Invading Isolation: A reflection on John 4
This was actually the lectionary text from last week, but I thought it would be good to hear from the woman at the well, because she’s been practicing social distancing for a while, and she’s got some tips we can all learn from. Most of us have only been at it for a week, so we could use a few pointers. For example, she shows up at the well at the hottest time of day, the time of day when others are least likely to be at the well to get their water. In other words, don’t go to the grocery store after 5pm. As you can see, that works, she’s only got one person to deal with — Jesus. She’d probably be content to ignore this intruder, but she’s got strategies if he tries to encroach on her space. And he does. So, the second lesson we get from this woman is that if someone steps into your space, say if they’re closer than 6 feet, just say something racist. That’s what she does, Jesus asks for a drink and she says “How can you— a Jew— ask me, a Samaritan for a drink?” She just throws down that race card, a very effective strategy for keeping most people away.
You probably know the reason why this woman practiced social distancing. She was not a one woman man. Jesus prophetically know that she has had five husbands and her current husband is not her husband. The stigma was significant enough to make her want to avoid others and get water at the most miserably hot time of day. The stigma was significant enough to make other people glad to avoid her, they’d be relieved not to see her at the well. They’d be relieved that they didn’t have to fear that whatever she picked up would rub off on them.
Overnight, we’ve all found ourselves in a similar position. How many of you have experienced suspicious glances from your fellow shoppers in the grocery store. Have any of you found yourselves eying others suspiciously, wondering if they have the virus, wondering if they’re going to sneeze. So we see all sort of nonverbal signals that say, “Keep your distance.”
But what about in normal times? Most of us don’t do full-scale self isolation like the woman in this story. Instead we selectively self-isolate. There are parts of ourselves that we feel are too shameful, too vulnerable, too dirty, too taboo to let others see. They may not be sensational and scandalous, but we all have parts of ourselves that we’d rather not show. And if someone brings them up, our defences are triggered just like this woman. Sometimes we even isolate our best attributes from others. Sometimes we hide our smile. Sometimes we stifle our sense of humour. Sometimes we suppress our brilliant, creative, wonderful insights and ideas. Often we hide our tears. We hide our fears. We hide our vulnerability. We hide our secretly cherished hopes. For so many of us, the self we allow our community to see is a composite of a few things we think is safe to show. We keep most of oourselves under lock and key, safely tucked away in self-isolation. Whether we think we are protecting others, or ourselves is anyone’s guess.
Notice that Jesus walks through her defences and right into the heart of her self-isolation. He disregards her community imposed quarantine. He does this in countless ways. Jesus breaks through her self-isolation by showing up at the time she doesn’t want to be seen. He breaks through her self-isolation by looking her in the eyes when everyone else pretends she doesn’t exist. He breaks through her self-isolation by speaking to her with respect and affection, when everyone else speaks with disdain. He breaks through her self-isolation by asking for help. He asks for water. So often we think a Christian witness does not include vulnerability, asking help. We isolate the parts of ourselves that need help and instead project to those outside the Christian community a confident, know-it-all-ism, that is totally devoid of weakness. We are there to help others, but God help us if we ever have to ask for help. Jesus asks for help — and he asks for help from a person that most everyone in that society would never have asked for help.
So Jesus begins the conversation and starts climbing over one wall after another of her quarantine, he passes through her doors of isolation, and into the sanctuary of her heart. There, in that vulnerable space he looks at her and says. “Go call your husband and come back here.” He turns his attention to one of the most vulnerable parts of her life and says, “let’s talk about this.” Her defences go off: “I have no husband.” He says “You have had five husbands. And the man you are living with now is not your husband. This you said truthfully.” This is a five alarm situation. She panics, terrified, scrambling to find a defence that will work. She reaches for the race card again, but that card failed earlier. So she puts together what must be a winning hand. She plays the race card, the religion card, and the land card. Anyone remotely familiar with middle-eastern discourse knows that a nuclear warhead is being launched, and the only possible response is fight or flight.
Yet Jesus gracefully slips past this nuclear warhead, ducking past the defences of land, race and religion, saying “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people (the Samaritans) worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, because salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus slips past those defences walks right into the sanctuary of her heart. And there, He is gentle. “A time is coming—and now is here—when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
We know from her later actions that she understood him perfectly. But more than that, she has for the first time, somehow in those words, had the experience of being perfectly understood. The woman has encountered this man, Jesus, who she knows is representing God. This man has slipped past all her defences, all her attempts at self-isolation, all her strong walls of quarantine, and he has entered the sanctuary of her heart. And once there, He sees her. He sees her as she truly is. He sees the glaring things her society condemns her for. And he sees what’s underneath that as well. In all that He sees her. In all her life, she has never been this vulnerable. And there, in that place, he does not communicate condemnation. His presence does not bring shame. Rather, He looks at her and says, “You — its you the Father seeks. The Father seeks you.” I see you fully, I know totally who you are. And the Father seeks you. The Father seeks people such as yourself to worship him in spirit and in truth.
And so it goes with all of us. Jesus walks through all of our defences, he climbs over our walls. He finds his way into the sanctuary of our heart. There he sees all of the parts of ourselves that we would rathe isolate from others. And there, in that place, He looks at us fully, and he says, “I seek you.’ And maybe, if we stand in his gaze long enough, maybe we can begin to see ourselves and others, as He sees us. And maybe then we’ll have courage to take steps out of our self-imposed isolation, and we will truly join in the community of God’s children. We will know and be known. Together, we will worship in spirit and in truth. And we will be together a family with God. And we are invited to join this family not as you think you should be, but as you are.