This week I did not have the chance to participate in our new national obsession: trying to find toilet paper. I saw pictures online, though, along with shelves emptied of canned goods and other paper products. As someone pointed out, with the COVID-19 outbreak, we have to imagine those shortages but for masks, respirators, and hospital beds. If we don’t reduce our social contact and lower the rate of transmission, a shortage of toilet paper will be the least of our worries.
It’s hard to think about this. Few things in life are harder than changing our minds. Few things are harder than envisioning the possibility that the future could look fundamentally different from the past--the possibility that the world as we know it will not just keep chugging along as it always has.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well. It’s a meeting that challenges assumptions in the world of Jesus and that woman: assumptions about men and women, about Jews and Samaritans, about God and the Messiah.
The historians tell us that wells, in this world, were predominantly female spaces. Women hauled the water and congregated there together. Jesus showing up there would perhaps have been unusual. Maybe even threatening. And in general, it was not appropriate for unrelated men and women to be alone together. The woman knows this. The disciples obviously know this.
Moreover, Jesus is a Jew and the woman is a Samaritan. These are stable groups in their world. They are both descended from ancient Israel, but long before this their communities became distinct. They worship differently, as the woman points out. Samaritans worship on a sacred mountain while Jews worship in the holy city.
I think it’s fair to say that neither the woman nor the disciples of Jesus can really imagine a world where the relationship between men and women, or between Jews and Samaritans, is different. These things have been for a long age and will be until the end of the world. Moreover, as Jesus points out, the woman is in what might be called an irregular domestic relationship. She has been married several times and either divorced, widowed, or both. Her current partner is not her husband. If her relationship was the object of gossip and disapproval, it may account for the fact that she comes to the well alone in the heat of the day instead of coming in the cool morning with a large group of women.
Jesus promises her living water, and just like Nicodemus in last week’s story, she thinks very literally about this. She doesn’t want to keep hauling water alone every day. But of course the water Jesus offers is the spring of the Holy Spirit, which bubbles up into eternal life. It turns out she needs this, too. And when she acknowledges that her partner is not in fact her husband, Jesus does not shun or reprove her. In fact, the woman becomes the first messenger of the Gospel to her community--one in a long line of Biblical figures who are plucked from the less reputable part of society to bring God’s message to the world. (some believe her, some need to see Jesus for themselves--some things never do change). He tells her that the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshippers of God will worship not on the Samaritans’ mountain nor in the City of David, but in spirit and truth.
I have always heard their conversation as a moment of grace and assurance. And it’s only this last time that I have had to hear the deeper challenge here: the woman, the disciples, and the people of the village need to change their minds. They have to go through the painful liberation of seeing their world in a new way. A man and a woman conversing innocently together. Jews and Samaritans united in the true worship of the Living God. The hour of the Messiah not being in a safely distant future, but right now. Now. No time to waste. It is a moment of grace, to be sure. But it is also a moment of disorientation. It is a moment that challenges them to embrace a new reality. A moment to change their minds.
Today in our sermon series on “What Are We Doing Here?” we’ve come to Martin Luther’s fourth “holy possession” of the Church: Confession and forgiveness of sins. Or as Luther called it, “the office of the keys.” This is a practice with deep roots in the Old Testament, as the worship of Israel was oriented partly toward the forgiving of the peoples’ sins. In the New Testament we hear Jesus tell Peter that he is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that whatever he looses on earth is loosed in heaven, and whatever is bound on earth is bound in heaven. At the end of John’s Gospel he says the same thing to all the apostles. Forgiving sins became an important function of the church’s ministers. Christians who were guilty of notorious sins were excluded from the fellowship of the Eucharist--the were “bound.” If they underwent a public process of repentance they could be absolved at Maundy Thursday and restored to the sacrament of the altar.
This is why so many Lutheran churches begin worship with the brief order of confession and forgiveness, as we did today and most Sundays. Naming and owning our sins and having forgiveness declared is an integral part of sharing Communion. Lutherans didn’t even abolish private confession, though we pretty much let it lapse by accident.
Where Luther changed the doctrine of confession and absolution was on the idea of repentance. Two things were required for confession to work: you had to repent of your sins and you had to have faith in the promise of Christ to forgive them. You had to change your mind, in other words. That’s what repentance means.
And that is hard. One way that sin dominates us is by convincing us that things can’t be any different than they are. That we can’t be different. That the world can’t be different. In a more subtle way, sin convinces us that things don’t need to be different. That we’ll be all right. That we can keep playing this hand out forever.
When I wrote about this in my book, I wrote about it in terms of smoking. I loved smoking. I knew it was bad. And it was hard to quit because it was hard to see beyond it. You’ll always want this. You’ll always do this. You can always be this person, a smoker; you don’t know who you’ll be if you quit. And you’ll probably be ok.
It took a pretty frightening case of bronchitis to get me out of that mindset. Because everything was ok until it very suddenly wasn’t. And all the lies I’d told myself came home to roost.
The woman at the well had to change her mind. She had to think of herself and her world in a new way. The things we think can go on indefinitely reach an end some time. And then we are confronted with the moment of the Messiah: the one who calls us away from the world we think we know into a new way of being, a new way of seeing God and each other, a new way of walking as people whose sins are forgiven and put away.
This is a challenge we will all have to face, in different ways, in the weeks to come. Much will have to change in our world and many things we take for granted will turn out to be very uncertain. In Italy they have been on severe lockdown for a week as hospitals have to practice battlefield medicine--choosing who gets a life-saving intervention and who doesn’t. I pray every day that we avoid that fate. But to do that requires us to change our minds. It involves doing things we don’t want to do, and refraining from things we do want to do. I struggle with this as much as anyone else.
But we can learn from this. We will be obligated to help each other in new ways and protect each other in new ways. We will find ways to worship together at a distance for the time being. We have to refrain from sharing the Sacrament today and for perhaps several weeks. But we will join together across time and space to pray for God’s blessing and mercy.
And here is the truth: we are rightly told to stay home and avoid public spaces as much as we can. But we are still, like the woman at the well, the emissaries of Christ in the world. We have words of blessing and peace to speak. We have cynicism and denial and despair to combat. We have neighbors to love and care for. In Spain last night at 10 p.m., a whole quarantined nation paused to open their windows and applaud to thank the health care workers who are risking their lives--some of whom will die--to care for the sick. In a world of many needs, the well of eternal life already springs up within you. Time to put it to use. Amen.