The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
One of the best cartoons I saw online this week was a picture of Jesus and the Samaritan woman standing at the well…but the pump bottle on the edge of the well was a dead giveaway, and the sign above the well indicated that this wasn’t just the story you heard from John’s gospel this morning, it said “Jesus and the woman at the Purell well.”
I know that a lot of us are really feeling a sense of anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus. Many of us are nervous because it seems so ominous – and like flu viruses, it’s invisible, transmissible, and potentially fatal.
We have something in common with the woman at the well. We are seeking the healing waters that will enable us never to experience spiritual thirst. And we need to have some kind of assurance that it’s going to be okay, whether we get the coronavirus or not.
William Sloane Coffin, the late senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York, offered some profound words in a sermon ten days after his 24-year-old son died in a car crash: This is “what God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support.”
What does that mean? I take it to indicate that God does not keep bad things from happening to anyone. But if we have a relationship with God, we are held up by a companion who walks with us through the wilderness.
“Minimum protection, maximum support.” Perhaps that is a way that we can approach what God’s world is experiencing right now: as a time to broaden our perspectives and become stronger.
Our faith is like muscle that needs to be stretched and tested in order for it to grow, and Lent can be a time for a good spiritual workout, not that anyone EVER asked for the coronavirus to help us. Ernest Hemingway wrote this in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.” The experience of living in these days will break some of us, and within that group there will be those who are made stronger. Some of us will learn to rely more fully on God’s presence within us and among us. Some will finally see that God’s abundance means that there is enough for all of us if we share. Some will take away the idea that radical individualism is morally bankrupt. Others will learn the lesson that it is a beautiful thing to rely on one another….that working together, we can make it over this hurdle.
And there will be those among us who aren’t able to open their eyes to learn those things: Some people will hoard toilet paper (for unknown reasons!), others will make certain that THEIR family has the supplies they need without caring for anyone else, and others will not take precautions because THEY are not worried about getting ill, even though people around them may be at greater risk than they are.
Whether we like it or not, the whole world is in this together. And nothing like a virus can show us that we are truly interconnected as the human family. The God who walks with us through the wilderness isn’t going to magically keep you from getting sick, but that same God is going to stay by your side no matter what. That’s what “minimum protection, maximum support” means. Not only is that what God offers US, it is what WE can offer to one another: supporting each other, perhaps from a distance, but supporting one another nonetheless.
Last week, Carla got an email from a Plymouth couple in their 30s saying that since they were not in a high-risk group, that if there was something that elder members of our congregation needed, they could help out. That’s maximum support.
Mandy Hall sent me an email concerned about the plight of our childcare staff, who are paid hourly, if there wasn’t going to be a need for their work if we don’t have in-person worship, and we’ve come up with a plan to continue to pay them, which we are doing. That’s maximum support.
In the midst of this pandemic, we all are finding ourselves in unknown territory, in a wilderness. We can see this wilderness as a parched and barren land that is filled with threats, fears, and real danger. But that isn’t the only way to look at it. We can hold fast and see the landscape as one that is saturated with living water: with the love and the radical generosity and abundance of God. We can see the abundance of scientists, physicians, nurses, and other caregivers in the midst of a crisis and say, “Thanks be to God. This is living water.” We can see the indomitable spirit and the cooperation of people working together and say, “Thanks be to God. This is living water.” We can hear online the people of Italy applauding for medical workers and singing from their balconies and say, “Thanks be to God. This is living water.” We can feel the sense the compassion of people caring deeply for those most in need and say, “Thanks be to God. This is living water.”
There are desert wilderness times for us all – moments or seasons in our lives when things seem to have dried up and blown away. And that is part of the reminder of Lent: that Jesus had those moments of walking through a parched landscape. Jesus confronted his demons and walked past them. It was a time that stretched him to the limits of physical, mental, and spiritual exertion…and he made it beyond that breaking point and lived into his ministry. Jesus opted to live a life that was saturated, not parched: a life of extravagant welcome, risk-taking, and active engagement, of envisioning and proclaiming a new way of being in the world. And that is the spirit-saturated life that we are being invited into.
Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “If you know the generosity [the gifts] of God and who it is asking you to give him a drink of water, you’d be the one asking me for a drink, and I would have given you living water.” In Hebrew and Aramaic this is a play on words, “living water” means water that is upwelling from a spring, like an artesian well. And it also has the significance of something more than just H20. “Everyone who drinks of this water will never be thirsty again,” Jesus says.
Do you want to live a parched life or a saturated life?
I had planned to talk more extensively today about the Celtic tradition, since St. Patrick’s Day is only two days away, but just to give you a snippet: In the pre-Christian Celtic tradition, wells (what you and I think of as springs and the ancient Jews thought of as “living water”) were considered sacred, not only because they sprung up pure from the earth, which was the source of their divinity, but because of all the metaphorical meaning that water has as being essential to sustenance, to growth, to the greening of life itself.
As Christianity moved into Celtic Britain, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the druidic wells were “rebaptized” in the name of Christian saints. So, in London you find a section called Bridewell (the well of St. Bride or St. Brigid), and all over Ireland there are wells dedicated to Brigid and Mary. The Gaelic word for well is “tober,” and on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, the largest town in called Tobermory, the Well of Mary. Throughout the middle ages and even today, people come to these sacred springs, many seeking healing and others on pilgrimage seeking living water. At St. Winifred’s Well in Wales, etched into the gothic stone walls surrounding the spring, you will see etched graffiti with the names and dates of physical healings accomplished there going back centuries, and people still come to the well seeking physical healing and spiritual wholeness.
As we walk together through Lent and as we walk together through this pandemic, may we remember that God’s presence is with us, strengthens us, upholds us and offer us the living water we need.
(If you’d like to see a three-minute video meditation on Holy Wells and this story from John’s Gospel, you can go to tinyurl.com/Celticwell)
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.