I’ve been thinking of “neighbor” as a verb lately. Its not just a label. To neighbor is an action, a behavior. How do we actively neighbor each other in fearful times? We who yearn to be God’s Beloved Community come up against it time and again. Over the generations, we’ve done it better at sometimes than others, in some places than others.
Two biblical tales in this week’s common lectionary tell of neighbors, one close in relationship and the other distant, both in fear full situations. The first tale travels with Moses and the people exiting Egypt as their going gets tough. If you have children or playful adults, you might try acting out this cathartic scene. From the wilderness of Sin, the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So, Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." -Exodus 17: 1-4
In stressful times we often lash out, especially when we or those we love are in danger. How satisfying it can feel to vent our fear and anger toward an authority figure! In the story, God responds by providing relief. Moses strikes the rock at Horeb. Water pours out to the people’s fear and delight. Children might relate to a fire hydrant opened on a hot city summer day. Their outpouring of frustration is met by pure clean water from an unlikely rock, released by a simple gesture that reminds people who God has empowered to lead them. Moses knows that God is with them because he hears, " I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” -Exodus 17: 6. But it was a generation (40 years) before the Israelites got over that angry episode with God.
The second tale is the too familiar Samaritan woman. I say that as one who has grown comfortable with the story and easily forgets the deep tension between neighboring Samaria and Judea. I’d rather just enjoy the sweet interaction between new friends. ….Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) John 4:5-9
We live in a time fraught with distrust and suspicion and are encouraged to stick close to likeminded folks. One of the things I love most about Maine is the sense that everyone is truly your neighbor. So, it pierces when I hear that someone of a different ethnic background has been treated in a less than neighborly way. Last week real situations compelled Bishop Devadhar and the cabinet to write:
“We stand in loving solidarity with our Asian and Asian American siblings throughout New England and beyond who are being publicly and privately blamed, ostracized, mistreated, denied services, attacked, and physically and emotionally harmed by those whose fears are fueled by and fueling racism and xenophobia. We pray and advocate for our Korean and Chinese siblings in particular who have been increasingly targeted in recent weeks.”
I hope that all of us in MidMaine are committed to supporting Asian owned businesses and ready to lovingly stand with anyone experiencing zenophobia, which seems to be most often happening in shopping areas. Because we know how to be good neighbors. And because, as those learning to be more Christ-like, we recognize each other as God’s own creations. The Samarian story continues with the woman struggling to recognize Jesus. Is it because she is so caught off guard that he would approach her in such a neighborly fashion? Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" John 4: 10-12
Jesus persists in deepening this bridge-making new relationship. [He] said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." John 4: 13-15
The rest of the story is two neighbors, Jesus and the woman, getting increasingly “real with each other” until Jesus’ buddies show up and are astonished (appalled?) at the conversation. They say nothing. Sometimes the neighbors we’re closest too can be the hardest to go deeper with. We think we know each other already, or we don’t want to upset the status quo. She, however, tells everyone she sees and sends them toward Jesus. "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?...... Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done." So, when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world." - John 4: 29, 39-42.
How can we stay with each other in these days of denominational turmoil, political wrangling, and preventative preparation for COVID19? How do we neighbor each other and those around us? Last week’s episcopal letter goes on to say:
“God’s love made manifest in us can and does cast out fear. We are called to stand together in this love and to be attentive to the needs of those inside and outside our congregations who are suffering harm from the virus and from the ills of a fearful society. Please join us in intentionally connecting with, praying for, and advocating for those who have taken ill, those who are quarantined, those who have lost loved ones, and those who are being racially targeted so that we can all know that we are accompanied by a love that will not us go.”
Good neighboring goes beyond fear. Real neighboring embodies God’s love through the living and present Christ who is always among and within us While using common sense precautions as we’re instructed by real experts, we need to decide whether to be governed by fear or by the neighborly love of Christ. A good neighbor will avoid spreading the virus any way they can; will reach out as they are able to stay in touch by phone with neighbors who are isolated; will help with community efforts to distribute food, supplies, and reliable information. Ask your town office how you can help.
Wouldn’t this be a perfect time for a card ministry to the homebound? Isn’t this a great opportunity to create a care circle for checking in by phone with your church’s homebound, and a second caring circle for checking with other neighbors in the community? Italy has started a “call is a hug” campaign. I think this is an excellent time to check in with Asian neighbors and let them know you value them in your community.
Please send information about how you are preparing for the possibility of community response as well as questions you have. firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s learn together how to be God’s Beloved Community. And as Lent continues, let’s remind each other to draw daily from the water that fed God’s people in the wilderness and created new friends at the well.
In God’s Grace, Karen
PS: Romans 5:1-11 is also in this week’s common lectionary. May we read this passage as a prayer?!
Karen L Munson
A pastor and artist, I'm wondering while I'm wandering through God's marvelous creation.