Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
But maybe it’s not shame she feels, maybe it’s hope. Maybe she’s at the well at noon because she’s been hanging out there all day, just waiting for Mr. Right to drop by. Wells are where men and women meet, after all; at this very well, Jacob met Rachel, the woman he loved so madly as to toil for 14 years to gain her hand in marriage. When Jesus asks her, “Go, call your husband,” maybe her heart skips a beat and she bats her eyes a little as she says, “I have no husband.”
However, it could just as easily be disappointment or bitterness she feels. She’s been married 5 times. She’s been left 5 times—maybe divorced, maybe widowed. The man she lives with now is probably her brother-in-law, performing his duty looking after his dead brother’s wife. Maybe she feels like she’s bad luck, like no one could ever want her. Maybe Jesus’ question stirs up in her all those feelings of abandonment all over again.
Unlike the synoptic Gospels, which are series of little stories and sayings strung together like a pearl necklace, John’s Gospel is a beautifully and tightly woven tunic made in one piece, without a seam. You can’t pull out the individual stories without tugging at the threads that run through the entire book; and the biggest of those threads is the word “abide.”
This word pops up throughout John’s gospel, but finding it can be like looking for Waldo. It’s obscured by lots of different English translations: “stay,” “remain,” “dwell,” “have a place.” Its meaning is deep and rich, no single translation does it justice. In fact, one can read John’s entire Gospel as a treatise on what it means to abide.
Nicodemus came at night, hoping to understand Jesus and his message, seeking to comprehend his theological claims. Although we don’t see it, we presume he also left at night, still in the dark about what Jesus was trying to tell him. He was so busy looking for an answer, he couldn’t see that Jesus was offering him a relationship.
This woman on the other hand, is here at the well looking for a relationship. When Jesus asks her to go get her husband, she tells her truth: “I have no husband.” Perhaps it is because of this that she is able to hear Jesus’ words differently when he tells his truth: “I AM: I AM the messiah, I AM the living water, I AM the One you are looking for. I AM the One who will never leave you; I AM the One who abides.” The astute reader will recognize what Jesus is saying and remember who is named “I AM.”
After he says it, we see it play out in the story. The woman runs to tell the town what she has seen: a man who knows everything about her and doesn’t turn and run like all the others—and they come to see. They ask him to stay with them for a while.
There it is, did you catch it?
They ask him to abide—and he does. He abides with them, and they come to know him and believe in him. He abides with them, and they with him, and they come to know him in spirit and truth as the Savior of the world.
By abiding in relationship with Jesus, he comes to see us as we are—with all of our faults and flaws and failings—and we come to see the God he makes known to us: the God who, while we were still sinners, gave up his own life to save ours. The woman at the well abides with Jesus. She doesn’t come away from her encounter with Jesus understanding any more than Nicodemus does, but she does understand one thing: that she is not alone.
It is this abiding love that we need right now. The messages we are hearing about social distancing and self-quarantining are helping keep our community safe, but they also threaten to cause us to isolate ourselves in fear, to close ourselves off from the relationships and the love we need. If this pandemic lasts very long, the isolation may end up doing as much harm as the virus.
That is why our challenge as Christians in this hour is to find ways to abide with one another while still doing our part to contain and slow the spread of this new disease. The Early Church historian Eusebius writes about Cyprian’s Plague which lasted for thirty years, between 250 and 280 CE. He quotes letters from Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, who tells how the pagans of the city in fear abandoned sick friends and even family, how they even threw them into the streets before they were dead, like so much trash, in their desire to escape infection. “They shunned any participation or fellowship with death;” Dionysius writes, “which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.”
While this was happening, the Christians—who had been persecuted and killed by their pagan neighbors—did the opposite. They “were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ.” They continued to abide with their sick neighbors, pagan and Christian alike, buried their dead, and throughout everything, never ceased to live in the peace and love of Christ.
Dionysius writes: “And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little [while] they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.” Many of them died, but they died as they lived: surrounded by the love of a community and a God who refused to abandon them.*
Our understanding of disease and our technology have advanced quite a bit since Bishop Dionysius’ time. We do not expect or encourage anyone to expose themselves to danger without good reason; but we can still learn an important lesson from Eusebius’ record. We can be like the pagans, running in fear with death always nipping at our heels, or we can turn and face it like our forebears in the faith who, following the example of Jesus himself, did not let fear stop them from abiding in love with one another.
With the help of telephones and internet, and even the US Post Office, we can abide with one another in ways that will also keep us from putting ourselves at risk. We can call and email and video chat and write cards. We can still visit our neighbors and spend time with our friends and get outdoors, all while keeping a safe distance. Social distancing is different for social isolation.
As a congregation, we have been given the joyful responsibility of caring for one another through this plague, just as Dionysius’ community did through Cyprian’s plague. The leadership of Agnus Dei and are looking for ways that we can facilitate these sorts of relationships which will become increasingly important to us in this time of separation and isolation. Within the next week or so, I hope to have some sort of solution in place for allowing folks at home to join us in worship. We’ll be organizing ways for you all to stay in touch with each other, pass along news, and help provide for one another’s needs. Maybe we can grocery shop for each other so none of us have to go out as often. Maybe we can start virtual social circles that meet regularly. There are lots of possibilities.
I do not believe that God is bringing this pandemic to test us, but I do believe that we will be tested by it; and I believe that if we respond to this situation in love and with the strength and peace that come only from Christ, we will even emerge from this test a stronger, more loving, more faithful community than we are today. I believe this because we are not alone in this moment. In this moment, as in all moments, Jesus abides in us, and we in him; and through him, we abide with the Father, and the Father in us. We are the branches, and Jesus is the vine that connects us all as one.
My beloved friends, we are called in our baptism to continue Jesus’ work of revealing the Father to one another and the world, and we are fed and nourished at this table with Jesus’ own body and blood so that we might do just that: that we might continue to abide. How we abide with one another will look different in these days, but when we abide with each other, we abide in God, and God abides in us, and through us, God abides with the world. And isn’t that what the world needs right now? All around us people are beginning to pull back from their communities; they’re beginning to think: “I have no friends to visit me.” “I have nothing to keep me safe.” “No one will notice if I’m gone.” To them, and to all of us, God is saying, “I AM,” and God is saying it through us.