Mick’s CV Memo – Jesus on Social Distancing

Social distancing was not really part of my common vocabulary 3 weeks ago.  In fact most of us would have considered the concept prejudicial or rude.  In the time of Jesus there was a lot of social distancing.  Everyone kept their distance from lepers for the same reason we are staying clear of one another now—in order to avoid being afflicted with a disease.  But there were many other reasons people kept social distance in first century Israel.  Men tended to keep social distance from women in public places as they considered them inherently inferior.  Everyone kept their distance from people who were ritually “unclean”—those who handled meat products or who accidentally touched something soiled; or women who were experiencing menstruation.  Most kept their distance from anyone who lived in the region they called Samaria due to centuries old political animosity and the history of departure from worship under the leadership of the Priestly clan at the temple in Jerusalem. Those considered the most righteous of the time, the Pharisees, defined themselves by their distance from all outside of their community of washings and rituals; referring to everyone else as “people of the earth” and themselves as separated sons of Abraham.

Then came Jesus into their social distancing space.  John chapter 4 records an encounter early in his public ministry that shows why Jesus was on a collision course with their prime motivation of self-righteous separationism.  At the beginning of the chapter there is a subtle rebellion, rabbi Jesus is baptizing followers in increasing numbers, even more than John the Baptist!  But John writing years later remembered that it was the disciples doing the baptizing instead of Jesus.  Imagine the outrage that He would use “people of the earth” like fishermen and tax collectors to baptize new followers.

But Jesus puts miles of social distance between Himself and the Pharisees as the rest of the chapter continues.  First He “had to go through Samaria” (vs4).  Why? Because He was planning to make a huge distinction between His purposes and the Pharisees.  He would pursue the Samaritans while they were distancing from them.  Next He visits the famous well and has His famous conversation with the Samaritan (conventional strike one) Woman (conventional strike two) who is going there in the heat of the day alone because she has had serial husbands and is now living with someone outside of marriage (strike three for justified social distancing).  Jesus breaks the ice with a request for her to give Him a drink of water.  She immediately identified that He was not practicing the conventional distancing rules by speaking to a Samaritan and a woman; and she called Him on it (vs 9). 

Maybe she just didn’t feel like serving Him.  Maybe she thought he would find a way to humiliate her by pouring it out in front of her.  Maybe she had been hurt by others and was disappointed that she found the well occupied when it would normally be deserted. Maybe she reciprocated the social distance mindset back at the Jewish traveler. For whatever reason she didn’t seem ready to meet him in the middle. So Jesus took the conversation to a personal level, offering to remove the conventional social distance she assumed was there. He offered to tell her who He was, if she wanted to know and even said that He had a gift for Her from God; a gift of living water (vs10).  As the conversation continued He offered her “living water” that would quench her thirst permanently and revealed that He knew about her many failed relationships and present situation.  Following a brief theological rabbit trail that normally ended spiritual interaction between Jews and Samaritans, He revealed in the most direct terms that He is the Messiah.  His bewildered disciples returned from a trip to the grocery store and found Him shattering the social distancing rules that had bounded their lives since birth. She rushed home to tell her story and many Samaritans in her town came to believe in Jesus.

I’m not saying we should violate the current medically prescribed social distancing.  But we can all ask ourselves if we have been practicing our own forms of social distancing.  Do we follow the Pharisees in judging whether certain labels, classes or races or history deem someone worthy of erecting a social barrier?  I think most of us have and sometimes do, whether we are aware or not.

What is the outcome?  We see it in the contrast between the Pharisees and Jesus.  The Pharisees had decades of interaction (or lack of it) with Samaritans.  They had done nothing to draw them back to worship of the one true God of Abraham. If anything, they had pushed them away.  Jesus had one conversation with a female Samaritan outcast and through her, MANY Samaritans believed and were reconciled to the God of their ancestors. 

The current COVID crisis that now distances us all provides a common denominator, like the thirst that brought Jesus and the Samaritan woman to the same well.  Right now we are limited to remote means for bridging the social distance and opening the door of dialogue with extended family, friends or coworkers. We should still use those means to exploit the common denominator.  Later when this enforced “distancing” is relaxed; we will have even greater opportunity to exploit that common experience.  May the Lord bless it with the fruit we see from Jesus’ example in Samaria!

With you in Him,

Mick