March 15, 2020
Being the Church, No Matter What – March 15, 2020
Sermon from March 15, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42
If you’re looking for a word from Scripture to describe what it’s like to live in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, we heard it in the first reading this morning: Making their way through the wilderness, “the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded” (Exodus 17:1); and they wondered, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:7). Maybe we can forgive them for a little complaining, as well as for faltering trust. They’ve been freed from slavery in Egypt, and they’ve celebrated the new life God’s given them … only to find themselves wandering in the desert with food and water scarce. Just before today’s reading, they’re starving; and God provides manna, bread from heaven, to carry them through. Then today, they can’t find enough water, and God empowers Moses to strike a rock at Mt. Sinai to bring living water that flows from barren stone.
Wandering in the wilderness might be an overused metaphor for the confusing times of our lives, but it certainly seems to apply right now. Answers are not coming easily these days. I’ve sent you two letters in two weeks to explain how we’re working to manage the risk of infection here at church. That’s not because I think you like getting mail but because the situation is so fluid.
As of now, these are the most important ways we’re protecting you when you come to church: We’re greeting each other without touching, and it would be smart to keep a six-foot distance as much as possible. We’ve stopped serving the common cup. We’ve stopped passing the collection plates and the sign-in folders. We’re not handling prayer books or hymnals. We’re sanitizing surfaces more intensely. We’ve removed the holy water from the font. We’re serving individually wrapped snacks at coffee hour and serving meals without shared utensils.
So, I’d like to end this list by saying, “There’s our response plan, and I think we’re good.” But I have a strong feeling that we aren’t done yet, though I don’t know what this week will bring. In the past week, just in the small world of The Episcopal Church, we’ve learned of six rectors of large congregations who’ve been diagnosed with coronavirus infection, effectively closing their churches for a time. And, even more drastic, at least three dioceses – Virginia; Washington, DC; and Lexington in Kentucky – have shut the doors to all their congregations for at least two weeks, closing more than 300 churches. Plus, as you know, many Kansas City churches, including Church of the Resurrection and Village Presbyterian, are worshiping only online today, and our bishop may move us that way for next Sunday. Worship online is great, and thank God for it, in this moment. Yet, it is deeply sad that churches are having to ask people not to come at a time when we’d most want churches open, a time when people are uncertain and afraid.
So, as we’re thinking about what happens next, the guiding principle is this: We are the church, the Body of Jesus Christ in this place and time; and we will keep being the church, no matter what. As individuals and as a congregation, we’ll continue to live faithfully even in uncertain times; and we’ll live trusting that God is with us and will bring us through this. In your day-to-day lives, wherever you are, you’ll continue to love God and love the person in front of you – even when that means staying away from the person in front of you. As you make your way through this coronavirus wilderness, you can keep going on your Lenten journey, reading your Bible and saying your prayers.
And, it’s our intention that you’ll be able to “come” to worship, too, even if we can’t all come together to worship in this room. I know worshiping at home is not ideal. Just as you miss receiving the Body of Christ when you can’t be here, you miss physically gathering as the Body of Christ, getting to talk with people you love and being energized for this life God gives us Monday through Saturday. I get that. But we’re blessed that we can still be the church as we gather virtually.
In fact, we’re starting that on a daily basis, as of tomorrow morning. Several of you saw our Facebook posts offering the service of Compline over the past couple of nights. Beginning tomorrow, we’ll offer live prayer on Facebook three times a day. It’s easy to remember: 8-1-8. We’ll be on Facebook Live at 8 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m. each day, gathering with you for beautiful prayers from our Anglican tradition. We’ll use the framework of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families in the Book of Common Prayer, though you won’t need a prayer book to take part. All you’ll need is your phone or computer and a few minutes out of your day to stop, and breathe, and remember that God is God, no matter what. And you’ll be able to be part of the experience in real time, too, typing in your prayers in the moments of silence. Through that brief witness, three times a day, we can pray for ourselves, our friends, our family, and our world, commending our common life in this difficult moment to Jesus’ healing touch.
