The opposite of isolation is love

Reflection for March 15, 2020 on John 4:5-45 | Jesus greets a Samaritan woman and many come to believe because of her testimony

A guest post by our seminarian, Megan Allen

We enter the third week of Lent facing a precarious situation – the COVID 19 pandemic. People are encouraged to practice social distancing, reducing our contact with others to slow the spread of the virus, and to self-quarantine when appropriate. Even for the most introverted, it feels like a time of disconnection and isolation. But what does COVID 19 have to do with the story of the Samaritan woman?

We know she goes to the well to get water alone and at a time of day when others were unlikely to be there. Some suggest this woman might be a social outcast, and I imagine that in the truest sense of the word, the woman was alone. Perhaps experiencing the isolation of social distancing. How long might she have been longing for connection and relationship?

Traditional Orthodox icon of St. Photini at the well with Jesus

We also know Jesus was at the well. I assume she and Jesus are less than 6-feet apart as he chooses to enter into relationship with her. A Jew and a Samaritan – unlikely dialogue partners with a shared history and fractured present. Through their dialogue we hear that Jesus offered this woman the opposite of the isolation she felt. Continued isolation from others can feel like brokenness; like a sorrow deep within our soul. Jesus offers her living water – a renewed relationship of deep connection and love with God. An opportunity to be made whole, even in this place of isolation.

Response to this pandemic demands we distance ourselves from others. Like the Samaritan woman, this leaves us thirsty for connection. But it is also an opportunity to meet Jesus at the well of our lives. We are reminded that as we too navigate the isolation of social distancing and feel the brokenness, anxiety, and fear in our separation from others, we too are offered living water.

What living water is Christ offering you?

About that Journey, artist Meredith Gould
Featured in the forthcoming issue of Soul By Southwest

The Samaritan woman in the Eastern tradition is known as Saint Photini, meaning “the luminous one”. She is a woman of light, quick to share the good news of Christ with others. As we drink from the well of eternal life, how might we respond like the Samaritan woman? We can extend Christ’s living water through inviting others to join us virtually, by reaching out to connect others in love, and by offering ourselves to God’s service, as we are able. May we remember throughout this time that Jesus meets us here, knows our pains, and satisfies our needs.

Note: if you’re finding yourself feeling alone right now, Incarnation is offering community, connection, and prayer several days a week online. Check out our Calendar for the full line-up, and links to join via Zoom. Drop in anytime you can.

What does theology have to do with love?

A Reflection from March 8, 2020 on John 3:1-17 | Jesus tells a religious leader about love

This week’s reflection begins with a short diatribe, but stick with me because it’s all a roundabout way of telling you what theology has to do with love.

Now, I have heard several pastors/priests/ministers give the advice about preaching, that nobody who goes to church on Sunday wants to hear about theology in the sermon.



Perhaps I’m just stubborn (no, you are!) but I refuse to accept this advice. First of all, it’s the job of church leaders not just to educate people about religious things, but to help shape people’s desires so that we love what is good and right and true (i.e. God and God’s goodness manifest in creation). So if Christians don’t love theology, whose fault is that? Secondly, if people don’t think they like theology, it’s probably because their church leaders didn’t ever say what’s so amazing about it!

So what’s so amazing about theology? Well, inasmuch as theology is the study of GOD, theology is really all about LOVE! Let me explain.

One of the reasons that the Bible is so important for Christians is that it is the basis for all the claims made about who God is. In particular, the Gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, make claims about who Jesus is as God incarnate. What this means is that the human God (that’s Jesus) makes known to other humans (that’s us) what is most important about God.

With that in mind, we should listen closely when Jesus says things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In this powerful statement, often quoted only in part, Jesus reveals how he is part of God’s plan of salvation for us, but even more importantly, why God would want to save us in the first place–namely, because of God’s unconditional love for the whole world. The theological principle that describes this unconditional love is ‘grace.’

This verse has become a popular slogan at football games and other sporting events.

The message of grace says that our God is a God of love. Moreover, everything Jesus does to reveal God to humans, by becoming human himself, indicates that God wants us to know that love in our own lives.

As I talked about in last week’s reflection, sin is the greatest threat to love. But it’s really important to note that sin is what prevents us from loving God and God’s creation (including each other and the created world); sin is not what prevents God from loving us. I’ll say it again: sin is not what prevents God from loving us. And we know this because Jesus said in John 3:16-17 that he came because God loves us and intends, not to condemn us, but to save us.

I’ll give a new copy of “On the Incarnation,” by Athanasius of Alexandria to the first person who can count all of the theological claims I just made. Here’s a hint: I claimed that God is a God of love, that Jesus is the full revelation of God’s love, that Jesus came to restore us to relationship with God because God loves us unconditionally, and that this is the message of grace. What’s amazing about theology is that it tells us all this! Theology is all about love (whether you love theology or not!) because God is all about love.

