Social Distancing and Divine Encounter

March 15, 2020

John 4:5-42 The Samaritan Woman

Preface: The gospel reading of today is a veritable rabbit hole. There are so many themes and interesting details that could be commented on that to comment upon it all would lead to a book, or at least a series of articles. Rather than comment exhaustively, I will restrict myself to just one particularly relevant theme given the present moment’s social climate–The theme of divine encounter.

Many dioceses all over the nation have either cancelled public masses or dispensed with the obligation to go to mass. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, mass gatherings of people have been discouraged, and all have been asked as much as possible to stay home. Today’s Gospel from John is the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. I think it is divine irony that we should hear this story today when precautions dictate social distancing. In a semi-desert region like the Ancient Near East, wells were important locations. If you were going to meet someone it was likely to happen at a well because everyone needs water. It is a place of encounter and life.

The reading mentions a well of Jacob given to his favored son, Joseph. Jacob, later to be renamed Israel, met his future wife at a well much like the one spoken of here. Seeing Rachel, Jacob learns of who Rachel is and makes a deal with her father, Laban, that he would work for him for seven years in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage. To read more about this story, read Genesis, chapter 29 (to modern sensibilities, the whole story may sound a little strange especially given the relation between Laban and Jacob, and does involve some deception on the part of Laban, but the point is they met at a well and it involves marriage). As the story demonstrates, all the people of a nearby region would come together at wells for the common necessity of life-sustaining water.

Here we see a Samaritan woman going about her daily life and chores. At the time it was commonly the woman’s job to fetch water for the household. On her way to the well that she had probably visited the day prior, and the day before that, this particular visit would be unusual. A Jewish rabbi would speak to her which is unusual in itself, and further, ask her for a drink. There was a social distance between Jews and Samaritans closely akin to what we might call segregation today. Jews did not drink from Samaritan wells and use their tools because the Jews considered them abominable from a spiritual standpoint, although they spring from the same patriarchal heritage with Joseph as their father.

Confused by the request the woman reiterates the situation to make sure Jesus understands that what He is doing is socially awkward: “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (v. 9). Jesus then flips the script and says that if she knew who He really was then she would be asking Him for a drink. But Jesus, without a bucket or vessel for holding water, only perplexes her further. Of course, Jesus is speaking figuratively. Jesus is the fountain of life itself, as we see John’s gospel making clear throughout the rest of the writing. And to prove this their conversation takes a seemingly tangential turn.

Jesus says, “Go call your husband and come back.” Here is the theme of marriage again. The woman says that she has no husband. Jesus affirms the statement, albeit in a surprising revelation of the woman’s personal history that Jesus could not have known by natural means. Jesus says, “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” She was, in our modern parlance, “with someone” but she denied altogether being with someone. Perhaps in this chance encounter, the woman was preparing to throw herself at her 7th man.

Whatever the case may be, marriage and infidelity have been scripture metaphorical images of fidelity to God and the covenant formed with God (see the story of the prophet Hosea). Forming a covenant with God is compared to marriage–it is a commitment. By this same analogy infidelity to God’s covenant is comparable to infidelity in marriage. The Samaritan woman is not only having her personal infidelity told to her, she symbolizes the Samaritan people who historically “chased after” idols. In this unusual encounter, the woman realizes that this man is a prophet but also more. By the end of the story the woman begins to spread the news that this man is the Christ that they together with the Jews have been waiting for.

Again, it is ironic that at the present time we are supposed to be distancing ourselves from one another, staying home, and keeping busy. This is especially unusual that the Church in Italy and America has taken measures to dispense with the ordinary means of observing the 3rd commandment–keeping the sabbath–which is ordinarily to go to Church. In a special way, God is calling for an unusual encounter with Him. As we go about the usual and familiar place of our homes, God wants to speak with us at the well of prayer.

God desires us to worship Him “in spirit and truth.” In other words, with our head on straight. Individually and socially, maybe we have allowed ourselves to be overly preoccupied with work, professional sports, various conventions, school, or, for some reason, bathroom supplies. Like the woman at the well, maybe we as a people have over-committed ourselves to the wrong things or make decisions that demand workers to work more than they should. Perhaps it is time, and now is an acceptable time being that it is Lent, to return to the basics, that is, the fundamentals of God and family. Especially today, but also during this time we’re being asked as much as possible to stay home, God may be reminding us to tend to our family, ourselves, and, above all God.

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