And then, we have the question of Sunday mornings. Although our bishop hasn’t stopped in-person worship yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens in the next few days. And if it does, we will still have worship, and you can still be part of it through the livestream on our website. It wouldn’t really make sense for us to celebrate Holy Communion if no one’s in the pews. But, as some of you will remember from an earlier day, we have the beauty of Morning Prayer available to us. We’ll bring together Dr. Tom and our singers and some blowhard to stand up here and preach. And worship will happen, because we are the church. We are God’s people, and we will praise him.
You’ve probably also wondered about classes, meetings, and other gatherings. That, too, is a fluid situation. For today, the Satterlee family cancelled Lois’ funeral, which was set for this afternoon. Tonight, we’re cancelling our Third Sunday offering of Irish Pub Night, sadly. But our Discovery class and our Sunday-night class, the Way of Love in Lent, will go on because we can offer them on Facebook Live, too. So, tonight, people can come, and keep their distance; or they can “come” and be with us online. Visit the St. Andrew’s Facebook page, or watch your feed, at 6 p.m. tonight.
We’re also having to think about major events to come. It’s way to early to know how the coronavirus situation will look by Easter, but … Easter is four weeks away. And a week after that, we’re planning to debut our new service at HJ’s, Trailside. We may need to approach those events differently, so stay tuned as the weeks go on.
Obviously, there’s a lot that’s uncertain right now. But there’s far more that is certain, now and always. The living water of God’s love is there for us, even if we have trouble seeing it and touching it ourselves. Think about the Gospel reading today, this meandering, disjointed conversation Jesus has with the woman at the well.
You know, for most of their conversation, Jesus and the woman just aren’t connecting. Actually, they’re not even supposed to be talking to each other. Men and women who were strangers didn’t engage each other in public. And in this case, they really shouldn’t have, because Jesus was a Jew and the woman was a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans were supposed to hate each other. Plus, this woman had no social standing for a conversation with a strange man because she wasn’t married.
Now, we hear Jesus say this woman has had five husbands and isn’t married to the man she’s with now, and we may think that implies loose morals. Instead, most likely Jesus was recognizing her as somebody completely on the margin, completely powerless. In that time and place, only a man could initiate divorce, and the divorced woman was left with virtually nothing financially or socially. This woman had been through that multiple times and had no standing … but here she is, talking with Jesus, trying to understand why he’s so different, what he means about living water “gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
So, she keeps at it. She hangs in there and doesn’t let her confusion, or the violation of social norms, stop her. She knows he has power she’s never seen or heard or felt before; and she’s going to keep asking, keep pushing, keep digging until she finds it. And eventually, she pushes through the confusion and the uncertainty and the fear about “we’ve never done it this way before,” and she taps into that living water. “I know [the] Messiah is coming,” she says, holding out hope that maybe she’s got it right (John 4:25). There you go: “I am he,” Jesus says (John 4:26). The wandering, the digging, the interrogating, the breaking of the rules – it’s all paid off. And at the end, despite everything, even the Samaritans around her can say, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Sometimes, faithfulness looks very different than we’d expect. In challenging times – when we’re wandering in the wilderness, when we find ourselves in enemy territory, when we’re afflicted by threatening forces – in challenging times, faithfulness means keeping on when you can’t see where the path leads.
You know, maybe the coronavirus threat will pass quickly; and in a few weeks, maybe we’ll all look at each other and smile and wonder what all the fuss was about. Or, maybe not. But whatever happens this week, and in the weeks ahead, we will be OK, because we are the church. We are the Body of Christ. We are God’s people in this place, however life looks in the moment. And we will keep on the journey even though it’s complicated, even though it’s rough, because we know what awaits us at the end: Bread from heaven. Water from the rock. The Savior of the world, walking among us. And living water “gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14).