What do you think? Share your thoughts about theology, love, and grace in the comments.

Athanasius of Alexandria – 296-373

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What’s love got to do with it (sin, that is)?

A Reflection from March 1, 2020 on Matthew 4:1-11 | Jesus is Tempted in the Wilderness but does not Sin (passage included below)

Remember when I said that our Lenten Bible Study would focus on love? The Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent is making us work for our money with our first passage, which is about Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days and then being tempted by a devil when his defenses are most weakened. And, yet, he doesn’t take the bait. I have to admit, I fasted on Ash Wednesday (and humbly repent of making it so public with this statement) and by the end of the day I was surely guilty of at least five of the seven deadly sins (no comment on which ones). Had the devil offered me a loaf of bread, I’m not sure I would have done what Jesus did.

The point of this story about Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness is not to teach us that the evil one tempts us with food, safety, and power so we better be on the lookout and know how to resist them. Nor is this supposed to remind us that we’re miserable failures who don’t deserve God’s favor, but if we’re lucky God will love us anyway. In fact, the point of the passage is quite the opposite: it’s that Jesus, who was tempted by the same things we are, has resisted evil and, spoiler alert, at his resurrection, he defeats evil altogether and forever. In sum, this is the kind of Lord you can put your trust in. He’s not like us, and yet he loves us, weak and cranky as we are.

Yes, we should try to resist temptation, not be driven by our material desires, trust God even when we feel vulnerable, and should resist making idols of all the things that we mindlessly worship (fame, wealth, health, social status, physical ability, intelligence, etc.). But Jesus came to save sinners, not perfect people who can DIY their relationship with God (think 700 Club meets HGTV…or just the 700 Club…).

The good people who decide what Bible passages we read in church each week paired this passage with one from Romans 5:12-19 which says that sin and death came into the world through one person, Adam (of Adam and Eve fame), and was overcome by the love and life of one person, Jesus. That’s the message of grace: that we are good enough to be loved by God, even if we don’t think we (or others) are really that great.

So, in the words of my childhood hero, Tina Turner: What’s love got to do, got to do with it? More specifically, what does love have to do with sin? If Jesus did all that he did, and now we’re good in God’s eyes, then why do we need to worry about sin?

Because of love!

Sin, at its core, is an absence of love. You’ve seen the snarky bumper stickers that say “Jesus loves you but the rest of us think you’re a [jerk].” It’s not a very nice statement, but there’s some theological truth in it. We’re called to imitate Jesus’s reconciliation by replacing sin (especially our own) with love. This means repenting of our sins and not being jerks, because the rest of the world still has to live with us. Will Jesus love you if you’re still a jerk? Yes. (thanks be to God!) Will your spouse, kids, coworkers, fellow-drivers? If they can manage to see you as God does…then yes…but why not make it easier on everyone?

The priest and theologian, Alexander Schmemann says that it’s the Church’s job “To remind man of this personal love and vocation,” during Lent. He goes one to say, “to fill the sinful world with [Jesus’s] love–this is the true mission of the Church (Great Lent, p. 26).” If we, as faithful and caring people, want to participate in this work, then we need to start with ourselves. We ended our Bible Study with this question: How does temptation prevent us from loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves?

You can participate in the conversation, too, by adding your thoughts or questions to the comment section. Want to join us for next week’s conversation? Email me (Brin) for details or tune in for next week’s blog post, which is on John 3:1-17 – Jesus tells a pharisee that he came not to condemn the world but to save it.

Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Join Incarnation’s Lenten Bible Study

Lent is the season in the Church year where the Church calls its members to repentance. Christians often take on additional spiritual practices (sometimes including fasting, additional prayer, and acts of service) that help us grow closer to God, in part by eliminating the distractions that so often get in the way. It begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for six Sundays until we get to Holy Week. All of this preparation reaches its end with the biggest celebration of the Church year–Easter. Unfortunately, Lent has a bad reputation as being a punitive and dour occasion for groveling before God and being reminded of our own miserableness. But Lent is not about groveling and misery, it’s about love.
One of my favorite theologians, Alexander Schmemann, says that Lent is a pilgrimage of repentance. To repent means “to return, to go back, to recover that lost home.” Where we belong is the loving household of God. As we make our way back toward our lost home this Lent, we will orient ourselves with the compass of love, but exploring what Jesus reveals to us about God’s love.
Few of us need to be told of our own miserableness, but we all need to be told of God’s love for us. When we look back to the stories of Jesus recorded in the Bible we see that the Christian faith, at its heart, is a religion of love. After all, as Fr. Schmemann points out, “Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment ‘that they love one another,’ and he added: ‘By this shall all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’”
Each week I’ll post a Bible passage and a short reflection based on the conversation we have during our Bible Study. I encourage you to read them and post your comments, thoughts, or questions in the comments section below.
If you want to read ahead, here are the passages for each week: