Sermon from the edge of a pandemic

This morning we gathered for one last Communion before retreating from in-person meetings for a time – hopefully a short time, global pandemic permitting. The Church of the Epiphany will meet virtually for worship during the coming weeks. A decision about Holy Week and Easter services will be made after March 29th. The Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent was Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.


Jesus was not great at social distancing. Wherever he went he attracted crowds that pressed against the lake shore, against one another, against him and the hem of his garments. Once, he filled a house so full that they had to take the roof off to fit one more person in.

Even out in the sticks, he managed to find the one woman next to a well, and asked her for a drink. His disciples were shocked that he got so close to her. She was surprised herself. And lo and behold, after their meeting, she went back to her town and spread the gospel like a virus to all who came into contact with her. She transmitted Jesus all over.

No, Jesus was not such a great model for social distancing. Except when he was – when he withdrew into the wilderness, or to the mountaintop, even the middle of the lake, seeking space, seeking silence, seeking time to rest and recoup his spirits. Once, after a long desert retreat, the tempter came and suggested that it would not matter if he threw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple – if he took no safety measures for himself – since the guardian angels would catch his fall. Jesus told the devil to go socially distance himself for that one.

More often, he spent time in the company of his friends, of his disciples. Like them, we long to draw near to him, to spend time with him, to touch him, to be with one another. The distance between us hurts, our separation is painful.

Our separation is painful.

We are faced with a time of withdrawal, of wilderness, in our own spiritual journey. In the face of a public health emergency, emergency measures present themselves. After this morning’s service, we will continue to meet for prayer remotely for a time, using technology to cover the distance between us. There will be opportunities to call in and hear the service, to log in and see the service, to answer in the echo of our own hearts, Amen, amen.

We will continue to take care of one another, making sure to check in by phone, by email, by notecards, by any means necessary to continue to share our love, God’s love, Christ’s love with one another through this wilderness fast, to heal the distance that hurts.

Because yes, the distance between us hurts.

Yesterday morning, I woke to the news that Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated a Bishop in the entire Anglican Communion had died, and I wept. I never met the woman, to my profound regret; but her death brought me to tears. The distance between us hurts.

I remember seeing film footage of her consecration on the BBC. It was February 1989. I must have been visiting my parents the weekend after my birthday, because I distinctly remember watching the news on their tv. I was in the final year of a theology degree, under the supervision of a man who was unfailingly gracious to his female students, but adamantly opposed to their ordination. I was in a country, in a church that would not ordain women as priests until well into the next decade, nor as bishops until safely into the next millennium. And here was Barbara Harris, in my parents’ living room, a Bishop in Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic church, Episcopal division.

She was surely one of the great cloud of saints and witnesses that led me here, although I never met her. The technology that bridged the Atlantic and brought her into my parents’ home played its part in healing the distance between us, and even the distance between my priestly vocation and my college supervisor’s Synod vote.

The distance between us hurts. My father still lives in that home where I saw Bishop Harris ordained. I know that I will need to postpone my post-Easter visit to see him. There is something hard, but there is something hopeful, too, in postponing a trip to visit an octogenarian with chronic asthma. This, too, shall pass, and we will be reunited.

Christ can and does heal the distance between us. We will fast for a little while here from meeting together in person. We will retreat, but we will not remain separated for too long. In the meantime, we will talk, we will pray together, we will share our joys and sorrows by all means. In Christ, there is no east nor west, no social distance. We will not be too far apart.

At the well, the woman asked for living water so that she would no longer need to care about the chores of daily living, the drawing and the drinking, but that was not what Jesus meant. Whether we receive his body and blood today as physical food and drink, or whether we make our spiritual Communion, receiving him in spirit and in truth, as God allows us, we are not released from the obligations of everyday living, everyday love of God and our neighbour. We are reminded of them, and strengthened for them.

Look, the woman told her neighbours. He knows everything about me – my hopes, my fears, my preexisting conditions, the state of my heart. Could it be that he is God with us, even here, even now? And her story spread mouth to mouth, person to person, throughout the town; and the good news, the gospel of Christ went viral.

Amen.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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