By Dee Dee Risher
Like each of you, I am spinning and dancing in the flux that is COVID-19.
My city, Philadelphia, is on lockdown, people asked to go out only for necessities or to the doctor. Every day I have gotten news of loved older ones exposed or friends who have COVID-19, schools and colleges closed, information overload. I’ve cancelled retreats and trips I have looked forward to for months, reeled home one college student from across the globe. I’ve been anxious about what the virus will do in Project HOME’s 900-resident community of formally homeless and vulnerable people, concerned and sad about life experiences cancelled, uncertain about how long it may go and how bad everything may get. You probably have a similar list of things falling, failing, the world shifting a bit under fear and responsibility.
And in the middle of it, a rare invitation to preach. And a timely set of Scriptures. Exodus 17:1-7, where grumbling, thirsty and panicked Hebrews turn against Moses, who brings water from a rock; Romans 5:1-11, where Paul talked about the human heart in a context of great persecution; and John 4:5-42, Jesus’ long discourse with the unnamed woman at a well in Samaria. Here’s a link to the three…
These come to us in the season of Lent—an irony. These weeks before Easter are a time almost all denominations and branches of the church have marked for special disciplines. Its three hallmarks are fasting, an emphasis on prayer, and a deeper focus on almsgiving. Suddenly these are inserted into our lives with a vengeance. Thanks to COVID, most of us are fasting from social interactions and routines, whether we want to or not. We are praying for many things. We will be required to give sacrificially in the weeks ahead.
In other years, we usually dally with Lent, doing more or less, adopting small disciplines and trying to give God some extra attention in busy and distracted lives. But Lent has come to us instead. We are all finding more time to turn to God in this pandemic which is beyond much human control and whose outcome and ultimate severity is unknown. We may carry the haunting questions we can only whisper to ourselves: Is God among us? Are we/our loved ones going to make it out without pain? How many of us? We might find that social distancing leaves us at odd ends, anxious, on the brink of loneliness and depression. Suddenly I have a LOT more time for my conversations with God!!
So perhaps you can relate in a new, less judgey way to Exodus 17:1-7–to the grumbling, stressed, and water-deprived band traveling in the desert with Moses who turn on him with a vengeance. Maybe you elbowed them in a packed grocery store where people were instructed to take 2 gallons of water, but were loading carts with 10 gallons each. Or ran over each other for eggs and toilet paper. We live in abundance, we are used to abundance (the fleshpots of Egypt), and we are terrified of all that may be asked of us, the prospect of suffering, and the shadow of death. Exodus is presenting a human condition of anxiety, real fear, and the primal desire to protect one’s own. The response of a community to stress. They echo the question we also whisper: “How is God among us?” This is the place we can choose to live. Suddenly, we might see that we are a lot more like those grumbling nomads than we ever wished to be.
In this context, this powerful image: God draws water from a rock. God directs Moses to strike a rock and water pours forth. The power of this moment is that the water (essential, life-saving) pours from rock. From a place that one does not imagine, God brings this gift. Remember this: God gives the people what they need, when they need it, whether or not they have attitude, snark, and lack of faith. God brings water in a terrain of devastation. God is ready to give you water, whatever your desert looks like.
But there is another way to choose to live. In Romans 5:1-11, Paul draws a portrait of a different communal response to distress and persecution. It’s a little theoretical and heady (Paul always is!…) but this one line captures me: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
I finger the progression like beads: Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. And Hope seems to have a deep connection to love; to expand the heart.
I wouldn’t have strung the beads this way. I wouldn’t have realized that character produces hope. That our attitude controls our capacity to generate and live into hope.
So here you have it—hope in dark times depends so much on the heart we bring to it. We have control of almost nothing, but much choice in how we live through things. Here is a Christian community in Rome, also at the brink of (violent) death by torture and execution instead of lack of water. But the attitude brought to these life-threatening circumstances is completely different. It is an attitude which yields love and hope. Can we lay claim to that?
In fact, theologian and biblical historian Rodney Stark (in researching the early Christian community in Antioch) found that one reason Christianity spread like fire through the empire was because Christians, unlike many other groups, nursed their community—and strangers–through the many devastating plagues. They could do this because they stressed relationships of love and had an intense conviction of life beyond death, and so they carried less fear.
Can we, in these weeks where so many are bowed in anxiety, be an alternative community; a community of people who are speaking assurance? Can we be the oddball carriers of hope who are beaming at people (from appropriate distance), sending support waves of the hand, reaching out, offering to serve those who may be quarantined a home?
There are enough partners in anxiety running around. Let us not be commiserating in fear and trying to top dramatic stories. Let us be something different, interact in a way that reminds people of the essential resilience and love humans can carry. Let us bear love, support, and encouragement. Let us carry the willingness to sacrifice our needs, want, and comfort.
The last reading this particular Sunday is the (unnamed) woman parrying with a tired, thirsty, and fatigued Jesus at a well in Samaria. Other than the crucifixion, this is one of the most vulnerable portraits of Jesus we have. His followers have left, seeking food because they are so hungry. He’s tired, and thirsty—right next to water, but with nothing to draw water up from the deep well. It may well be desperation that makes him break all the taboos. He talks to a woman, a Samaritan woman he has been raised to see as unclean. He asks a favor of someone every societal force has told him is inferior to him. He needs the water.
But something in their conversation feeds him. It all changes. The woman moves from seeing him as a Jew to a Messiah. She tells the village, brings them to him. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. Can he be the Messiah?”
He’s not as thirsty, and refuses the food his disciples bring back. In fact, he stays in this village of “unclean” Samaritans as a boundary buster for two days, drinking in their hospitality. His interaction with the woman over water has ripples throughout the town because of the woman’s witness.
Can we be water-bearers in this time of COVID-19? What are the gifts we can share because we choose to be people of hope and not fear? How might this be a time to steep ourselves in a Christian witness?
I ask you to think about how to use this time as a special moment of spiritual growth and challenge.
If you are over-scheduled, as I usually am, perhaps all the cancellations will give you time to do unattended and deep spiritual work.
If you are housebound and afraid of the loneliness, you may instead choose to reframe that. You may understand more acutely the social isolation of refugees living in sanctuary, or remember those whose health keeps them from ever going out.
If you claim you never have time, now may be an odd gift of more time as meetings and in-person gatherings are suspended. There are flower boxes and garden plots to plant, and books to be read. Cook more at home. Write notes of encouragement, make a few phone calls to those who live alone. Slip notes under your neighbor’s doors—that you are here, thinking of them, and open to being asked for things they may need. Pray for one another.
Culturally, we live a busy and over-extroverted life. It is the water we swim in, so we don’t see how it affects us. This might be a time to change that and go deep.
If you do become sick, please do not rely on the idol of self-reliance. Turn to the community. Give also to the community, as you can. We are not a society very practiced in being community to one another, and now is a time to reclaim that muscle. We do need each other. Let us, in a time of virus, spread the work of being human together.
Let us be gentle, but let us be strong of heart and endure. For endurance produces character, and our character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint, because in the end, hope is a channel to the love of God, poured through our vulnerable and oh-so-human bodies.
Go out in these hard times to bear love, not fear. Go out and be the church.