What is our responsibility to each other?
Some Sundays, the gospel poses this question to us, and we think, well, let’s mull that over. It’s theoretical. We can have the moral debate – what do we owe the stranger on the street? How much of ourselves do we sacrifice for our community? Do I really need to inconvenience myself for my neighbor? Why bother talking to the woman at the well at all – her troubles are not mine.
And yet here we are, in the middle of March, in the third week of Lent, and these questions are not rhetorical. They are real. A virus heading our way has made them real. And how we answer them in the next few weeks and months will decide what happens to many stranger, neighbors, and to people whose troubles are not ours.
So what is our responsibility to each other?
Well, we are told, we must wash out hands. A lot. But our parents and grandparents have been urging us to do that since we were little kids. No biggie. We should carry around some hand sanitizer just in case. But that’s not a heavy load. We might stock our pantries with canned food and pasta to get through any quarantine, but what’s an extra trip to Costco?
Is that the extent of our responsibility to each other – to protect ourselves?
We can be forgiven for that instinct: the disciples certainly expressed it. They saw Jesus in earnest conversation with that unworthy woman at the well, and they were appalled. She was a Samaritan and Jews and Samaritans did not mix. They challenge Jesus: Why are you wasting your time talking to her?
Jesus answer isn’t recorded – perhaps for the best. But what has always been remarkable about that conversation at the well is the detail in which it is told: Jesus is in conversation. It is not one-sided: the woman challenges him and poses questions. They exchange ideas. And in the course of that conversation, she becomes not an other – but a disciple too. And that means Jesus has a responsibility to her, as much as anyone.
Where does that leave us? Humanity and culture may draw lines to box people in their place. But Jesus does not. The lesson we get each and every week is that there is no other, not stranger, nor outsider: there are only people, all worthy of God’s love. We are defined by the sacrifices we are willing to make on their behalf.
What should our sacrifices be? Do we wait for the government to step in, to ban large gatherings, to restrict our travel, to force us to stay home if we feel sick? Or do we have a moral obligation to go beyond that – to make choices that protect the vulnerable, and the elderly?
This is the question – we are facing it in real time. We know that the virus is coming; it’s already here. Most of us are likely to get it. And for most of us, it will be like getting a cold, or a bad flu. But for a certain number of people it will be extremely dangerous. And if too many people get it all at once, it could clog the health care system and create more risk. The best hope, scientists say, is that we slow the spread of the virus. They call this flattening the curve. The virus will hang around for longer, but infect people more slowly so the health care system can cope, and to bide time for a possible vaccine.
But that can’t happen if all we do is wash our hands, and stock our pantries.
The reality is to slow the virus we have to inconvenience ourselves for each other – for the stranger, and the neighbor, and the elderly senior we don’t know. We have to decide not to go out when we feel sick. And to avoid large gatherings even if the risk to ourselves is low because we may spread the virus to someone else. If we all say – there is nothing to worry about because my risk is low – and carry on as usual, than we endanger those whose risk is high.
And so we are asked – what is our responsibility to each other?
Let us all pretend that Jesus is standing in front of us, having just returned from his conversation with the woman at the well. Pose this question to him. Do we even need to hear his answer?