As you know by now, America at present faces a national emergency on account of the spread of the corona virus. Medical experts tell us that the most effective strategy for combating disease involves attention to hygiene, especially hand-washing, and what has become part of the popular lexicon within the last week: social distancing. People are to avoid large crowds (as few as ten people!), and even then, to avoid physical contact of any kind. The huggers among us must feel straight-jacketed! Restaurants and other gathering places, like theaters and sports arenas, have been closed for the foreseeable future: a practice which, beside the economic ramifications, goes against the grain of any human being, whom Aristotle calls the “social animal.” Perhaps the bitterest pill for many of us to swallow is the cancellation of public Mass and other forms of worship. The Church, the Ecclesia, literally means the “calling together” of believers, by the action of the Holy Spirit. Our vertical relationship with God, by its very nature, brings about a horizontal relationship with each other: “Love God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Given the situation, Deacon Rafal and I decided not to preach this weekend, the better to streamline the order of Mass, but the subject of the Gospel this past Sunday was appropriate for the occasion: the Woman at the Well. If you notice, the very fact that Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman is extraordinary. You might say that there was even more to social distancing between Jews and Samaritans than today’s concern over contagion. Enmity between the two related ethnic groups extended back centuries to the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The kings of Samaria welcomed, and encouraged, the presence of Assyrians, Persians, and Babylonians, who in turn imposed pagan worship upon the people. Even the Samaritans who stayed loyal to the God of Israel broke with the Jews over the issue of the Scriptures themselves, and recognized only the five books (the woman’s five husbands?) of the Law—the Torah—as God’s Word. Our Lord looks past these differences, and elicits from the woman a thirst for God that only the life of faith (the “living water”) can satisfy, through the One whom he has sent: Jesus the Messiah.
This week’s Gospel uses a different metaphor for faith, that of vision. In the first reading from the book of Samuel, the prophet must select the new king from among Jesse’s sons. The oldest, Eliab, was impressive, both in appearance and by his resume as a trained warrior, but Samuel rejects him and all the other brothers. When the youngest arrives, Samuel recognizes David as “the one.” Why? Human beings see only the appearance, whereas “the LORD looks into the heart.” God’s servants have a deeper appreciation of the events of history than their face value. Likewise, in the Gospel, the blind man’s affliction is thought to be God’s punishment for a personal sin. Jesus explains, rather, that because of it God’s mighty works “might be made visible.” The clay he makes with dust and spittle recalls the creation of Adam, and symbolizes the “re-creation” of humanity through grace. Ironically, the Pharisees who claim to see (that is, believe) prove to be spiritually blind for not recognizing God’s action in Christ.
Friends, I would offer two thoughts for this week. The first involves the relevance of the Samaritan woman and the blind man for the times in which we live. The woman is thirsty for Life, and the man yearns for Vision. Do we not want the same for ourselves and our loved ones? These fundamental desires of the soul make Christians seek deeper answers, that life is not merely the prolongation of earthly existence, that what is most real is not simply what the senses can perceive. No: Life is the perfect attainment of happiness and wisdom, a longing that can only be satisfied by friendship with God in Christ. Faith is the turning of the eyes of the soul to what eternally endures, and to act upon that awareness. Here below, responsibility demands that we attend to concrete human needs: washing hands, social distancing, and caring for each other. Yet we Christians see beyond these tasks to the goal they serve, a mystery that has one foot in this world and one in the next: Love, of both God and neighbor.
Second, we might “see” our present state of affairs from a different perspective than the conventional one: as less of a curse, and more of an opportunity through which God’s mighty works “might be made visible.” Believe me, I was no “warrior” in the military: far from it. But if there was one lesson that shared hardship taught us it was that, by the grace of God, we can seek—and find—the blessings, wisdom, and holiness we never thought possible. We discover them today by attending to our families through conversation, and study, and play, and prayer. (How about the rosary? Everyone takes a decade!) As we serve our neighbors, both Catholic and non-, consider how to give them good example of engraced vision for challenging times.