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So there’s the physical, and there’s the spiritual.
The Israelites were in the desert. They were thirsty. Physically thirsty. And God met them there and provided water, miraculous water, water gushing out of a rock.
Jesus was by the well at noon, in the heat of the day. He was thirsty. Physically thirsty. And God met him there in the form of a woman, a Samaritan woman, and provided water, not miraculous water but very ordinary water, gushing out of a well dug so long ago by Jacob, the common ancestor of Jews and Samaritans alike.
The woman was there too. And she was thirsty. Physically thirsty, or at least very interested in this living water that Jesus had to offer that would make her never thirsty again. She clearly thinks he’s talking about physical water at first. “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.” But as their conversation unfolds it’s clear she’s spiritually thirsty as well. Thirsty maybe for a deeper knowledge of God, as in her keen curiosity about the right way to worship. Thirsty maybe to be treated as an equal, which she is in the delicious wordplay in the extended conversation between her and Jesus. Thirsty maybe simply to be seen and known, rather than looked past or looked through, which she receives from Jesus, who tells her story in a way she can recognize.
God is spirit, says Jesus, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth. I don’t think Jesus is talking about a kind of ethereal, otherworldly thing where we leave our bodies behind and ascend to a disembodied plane of existence. There’s the spiritual and the physical. And even though we can distinguish between those two realms, part of what following Jesus is all about is seeing the spiritual in the physical. After all Jesus showed up in the flesh, as a human being like us, who walked and ate and got thirsty. You could say that physical reality is what spiritual reality is made of. And spiritual reality is what physical reality means.
Here we are today worshiping in a very different way from usual. Usually we get together in the same place physically. We share the space, the same air molecules. We touch each other. Today we’re in a situation where doing that would be dangerous. Thanks to technologies that previous generations of Christians didn’t have, we can worship together in spirit even when we’re not together in the flesh. You could call this virtual worship, I suppose. But it’s not. It’s real worship, separated by distance. And even separated by distance, we’re still in the physical world. We still worship with our eyes and ears and mouths, even in front of a screen.
There are things we can’t do through a screen. We can’t touch or embrace each other. We can’t share the holy food and drink of Communion through a screen. And there are things we can do. We can sing. We can hear God’s Word. And above all, we can pray together.
Today there is a lot going on in our physical world. A dangerous virus is spreading maybe far more widely and quickly than we can know. People are stocking up on groceries and supplies. Public events are cancelled. Healthcare systems in some places are overwhelmed. That is the physical reality. And just as God called the Samaritan woman to minister to Jesus’ physical thirst, we are called to serve the physical needs of our world as well. Some will do that in a hands-on way as healthcare workers, or caregivers at home for people who are vulnerable. Some will do it by donating money or time. In addition to these things, many of us will do our part by doing what feels an awful lot like nothing. Staying home. Refraining from activities. Keeping a Lenten fast from all the things we had planned. It may not feel like it, but just by choosing to do those nothings, you may well be saving lives right now.
And there is also the spiritual reality of what is going on. There is fear and anxiety. There is loneliness and isolation. There is, sometimes, false bravado and denial. There’s boredom. There’s the deep need for care and comfort. And perhaps deeper still than all those things, there’s a need to know whether it all matters. In a time of epidemic we are brought up against just how fragile our lives are. We need to do our part in this time to help make sure that as few people as possible become sick, as few as possible die of this sickness. And even as we do, we may find ourselves trying to block out the knowledge that each of us will in fact one day die, and that even here on this earth so much is beyond our control. And we may need to know whether a God who loves us is there.
Today in this crisis we as the church are called also to serve our world’s spiritual needs. To shout loud and clear that God is real and God is love. To practice kindness, and gratitude, and adoration, and awe. To proclaim the resurrection and the abundant life of Jesus even in the face of sickness and death. To share the good news as it’s written in our burial service, that even though all of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song of a word we don’t use in the liturgy during Lent, but that I think I can get away with saying in a sermon: even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
And because we are physical people, to serve those spiritual needs, we are going to need to do some things in the physical world. By picking up a phone and making a phone call. By writing a letter or an email. By adjusting a webcam. These are our new physical realities, for now. Not for ever, thank God. We will be back in this space all together one day soon. For now we embrace these limitations and seek God’s presence wherever it can be found, which is right where we are.