March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:4-52
Here’s an interesting thing that the people say as they murmur against Moses (did you notice?)
Why is it you brought us up from Egypt to bring death on me and my children and my livestock from thirst?
Did you notice the weird thing that happens in the middle of the question? You won’t find it in your New Revised Standard Version Access Bible or the New International Version or the King James or even The Message or the Jewish Publication Version. You need a translation that really digs into the Hebrew where there’s a shift from the beginning of the question to the end:
The murmuring of the people switches from us to me.
That’s the problem. That’s the problem at the encampment at Rephidim where there is no water for the people to drink. The lack of water was not the problem. The manna of chapter 16 should have eased their anxiety about the water shortage. Or maybe the dry way through the Red Sea when they thought they were trapped between an army and drowning.
The constant challenge of the Wilderness years was to learn to be a people that trusted God. And if the particular test of the Red Sea was to realize that God would not leave them high and dry no matter how impossible the situation and the particular test of the manna was to trust that there was enough and there would be enough again, then the particular test here was to not let anxiety turn them from a we – the community of Israel – individuals each concerned with their own brood.
It is just so bang on isn’t it? So right here, right now, when people are so worried about an illness – a flu that is not more dangerous than other flus but is more unknown and unpredictable – so worried that they will not have enough that we are hoarding pasta and toilet paper to make sure that we are not the ones who go without. And in the process of taking care of the “me” they are creating shortages of hand sanitizer, face masks and cleaning products needed by the very medical professionals that we all need to be functioning at 110% capacity to flatten the curve of the spread of this novel coronavirus. Which puts the “me’s” at more risk because we can’t take care of the “we”.
And then there are the people who have a sore throat, who feel sick, who will go to events – small events, family events, huge crowd events and vacation events – because they don’t want to miss out on their individual experiences: the “me” afraid of missing out threatens the “we” trying to keep the most vulnerable as safe as possible.
I wonder if one of the reasons for that change in translation is that we have become a culture – and even a faith – that prizes individuality. There are many places where the Prophets or the Stories are clearly about The People but we assume it is about The Person – us. As in me.
And in that choice, we lose the significance of the Community of Israel disputing itself out of being community.
But I think the Bible is onto something. And we are watching that something in action as the Corvid apocalypse unfolds around us.
And how do we honour this commitment to being a community at a time when we are being told the best thing we can do is protect ourselves from everyone else? With hand sanitizer and disinfecting sprays and isolation. How do we not become a bunch of women at the well avoiding other people and in need of human contact and grace so that we can get beyond the situation that’s trapped us?
This is, as Adrian Dix pointed out, a different way of loving each other. How do we do it?
We start by not shunning people the way her community shunned by the woman at the well. We remember that even in isolation we are a community. We call, we visit, we check to make sure people have groceries and connection and toilet paper. Just because we’re avoiding large crowds doesn’t mean we can’t connect person-to-person. We don’t complain that we lose our vacation, our concert, our lacrosse game that we were really looking forward to and remember that in that process we may be preventing the virus from getting to one or two or even more people who wouldn’t just get sick and recover but could end up in hospital and on a respirator or even die. And we remember that keeping those two or three people out of the hospitals makes space for other people who couldn’t avoid whatever it was they went to that got them sick.
The story of the Woman at the Well shows us that isolation can be devastating. Jesus shows us that it can also be an opportunity for compassion and possibility. And by the end of that story, having had the opportunity to bathe in the grace-filled acceptance of Jesus, that woman returns to her community as the first recorded evangelist to share her sense of inclusion with everyone else.
May it be so for us. Amen.
Rev. Shannon Tennant