Third Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
On the verge of pandemic, I am reflecting on Jesus’ act of receiving from the woman at the well and thinking about how our practice of receiving can offset our tendency to isolate spiritually while we necessarily isolate physically.
Current Events & World Affairs
As Coronavirus Spreads, So Does Xenophobia and Anti-Asian Racism
Article about current discrimination against people of Chinese and other Asian descent during coronavirus outbreak
Consider what actions of receiving you can do and are doing presently to disrupt xenophobia in the face of fear.
NB: This article is behind a pay wall. Time magazine allows you to read several free articles per month; it is my hope you might use one of those allowances to read this one.
Open in a new tab
Arts & Architecture
Because We Come From Everything; Of Eons and Epics
Two Poems by Kimberly Blaeser—I draw your attention to the first one, “Because We Come From Everything.”
Consider how the present pandemic belies the concept of the impermeability of human-created borders.
Open in a new tab
How is the illusion that you are self-sufficient showing up in your life now?
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” –John 4:7, 9
Preface Updating This Post:
I wrote this reflection at the beginning of March. Since that time, the coronovirus pandemic has evolved rapidly, and the advice of infectious disease experts in our country has likewise rapidly evolved to guide us to adopt social distancing as a means of slowing the spread of the virus. In the interest of clarity, I am editing this post in three ways: first by removing one of the lessons in which Kristine Sherred of the News Tribune speaks about the relative safety of eating out. The purpose of including that lesson in a context where racism and xenophobia are all too easily overlaid on the actual health risks of the virus was to ask us to be attentive to the distinctions between prudent health practices on the one hand and unexamined prejudice on the other. The second change is to amend the introduction to reflect more clearly my intended focus on spiritual isolation without leaving room for the reader to infer that I am advocating any neglect of our present need to isolate physically. The third change is to modify a few statements in order to clarify that when I speak of our tendency to isolate, I am describing a mindset–again, not advocating that we irresponsibly ignore the necessity to practice social distancing in the face of this crisis. I do, however, believe even and perhaps especially in these times, we are given an opportunity to consider just how interconnected we actually are.
A number of years ago, en route to Thailand, our family had a layover in the Narita Airport in Japan. While there, I filled my water bottle at the drinking fountain with water. We boarded the plane, flew to Bangkok, spent a few hours in an airport hotel and then took a taxi to the apartment where we would spend our two weeks. Soon after arriving at the apartment, I became very sick. For the next twenty-four hours, I was severely nauseated. I could not blame it on the food in Bangkok, as I’d not yet had any. There were three contenders for the culprits: a simple viral infection, airplane food (always a serious possibility when considering what has made one ill) and third, the water from the fountain in the Narita airport.
While I shall never solve that mystery, my contemplation of the possibility of contaminated water immediately raised an old thought construct I carry—namely, water fountains are dirty.
This construct has its roots in the racism that, sadly, was part of my formation. During the early years of my life, there were still signs everywhere there were water fountains in my home state that read “white” and “colored.”
Once those signs were finally taken down, the meme developed among even whites who considered themselves to be non-racist that water from fountains, which were now shared by the races, could make one ill. Better to avoid them.
By means of this sickening part of my history, I enter today’s gospel about the woman at the well.
Jesus meets a woman after whom he was trained not to drink, with whom he was trained not to eat, whom he was trained not to touch.
He could have easily chosen a different route, one considered more appropriate for a Jew.
But instead, he makes his way to Sychar and waits by the well, in order to create an opportunity to defy social taboos. And then she came; not only a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman. He had his chance.
“Woman, give me a drink.” This simply did not happen. Jews did not ask Samaritans for anything, certainly not for food or drink.
She knows this and understands the risk. But she has already lost standing within her own community of peers. It is not insignificant that she has come to the well alone. She is a double outcast in this story—both within her own community and to the Jews. She doesn’t have much to lose by engaging this stranger. So, she challenges his unconventional behavior, I imagine with a jaded cynicism she thought would quickly push him away and leave her alone again.
But that does not happen. He reaches across the border and right into her personal life, grabbing hold of all her secrets and exposing them for their mutual viewing.
He engages her at the very core of her soul.
She has suffered long enough; from unnamed personal sin, from societal judgment in her community, and from oppressive racism beyond it.
With a simple request for a drink of water, Jesus cracks open the walls that have imprisoned this woman. He breaks through to find a parched soul, dry to the bone.
In his receiving, he gives. Living water. Hope, strength, light–and, perhaps most importantly–renewed dignity.
Moses at the Rock at Horeb strikes and God gives water to parched Israelites who believe that God had forsaken them. At Horeb, God’s prophet brings water to those who have been cast out. At Sychar, God’s outcast brings water to God’s prophet. The story has been turned upside down.
Jesus needs something.
What is the value of needing something from someone? We spend a lot of energy in Christian community thinking about how to give more and why we should give. We are good at calling one another to give; and that’s not a bad thing.
But here is a gospel story in which the action that matters most, the one on which a person’s salvation depends, is the ability of Jesus not to give but to receive.
Jesus needs. He asks; she gives; he receives.
Mutuality is established. Now, they can speak truthfully.
What if we could live this way all the time? With an experience of our interconnectedness? Would we find that such vulnerability might open a space for truth to break through our walls of isolation? I wonder.
Our present reality with the rapid spread of a new virus is highlighting an underlying human tendency: our leaning toward isolation for self-protection. There are precautions that make sense for us right now; social isolation is necessary. And we do well to follow all of the recommendations of infectious disease experts in a rapidly changing landscape. There are and will be necessary restrictions in our contact with one another and with possibly contaminated sources.
However, those restrictions are a far cry from actions we–particularly we who are white–take out of persistent ignorance, racism, and xenophobia–such as those recorded in todays current events and world affairs lesson. In these days, if you want to know what Jesus would do, look no further than the story of the woman at the well. Engage one another, even if that engagement must necessarly be from a physical distance for a while, as if we truly need the other. Because we do.
We will soon see just how dependent we truly are on one another. Our common humanity is everywhere, as Blaeser teaches us from the wisdom of her heritage through her poem, “Because We Come from Everything,” in today’s arts and architecture lesson .
Not just on the verge of a pandemic, but I suspect most always, we’d rather take a route that does not require engagement with those we have been taught have nothing to offer us. What if we are wrong? What if our lives depend upon such engagement?
We are not well versed in receiving. I suspect most of us limit our receiving to what’s safe to ask for. Proxies for what we really need. For some of us that’s time, for others money, for others small favors. But we have become adept at hiding our real needs. Our need for intimacy, our need for forgiveness, our need to be seen, our need to be blessed, our need to learn and grow, our need for someone to believe we can become more than we are, our need to be known even in the parts of our lives that make us ashamed, afraid, uncertain.
It takes courage to ask for what we really need. It takes unlearning lots of social norms. It’s hard; but we’ve got to do it. Borders are an illusion. We are bound together. We cannot have a safe world for each of us until we have a safe world for all of us.