I think it is safe to say that, for most of us, this is the strangest Lent we have ever experienced. Last week, we heard the command of God to Abram and Sara to leave their home and their family – that is, all that was familiar and a source of identity and strength for them – to travel to an unknown destination. “To a land that I will show you,” I believe, were God’s words to the couple. Abram and Sara had no map to such a place.
Haven’t we all felt like we are walking in uncharted territory. At the beginning of Lent, we asked each other what we were going to do for this holy season, what we were going to give up? No matter how we answered that question two and a half weeks ago, I’ll bet every one of us have had to revise the “things given up” category to include the NBA, March Madness, St. Patrick’s Day parades and parties, Tavola di San Giuseppe, wedding receptions, travel, and Broadway shows.
For us Catholic Christians, the sudden, unexpected deprivation goes infinitely further, touching the source of our identity, strength and peace. None of us ever thought that, in the year 2020, we would mark the Third Sunday of Lent by being deprived of the Eucharist. Perhaps we understand better the angry fear of the Israelites that screamed at Moses – and God! – “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt? Was it just to have us die here of thirst with our children and our livestock?” Their fear was not groundless. Without water, life disappears. Without the Eucharist, the Body of Christ withers.
Confronted with their peril, the Israelites asked a fundamental question: “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” In the face of a pandemic and the responses by society and Church, we should ask a bold question: “Is the LORD speaking through these events or not?” If God is speaking, then our prayer is a crucial plea: If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
God did speak to a woman. She did not harden her heart. We eavesdropped on the conversation. Suddenly, Jesus, a Jew, appears and asks the woman, a Samaritan woman, for water. He is thirsty and asks for water. He is a human being who manifests his need. Nothing more – at least, at first. Jesus is not concerned that the woman is a Samaritan. She is one more sister. She is the daughter of God.
There begins a dialogue in which Jesus is going to invite the Samaritan woman to go beyond norms and cults. Jesus says, the time is coming when those who worship God will do so in “spirit and in truth” and not on this mountain or on the other, or by obeying some laws or others. Then the Samaritan woman's mind opens, and she cannot help but announce what she has “seen and heard” to her neighbors.
But what does that “in spirit and in truth” mean? Perhaps we should connect this story of the Samaritan woman with the parable of the Good Samaritan. There we find the key to what worshipping God means for Jesus. It is not simply something that is done in the temple - let us remember that he does not accept the attitude of the religious figures in that parable, the priest and the Levite, - because God is worshiped wherever he is found. For Jesus, God is found in the neighbor. More specifically, in the needy and suffering neighbor.
Jesus' proposal for Jews and Samaritans and Catholics is the same: the only way worship avoids empty narcissism is if it is based on a real love for God that is manifested in love for our neighbors, especially those who suffer.
The circumstances of this Lent invite us to worship God in spirit and in truth, in our suffering brothers and sisters. This worship cannot be limited to social distancing – as important as that practice is in preventing the suffering of the most vulnerable among us. We are not simply to retreat to our homes with arms full of stuff that we think will save us – from sickness, boredom, or deprivation from comfort food.
Far from being an act of self-preservation, social distancing only makes sense if it is an act of solidarity. The coronavirus teaches a harsh lesson: we are connected to each other, whether we like it or not. Individually, we can run but we cannot hide. Movie stars and political leaders are just as vulnerable as the elderly and children.
A fundamental recognition of this shared fragility is to work together to hinder the spread of the pandemic. The experience of other countries has demonstrated convincingly that the worse response to Covid-19 is to pretend that it does not exist or to believe that my world will be spared the harsh consequences of the infection. Solidarity helps us see that a Samaritan response to the challenges of this Lent will be avoiding large gatherings and washing our hands. As a fellow preacher observed earlier today: the data suggests that what the world needs now is not our physical presence, but our absence.
Many of us have watched how other countries have reacted to this global crisis. For many reasons, in the Archdiocese of Newark we have been transfixed by what is happening in Italy, whose culture nourishes so many of our families and houses a principal source of the unity of our Church. In recent days the lockdown of Italy has gone to heretofore unknown extremes. But people are inventing new means to express their solidarity. In Milan, Palermo, Siena, and Roma, people gather on the balconies to sing, laugh, and pray together. They are distant, yet united.
If today we hear God’s voice, harden not our hearts. God cannot help but live in solidarity with God’s creatures, since God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Our willingness to be responsible for each other, especially the sick and suffering, is worship in spirit and truth of that loving, living God.