Sermon: "In the Company of Strangers" - March 15, 2020

by Ms. Katherine Rollo, Seminarian
​Third Sunday in Lent

Church of the Holy Spirit – March 15, 2020 – John 4:5-24

In the Company of Strangers

People are often amused when I tell them that John and I had our first date in a cemetery.  We spent the afternoon sitting on a wooden bench in St. Paul’s Trinity Chapel in lower Manhattan in the cemetery.  It was an unlikely meeting place. 

There was much about our meeting at that point in our lives that was unlikely.  Looking back on that day in August of 1992 and then to where we both find ourselves in March of 2020 that unlikely meeting not only transformed our lives but the lives of many along the way.  When I think about how that day, sitting on a bench in a cemetery, led me to standing in this pulpit today…it is dizzying.

This morning’s gospel is about an unlikely meeting between two individuals.  At first read you might not catch the synchronicity of the encounter.  But John includes two facts that I think are intended to make the point that this meeting was destined to happen.  More than likely those who heard this story in John’s time, understood the significance of the details he included in the narrative. 

Neither the woman nor Jesus should have been at Jacobs well.  The woman should not have been there.  It was noon, the hottest time of the day.  Women drew their water in early morning to avoid the overpowering heat.  Many scripture scholars have speculated as to why she was there at that time, but regardless of the reason she was there on that particular day at that particular hour.

John also tells us that Jesus was in Judea and headed for Galilee.  The listeners to this story would have known that he had two possible routes.  The more likely route was up along the Jordan River Valley.  The terrain was soft and flat – not a strenuous trip.  But for whatever reason he chose to go through Samaria – a terrain that was rocky and mountainous, not to mention that the Jews and the Samaritans did not have a harmonious relationship.  But something drew him on this ‘road less traveled’ that put him face to face with the Samaritan woman.

 One of the issues that I have with the gospel of John as a body of work  is that he is single minded in his objective when he writes – he is determined that his listeners understand the eternal existence and the Divine nature of Jesus.  But I ask you to take a closer look with me at the initial encounter between these two strangers and see just how human in nature this encounter starts out to be.

 The Jews looked down on the Samaritans as morally inferior, they worshiped many gods.  Characteristic of this sense of superiority can be heard in the way Jesus greets this woman. He says – Give me a drink- now I’m sorry, but that is just  rude!  And the woman is obviously not having any of it, says right back – How is it that you a Jew asking a drink of me a Samaritan woman?

 There is a tension in this encounter. You hear a hint of suspicion in the woman’s voice as she responds to the request of a man who clearly thinks that she is inferior as a woman and as a Samaritan.  On Jesus’s part, men did not engage women in conversation.  They both should have turned and walked away but neither one did.  That decision transformed both their lives.  She received the good news of the living water and she held up a mirror for Jesus to take one step closer to realizing his divinity.  It was a courageous decision on the part of strangers to open themselves to a Spirit driven synchronistic encounter.

When it comes to dealings with people we don’t know, I think that we all received the same warning from our parents – Don’t talk to strangers!  That is good advice now, just as it was when I was a child.  But as adults if we look at our every day public life – or life out in public spaces, we are in a constant coming together with strangers – in supermarkets, cafes, parks, town squares the list goes on.  Parker Palmer, a contemporary writer, philosopher and Quaker writes about the role of the stranger in our life.  He says that in “the company of strangers” we are “reminded that the foundation of life together is not the intimacy of friends, but the capacity of strangers to share a common territory, common resources, common problems – without ever becoming friends”.  This statement is nevermore true today as we face the issue of a virus that threatens - if you will – a host of strangers.  

 We are facing a time when mutual responsibility becomes crucial to everyone’s health and well-being.   This is a time to understand that our public conduct, our attitude, and how we speak, matters.  This is a time we can be a force that contributes to the common good by adhering to the guidelines of health professionals, maintaining a level of calm in the midst of hysteria that seems to pervade every form of public media.  Or we can disregard those warning and participate in the hysteria and hoarding that adds to the disruption of our lives and the lives of those around us.  

Blanche Dubois in that famous line from Streetcar Named Desire is prophetic when she says, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”   Whether we like it or not the interdependence of life in this global world is fact.   And we have a serious responsibility to one another during this time.   This virus can rightfully be considered a kind of stranger.  There is much that is unknown.  Will we treat it with respect, fear, reverence, indifference?  What can this stranger teach us about ourselves and our relationships with one another?

 When you consider it, we really, have an opportunity to do something that has the potential to have a positive impact beyond our family and our community.  John and I met in an unlikely place that impacted our tiny piece of the world.  The Samaritan woman and Jesus had an unlikely encounter at Jacobs well, the impact of which still reverberates throughout the History of the Christian world.  And the unlikely encounter with a stranger you may - or may not have, might just contribute positively to the health and wellbeing of many strangers beyond which you could ever imagine.

Trust the words of Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Therein lies our hope.