My wakeup call came when an epidemiologist brief us at the recent House of Bishops meeting. He said, “Everyone will be exposed.” Each of us will, in one way or another, encounter the COVID-19 virus. And yet, he added, “Not everyone will be infected.”
Words like this might cause you to start looking at your neighbors with extra caution or barely concealed fear. Whether they’re showing symptoms or not, anybody you encounter could be contagious.
I confess. I inwardly gasped at the thought of being unable to avoid exposure. And my first thought was that people around me may harbor the virus. Mercifully, a more helpful thought overrode my initial reaction:
If I’m really committed to loving my neighbor, I should act as if I may be contagious. I should do all in my power to protect my neighbor.
Maybe you expect a Christian to respond in a different way. Consider the Martyrs of Memphis, you might say. In 1878 Constance and her companions selflessly exposed themselves to yellow fever as they tended to the sick and dying. As a result, six of them contracted, and eventually succumbed to, the fever. They laid down their lives for the sake of love.
I admire these martyrs and commemorate them on their annual feast day (September 9). In a time of contagion, their first thought was, “We’re all in this together.” Their actions were guided by their love of neighbor instead of mere self-preservation. And we should all follow their example of responding with compassion to human need and suffering.
And yet, what we’re learning during the coronavirus pandemic is that compassion includes both offering comfort to sick individuals and being aware that each of us can also be a conduit for the virus to spread to others. We’re all in this together. In a messy, confusing way.
Henri Nouwen once said that we are wounded healers. In the midst of this pandemic, we might say that we can strive to be contagious healers. Our situation challenges us to find ways in which to comfort the suffering while also protecting others from the contagion we might carry.
And so we take practical steps, including the paradoxical measure of social distancing in order to flatten the curve of the epidemic. If we seek merely to avoid sickness by shunning others and remaining indifferent to the physical and economic impact on our neighbors wrought by this virus, we’re just being selfish. And yet, if we are heedless of the possibility that we might speed up the rate of infection with our well-intentioned presence, we may in fact be putting other people’s lives at risk.
So what do we do? Honestly, we do the best that we can. Wash hands, stop touching your face, avoid large crowds.
Some people will cancel worship services. Others won’t, instead taking measures like altering how we pass the peace or distributing communion in one kind only.
We will bring communion to the homebound and hospitalized, make phone calls to the fearful and lonely, place cool compresses on fevered brows, pay light bills and rent for those put out of work, bury the dead, and console the bereaved.
But the core of the Christian response, it seems to me, is to remember that we are all in this together. And Christ is right in the middle of things with us. This does not guarantee that no one gets sick or that no one dies or that our best intentions and most careful practices won’t lead to unintended negative consequences. However, my faith is that, because Jesus abides with us, we’ll be okay no matter what happens.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. She never expected to see him there, much less to have a theological conversation with him. After all, he was a Jew. She assumed that her own religious practices, theological perspective, ethnicity, and gender would keep him at a distance. Her very person was contagious, could make him unclean.
For that matter, Jesus’ disciples were stunned into silence when they came upon him talking to this woman. What on earth was he doing there!?!
There are lots of lessons in that text, like most of John’s stories. But this one is especially important at this particular moment in our shared history: This world is a messy place. Everything we do affects everybody we encounter. Some of those effects are good. Others are ill. And even with the very best intentions, we sometimes make the mess worse.
But apparently, there is no place that God would rather be than right here. With us. And God’s holy presence assures me that, no matter what, we’ll be okay.