Third Sunday in Lent
March 15, 2020
This week I have been struggling to find words to match all that we are feeling in this present moment. You don’t need me to tell you that we are drenched in anxiety, in exasperation, in fear, and in shock. We feel isolated and alone, literally, separated from one another as we learn what it means to practice “social distancing.” Cut off from our normal routines, like Sunday morning church. We have followed every spike and crash of the stock market with bated breath. We have watched schools close, sports come to a stop, nursing homes lock down, we have watched things happen that we previously thought unthinkable. We have kept close tally of confirmed cases, presumptive cases, and test kits. Words like “quarantine” and “pandemic” are back in our vocabulary, and it all seems so 19th century. As I have been struggling to find the right words – the right words for my own soul and the right words for you this morning – my mind dredged up this old poem from John Donne. Because sometimes old words have fresh meanings. John Donne wrote (in Meditation XVII):
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were:
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
In this time of pandemic, we come to grips with just how small the human community truly is. We come to understand that there are no islands. One person with one cough on the other side of the globe can set off a chain of events that changes our lives; that changes our economic and financial stability; that changes the history of the world. And even if one, just one human soul perishes, I am the less. That bell, that awful, horrible funeral bell that is ringing around the world right now, it tolls for me. And it tolls for you. For no man is an island.
Brene Brown often puts it this way: “humans are hard-wired for connection.” We are made to be with each other. It is impossible, absolutely impossible to completely isolate ourselves. For even if I stay at home, safe from the world, somebody has to work at the power plant so I can turn on Netflix. Somebody has to work at the water treatment facility so I can wash my hands. Doctors, nurses, police officers, the people in charge of making sure this video flies through the YouTube servers, hundreds of thousands of people must still work so that we can hunker down. John Donne was right – you are not an island.
And yet we are continuously called into our islands. Not only in this present moment, because that is the prudent thing to do for public health. But in every moment. So much of modern life nowadays is designed to create islands for ourselves. Broadcast television used to be just that – broad. But now we carefully curate our entertainment and news to fit our particular tastes. Facebook ads are targeted at you based on your likes and preferences. Amazon knows what you, and only you, want to buy before you even go shopping for it. And apparently, everybody wants toilet paper. In the UK there is now a government minister for loneliness. We are trapped behind real and emotional closed doors. John Donne’s words then are not just a reminder, they are a challenge – no one is an island, even if we try to make it that way.
And that woman at the well that we just read about, she is not an island either. Though it must have felt that way. She has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not her husband. After a life time of being passed around, we can sense that she feels like an island. I mean, she goes to the well at noon. Who does that? Who goes to do the most laborious task at the hottest part of the day? Somebody who feels alone, who wants to avoid a crowd. Someone who wants some social distance. I think she goes to the well at noon so that she would be quarantined from the nasty looks and disparaging comments.
But of course, God shows up. Hoping to avoid the crowds, hoping to avoid other humans, she runs into the most important human ever. The Son of Man. Irony is a gift of God. Through the long winding conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, one thing becomes absolutely clear. Jesus breaks through her loneliness. While she is tempted to nihilism, to believe that nothing really matters, Jesus gives her hope. By his very presence, Jesus gives this woman an incredible grace. Jesus reveals himself to her as the savior of the world, and in that moment, she realizes that she is not an island. She is part of the main. Even though she feels isolated and alone and terribly worried about the future, Jesus is with her, for she is not an island. And through that experience of God incarnate, she then builds bridges to everybody else in her community. That Samaritan woman invites everybody in the town into a new relationship with God and with each other. That whole town sees that it is no longer an island, but part of the main.
And so what Jesus gives to her, I hope to give you – and that is courage. Courage to face these uncertain and anxious times. Courage to see that even in the midst of isolation – you are not alone. Courage to see that when you go to draw water at noon, hoping to avoid the crowds, Jesus will meet you there. Courage to build bridges – even when disease and evil try to tear us apart. Courage to remember that you are not an island – that you are part of the human family. Courage to remember that you are not alone – that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have been with you, are with you now, and will be with you forever. My brothers and sisters, take courage, for even now, Jesus is the Savior of the world.