It’s been about a hundred years since the last pandemic – the Spanish Influenza of 1918. In the U.S., at least, we have grown accustomed to being relatively safe from widespread outbreaks of viruses. The AIDS epidemic is most recent in our memories, and as awful as that was it was not a pandemic. The coronavirus – COVID-19 – has been declared a pandemic which is causing panic everywhere. Panic isn’t helpful, though. Preparation is more useful and less exhausting.
The word “pandemic” means “all people.” While considered in the context of a potentially deadly virus, this is scary. However, as people of faith we ought to be used to thinking in terms of all people. All people will be involved as this virus spreads also means all people can be involved in preparations and preventative measures. We don’t have to continue to wait for the federal government’s inadequate and unhelpful response. As the Body of Christ, our concern is for all people. There are things we can do. We might be in a wilderness season, but we are not alone.
First, let us look at the story about Jesus meeting the woman at the well in Samaria. We know this story. The woman was an outcast even among outcasts. She had had five husbands and was living with another man who was not her husband. She was at the well in the bright heat of the noonday in order to avoid contact with others in the village. She wasn’t expecting anyone to be there, especially not a rabbi on his own. The interaction between Jesus and this unknown woman changed her. She drank deeply of the living water Jesus offered. As a result a whole village full of people became followers of Jesus on her say so.
What can this passage tell us in these early days of this pandemic? One is that Living Water will not be changed by a virus. God will still be present and moving through the world as God has always done. Another is that social distancing, as is encouraged by the CDC and other experts, does not mean we have to be alone or that God abandons us. We do not need to emotionally and spiritually distance ourselves from one another. The Samaritan woman that Jesus met that day was believed to be ritually unclean and so others kept away from her. Keeping the recommended three feet away from people gathered in public places ought not to make us fearful of others in a way that furthers any sense of isolation. We can make eye contact and talk with people. We can remain unafraid to help our neighbors when they have need.
While the Samaritan woman didn’t have access to social media to curb her feelings of being unwanted and unwelcomed, we do. We can continue to be Church through creative uses of our resources. We can have worship online. We can create small groups of care partners who can remain in contact through video chat or phone or even in person if everyone is well. Perhaps we can use this opportunity to learn new ways of embodying Christ. Fear does not have to be our constant companion. We can drink more deeply of the Living Water and remember that God’s love knows no boundaries. I’ll say it clearly because others are suggesting the opposite: this virus is not a punishment for sin nor God’s comment on poverty. A God who is Love would not and does not unleash viruses on God’s people. God will remain present and loving through all that is to come.
In the meantime, let’s try not to be like the Israelites in the desert with Moses. Let’s try to avoid crying out to God and asking why we are thirsty, or hungry, or lost. Let’s try to be intentional in our preparations so that no one feels forgotten, isolated, or alone in the days to come. Let’s be mindful of the vulnerable among us who might need extra care and consideration as fear and anxiety increase. Let’s stay informed with facts over fears. Perhaps we can even learn to sing to the Lord in new ways. The only way we are going to get through this is together. We need one another even if there has to be three feet between each of us.
So you can see that I practice what I preach, here is a copy of the brief letter I wrote to my congregation:
As of Wednesday, COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic. This means that it involves all people everywhere. While this increases anxiety, we are not entirely powerless. We will continue to be the Body of Christ and love our neighbors as ourselves.
As of now, we plan to have Sunday School and worship as usual on Sunday. We will use food safety precautions for preparing the bread for communion and any food for kinship. Communion will be served using tongs so no hands touch the bread. We will not share the cup but will be invited to write down ways in which we will share Divine Love in the world and place the paper in a symbolic cup.
Please stay at home if you have any symptoms of illness. Also remember that the CDC recommends that people over 60 and those with compromised immune systems should stay at home.
It is very likely that by March 22nd we will have services, meetings, Bible studies, and Sunday school entirely online. More information on this will be available early next week. We have created small groups to help people stay connected.
Here is a two minute video on the basics: https://youtu.be/TjcoN9Aek24
These are two good links to check for updates on the coronavirus: https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/index.html
Also, if you are prone to worrying or anxiety, you may want to limit your exposure to broadcast news and social media.
Remember that by taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of our neighbors. By limiting our exposure to group gatherings we are caring for the vulnerable among us. We remain the Body of Christ whether we are gathered or scattered. God’s love for us does not change. This pandemic will continue to change our daily lives, and God will continue to be present with us through all that is to come.
UPDATE: Council voted on Thursday evening, after monitoring news outlets, to suspend all in-person gatherings until further notice.
RCL – Year A – Third Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2020