Sunday, 15 March 2020

Come closer: overcoming fear and isolation


‘The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. (John 5.14b)

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‘Quarantine. Contagion. Social isolation,’.

We’re hearing those words all the time at the moment.

For some people they are reassuring words because something is being done in the face of a threat and something we don’t understand. For others they are a gross overreaction to something that is no worse – surely? they would say - than the ‘flu.

Each person will have their own take on that, and for many people there is either a resigned sense that these things have to happen or a sense that as long as things are in proportion then we should do what it takes.

Here at the Minster we are being careful to minimise any risks especially to those people who have underlying health issues or are very frail.

But what is really important is that, unless absolutely forbidden at some point in the future, the church will remain open for prayer, and divine worship will be offered.

And that is not simply a pragmatic decision.

If we are open to God and to our neighbour then we want our church to be open to both. In times of adversity an open church is a sign of the presence, commitment and hope of God reflected in the life of those who follow in the way of Christ.

What we keep open are the wellsprings of God’s love, warmth and hospitality: contagion does not isolate us from the One who loves us.

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Yet, Christians will feel uncomfortable about words like quarantine, contagion and social isolation, not on medical grounds but on theological grounds because they threaten key gospel values. Let me be clear that I am not criticising wise advice about how to respond to the Coronavirus, but rather what underlies our spiritual disposition and response to it.

In the face of quarantine, contagion and social isolation the way of Jesus tells us:

1.     do not fear;
2.     do not neglect to meet together;
3.     do not exclude anyone.

Do not fear. Of course we need to be wise in our actions and behaviours, but if we operate out of our fears, whether in the face of this virus or in any aspect of our lives, then we turn in on ourselves and we whither spiritually.

So in the face of adversity let us root our assurance in God and consider and plan how we respond from a place of confidence not fear.

To that end a pastoral plan is in place so that those who are isolated or lonely can be contacted. And that can be done by anyone. If you are staying inside why not ring others; they will benefit from that, and so will you. Let’s be really intentional in supporting one another. Might it even be that this virus can bring us closer together as a church, albeit initially over the phone?!

Do not neglect to meet together The letter to the Hebrews says, ‘do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10.25).

A reason we find words like quarantine, contagion and social isolation uncomfortable is because we are social animals. We need to be together. Christians are never Christian alone. Fellowship is rooted in being one in the body of Christ.

This current time of the virus should make us cherish all the more the value of being together as God’s holy people in worship. It’s when we’re unable to come together that we realise the benefits of doing so.

That’s our challenge over the coming weeks if people are quarantined, that they don’t feel cut off from fellowship and encouragement. So as and when you ring people pray for them. It may feel odd, but you can pray over the phone with them.

Do not exclude anyone. The priority of inclusion is very much more than a secular imperative: it is rooted in the Gospel imperative that goes deep into the heart of Jesus’ ministry which we see exercised in this morning’s gospel reading (John 4.5-42).

The words quarantine, contagion and social isolation could be applied to the woman Jesus encounters at the well. She is a foreigner, an outsider, of dodgy religious credentials: as the text reminds us, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans (v. 9b). And she has dubious morals and a complex personal life (vv.18).

All the evidence points to this woman being in a form of quarantine and certainly socially isolated.

She is at the well at noon. In a country like Palestine people don’t go to wells in the middle of the day, you do that first thing in the cool of the day.

And you don’t go alone, unless you somehow transgress norms and what is acceptable. And as a Samaritan woman who is unmarried yet living with a man she certainly falls in that category.

And her behaviour is viewed in that time as potentially contagious itself, and to be avoided.

Yet Jesus talks to her, sits down with her, drinks with her and offers her living water.

And the disciples see this as astonishing.

The woman’s encounter with Jesus - the one who saw deep into her heart and her life - has drawn her out of her quarantine, shown her, and society, that she is not immorally contagious and she is socially re-integrated.

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So be prudent and follow the advice, but also remember that on a deeper level you are not quarantined from God; the shortcomings of your life are redeemed by drinking the living water of Jesus Christ and in that you find yourself in healthy relationship with others.

And likewise the gospel reminds us never to quarantine, write off or socially isolate those we find unpalatable, uncomfortable, odd or not like us.

This is Christian mission today too. Through this encounter Jesus demonstrates both the unrestricted, flowing compassion of God and from God’s wellspring she tells others to drink of the living water and they drink such that they can say, ‘this is truly the saviour of the world (v.42b)

‘The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. (John 5.14b)


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