I can’t believe we’re back here already.
Last year on this Third Sunday of Lent, the story of the woman at the well spoke to me differently than ever before. Usually I notice the woman, first and foremost. I grapple with the tension between the almost immediate intimacy she achieves with Christ on the one hand, and the discomfort I feel at the way her story is so often used. That is, while there is such beauty, tenderness and vulnerability in the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well, this also tends to serve as the preeminent tale of “how Jesus treats sinners.”
It is telling, if not off-putting, that the woman at the well is said to have proclaimed, “’He told me everything I have done,”’ rather than “He knew everything I have lived through” or “He saw just who I am.” Even after her salvific encounter with the Christ, the woman’s joyful takeaway still seems to center her own guilt and shame (never mind the fact that she lived in an era when the number of husbands she had would likely have spoken far less to her own volition or proclivities than to her complete socioeconomic subservience. But I digress).
Last year my focus did not land primarily on the woman herself, or on her ambivalent role as “sinner par excellence.” Last year I noticed the prophecy. And, revisiting this reading nearly a full calendar year later, my gaze is still firmly fixed in the same place. We all have more information than we did a year ago (about coronavirus, about racial and economic inequality, about the tenuousness of our political systems, to name a few key areas of illumination). We all have lived through unprecedented events on so many levels. Yet Jesus’s words in this Johannine gospel, the words he has spoken into our lives this past year, remain inscrutable to me in so many ways.
We had a leadership team meeting the day before I began working from home, where I, and most of the rest of staff, have remained working for nearly a year. We begin all of our meetings with prayer, and most with the Gospel for the coming Sunday. After proclaiming the Gospel, we sit in meditative silence for a minute or two, then practice a sort of “free form” lectio divina together.
I remember being nervous to share what had caught my attention in the passage: “’Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”’ It seemed impossible to imagine Mass could ever be canceled. Even the hypothetical suggestion ruffled our pastor’s feathers, I could tell. It seemed ridiculous, even shameful to speak out loud.
But there it was. The irony was not lost on several of us that we were sitting in a leadership team meeting discussing the fate of Lenten worship for our community that literally sits on top of a mountain, and includes the word “mount” in its name.
The next day I would call our pastor and explain that, after some research on coronavirus and much prayer, I knew I needed to let him know where I stood. I shared that it seemed as though we had responsibility as leaders to protect our people from this unprecedented (in our lifetimes) and deadly virus, and that, in my view, we should cancel Mass that weekend. He heard me, and seemed to have mixed feelings himself. We canceled the RCIA Scrutiny that was scheduled, and were alerted later in the weekend that our diocese’s Rite of Election would not happen, either. While Masses did happen diocesan-wide the weekend of the woman at the well, our bishop made the decision for us for the following weekend. Starting the fourth weekend of Lent, there would be a pause in public Masses in our diocese.
Jesus’s phrasing in this Scripture can sound inviting or foreboding: “’Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”’ Hearing those words, it is difficult for me to tell whether Jesus is speaking to coming doom (the end of possibilities of worship altogether? The end of the world? The end of my capacity to worship, because God doesn’t want me anymore?), or if he speaks in a tone of wonder, conviction, expansiveness.
The words that come just a little further on encourage me toward hope, rather than doom: “’But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.’”
And the Spirit, we know, “blows where it wills.”
I want to be careful here not to say the opposite of what I mean. I am not a gnostic. While my spirituality may push the envelope in significant ways, the grounding of my religious life in the concrete and sacramental has saved my sanity, and possibly literally my life. I do not want to downplay that. At the very same time, I must say that this year’s unprecedented worship has liberated my soul and reminded me of the sacramental nature of all of creation in a way I have deeply needed.
To say “God is Spirit” is not the same as saying “God is not incarnate.” How important to remember the context of this passage and the speaker of these words: it is God the Son, God the Incarnate, Enfleshed One, who speaks them. The delicious paradox here, it seems to me, is that precisely because our God is both Spirit and enfleshed, God can share God’s Spirit, infuse God’s Spirit, wherever God pleases.
This is how we can receive God’s Spirit at baptism, right? There is nothing intrinsic, probably, about the squishy flesh of a baby that calls for the dignity of becoming a temple of the Living God. And yet, God seems to will it. And so, squishiness and all, my babies have become temples of the Holy, loci of the most sacred, unchanging, powerful force of the universe.
And, in the same way that God has chosen my squishy babies to become carriers of his Spirit, God has shown up, ready to be worshiped, in all kinds of haphazard and graced ways during this pandemic.
God has reminded me of the sacred efficacy of proclaiming his Word, for instance, and the efficacy of different kinds of liturgy. When my family and I read the Scriptures out loud with one another, we are making something sacramental happen, by the grace of God. These are no ordinary words that fall passively to the ground. Upon proclamation, these words live and act: they have real power to change us, because the Word lives within them. When we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we participate in the Church’s worship, united as one Body, though we are not inside one church building together.
And God has shown up in less traditionally prescribed ways. God is there when my 10-year-old daughter gives us a “homily,” empowering her to enter the Word more personally, critically, and honestly than she normally does inside the pew of a church building. God showed up when two of my oldest and best friends arrived on our porch, masked and distanced, to share “home church” and blueberry pancakes with us last summer.
“What do you do about communion?” one of them, a friend who happens to identify within the LGBTQ community, asked.
“We do a spiritual communion,” I said.
“A spiritual communion!” She clapped her hands delightedly. “I’m allowed to have that kind!”
Her characteristic humor cut right to the heart of so much for me: how deeply I have longed to share spiritual practice together again, how angry and sad I am that she is not welcomed in the traditional spaces of her heritage, and how mischievous this Loving God is, to find a way to bring us together, my friends and my family, in such a sneaky and life-giving way.
So we worshiped together, “in Spirit and in truth,” me and my “faith community.” And as we sat there together, I couldn’t help but think, “yes! This is what church is!”
Holly Mohr works in formation in Pittsburgh, PA. She shares a beautiful and slightly eccentric life with her husband and three children.