Care in a Crisis

March 18, 2020

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson using John 4.5-42 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15 March 2020, the Third Sunday of Lent.

This past week has felt like standing on the shore of beach that is about to be hit by a tsunami wave. The water has all rushed out towards the sea; the beach is laid bare, with diarised dates and events like boats and buoys that are normally bobbing on the water lying marooned on the wet sand, on the verge of being cancelled; and the wave is about to come. The government’s policies are seeking to turn a tsunami wave into a tidal wave that our NHS will be more able to cope with in the face of this pandemic.

In the past Christians have been at the forefront of sacrificial care in the face of plagues. Thucydides, (History of the Peloponnesian War), who was writing about plague in mid-fifth century, said,

‘…the doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease. People became afraid of visiting anyone and as a result, 1000s of people died without anyone ever looking after them. Indeed there were many houses where all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention. The bodies of the dead were heaped one on top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets. The catastrophe was so overwhelming that people became indifferent to any rule of morality. Many pushed sufferers away even their own dearest often throwing them into the roads before they were dead to avert contagion.’

Christians were known to be sacrificial in their care of plague victims. Rather than fleeing the cities, they stayed and cared for people even if they suffered the same consequences as those who died.

What these early Christians demonstrated was a counter-cultural vision of the kingdom of God.

The coming weeks and months are going to be a test of our society, and of our common humanity, and Christians have the opportunity to lives the values of the kingdom of God.

Now it’s not easy to relate our gospel reading to our current context, but bear with me for a few moments. Our gospel reading gives us a story of someone who experienced profound transformation after encountering Jesus. Let’s enter briefly into the life of the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well.

Imagine her walking to the well in the heat of the day at noon. Why? Because she hasn’t got any friends. Normally women would go together to get water early in the day, but this woman has history in her community. Why? Because she has had five husbands, and is currently living with someone who isn’t her husband. Can you imagine what it’s like living in a community of a few hundred people with a reputation like that?

And I wonder what she looks like. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us, but I suggest she might look quite attractive. She has no problem attracting men; her problem is keeping them.

And what does it feel like to have a string of failed sexual relationships submerged in your past life? This woman is hurting, rejected and wounded with scars in her still bleeding heart because the guy she is currently with won’t even commit to her in marriage. Six relationships with men that haven’t worked out. What’s it like when she meets her seventh man, Jesus?

Jesus shows her a counter-cultural kingdom. First, he’s a Jew walking in Samaritan territory. Most Jews take the detour and avoid soiling the soles of their feet with Samaritan dust. For the history between Jews and Samaritans think Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Cavaliers and Roundheads in England and Sunni and Shia in the Middle East.

Second, Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman when both of them are alone. This is so culturally inappropriate its like soliciting sex on the sidewalk. In addition he expresses his simple need for water, being willing to drink from a ritually unclean Samaritan vessel. Then they talk about religion, then they talk about her personal life. Jesus breaks every taboo in the book.

In the midst of this conversation the woman realises that Jesus is the perfect man, the seventh man who can complete and heal her life without needing to marry him. All of a sudden she is filled with new found confidence to overcome her social isolation without embarrassment  or shame and proclaim to those who despise her, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could he be the Messiah?’

She has confidence to introduce people in her village to Jesus, who recognise after spending a couple of days with Jesus that he is, in fact, the Saviour of the World.

Such confidence comes from being fully known, fully loved and fully accepted. There is nothing she can do to make Jesus love her any more. There is nothing she can do to make Jesus love her any less. Having encountered Jesus the Christ, this woman also overcomes the social boundaries and relational failures that have infected and diseased her life.

In the weeks ahead of us as we face whatever restrictions and changes are needed, we must follow the best scientific advice about social distancing. In the midst of these challenges Christians are called to demonstrate a counter-cultural kingdom – the kingdom of God.

On a practical level we may see the opportunity for neighbourliness to grow as we telephone someone we know is alone, or ensure they get some shopping on their doorstop if they are isolated. On a spiritual level, people may be more open to talking about the important things in life, the submerged parts of their lives that continue to worry or disable them.

I wonder if we are ready to speak to people like Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, and see the effects of the kingdom of God bring transformation to their lives? Are we ready to say, that in Jesus Christ there is hope, not fear?

In this eucharist as we take bread, we share our lives with the life of Christ. We bind ourselves to Christ. We call on Christ to bring an end to our suffering, but we also seek to honour Christ in how we treat our neighbour. My prayer is that Christians may be at the front of the queue, willing to serve our neighbours, family and friends as a sign that in the midst of suffering, the kingdom of God has come.  Amen.