Rabbi, you know Jews don’t eat and drink with Samaritans.” Why isn’t he afraid that her social position might pollute his? Jesus’ audacity draws her into conversation.
The dialogue which ensues is rich in imagery, metaphor and meaning. Unlike Nicodemus from last week’s gospel, who sneaked about in empty streets, in order to meet with Jesus under cover of darkness, this woman encounters our Lord in the noonday sun at a public gathering place. While Nicodemus is upwardly mobile in society, she has tumbled to its lowest ranks. Still, both are offered one-on-one encounters to discern the meaning of Jesus’ confounding teaching.
Last week, Nicodemus contemplated the image of a dark place, the life-giving womb of his mother which was filled with the water of life. He struggled to understand how he could go back there to be born again. Today, this woman ponders the image of a dark, cavernous well, a gift from her community’s ancestors, which gives the water that sustains them. Jesus directs her attention to a spring which can exist inside of her.
What both students learn in their contrasting yet equal-opportunity tutoring sessions is that returning again and again to the past is not the route to salvation. A womb, a well, this mountain or that mountain, these rules or those rules, your ancestors or my ancestors … we stake our lives on the wrong things. The day is coming and IS NOW when we must worship in spirit and truth. The day is coming and IS NOW for God’s own living presence to be poured into our hearts. Two characters who seem so different and yet are so much alike. Wealthy or poor, respected or despised, male or female, Jew or Samaritan … they thirst for spiritual transformation. And our Christ offers it freely to both.
Last Wednesday I was sitting at an otherwise empty table at Community Dinner when a man a little younger than I sat beside me. He was told by a security guard at the bus station that he would find a welcome table and a hot meal at our church. Another homeless man showed him the way. He was grateful for the good food. Our kitchen whiz, Claudia, slow-roasted a delicious pork all afternoon, and the veggies, twice-baked cheesy potatoes and couscous were all delicious. He received his fill and left with the overabundance in a container. We conversed throughout the meal. He asked me a few questions, but mostly, I just listened. It was the best way we knew how … to sing together in that place.
I am sad that for the next several weeks conversations like that one won’t happen in our fellowship hall. The gift of social mixing is as valuable to our community as the hot, nutritious food we offer. But loving our neighbor will be practiced differently for now. You will be able to see what that looks like and to read about it in the regular updates I will be sending while we are away from one another. Check in on the church website and the church Facebook page to stay in contact, not only with your church friends, but also with the community which we continue to serve in Christ’s name. Near or far, we will join the song … which spans the distance between us.
The Gospel Reading:
I Cannot Tell
Wind Upon the Waters