Glynn Cardy 12th March 2023
In 2021 Dr Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, wrote a book titled “Together: Loneliness, Health, and What Happens When We Find Connection.”
He makes a case for loneliness as a public health concern: a root cause and contributor to many of the epidemics sweeping the Western world today from alcohol and drug addiction to violence to depression and anxiety. At the centre of our loneliness, he says, is our innate desire to connect. We have evolved, are wired, to participate in community, to forge lasting bonds with others, to help one another, and to share life experiences. We are, simply, better together.
And yet, despite our desire to connect, Murthy found an epidemic of loneliness, and a set of complex forces contributing to it.
While technology promises to connect us, it can also isolate. While mobility means our loved ones can be only a train or plane ride away, we can also move far from the communities where we grew up. While we increasingly have the opportunity to pursue our individual goals, we can put these goals ahead of our relationships and community. And despite all of the progress we have made in how we talk about mental health, we are still ashamed of feeling lonely. To simply ask, ‘Will you be my friend?’ takes vulnerability, and courage to overcome the fear of rejection.
The good news is that with awareness of the causes of our loneliness, can come creative solutions to help ourselves and those we love to create more connected lives.
The biblical text for today – the crafted fictional encounter, a theological dialogue, between Jesus and a Samaritan woman – goes over the heads of most of us.
Who today cares which one of these two strands of Judaism – the Samarian strand (of the woman) or the Pharisaic strand (of Jesus) – were right, or righter than the other? Or, in our modern society today, who cares which of the strands and brands of Christianity are right, or are brighter than the other?
And who even cares today whether Jesus is the Messiah (whatever that might mean now), or whether Jesus, in the poetic language of this gospel, is the water springing up to eternal life?
(As an aside I do like the Scholar’s Version translation of that verse, alluding to a mystical spirituality: ‘the water I provide… will be a source of water within them, a fountain of real life.’)
I think it is more helpful today to ignore the theological banter in this Johannine play and think about the two characters presented in the drama.
Firstly, Jesus, sitting, thirsty, beside a well (for which he has no bucket), alone, in a foreign place, where due to his race and religion he is potentially at risk. He has no family or friends at hand. No one to hear, to take, his call of need.
Secondly, the Samaritan woman coming alone to the well, at a time when no other women or villagers are present. And we suspect, due to what the text tells us about her marital status, and what we know about the shaming of women who have had multiple relationships and have worn the stigma of blame and been despised (even feared), that her coming alone was not by choice. Aloneness, loneliness, was her lot too. She has no family or friends at hand to hear, to take, her call of need.
So, these two actors in this drama meet. One a hated Jew, one a hated Samaritan. One a man, one a woman. And both constrained by the overriding expectations of society’s sexual rules around relating. Yet both remarkably willing to breech those constraints, to cross the invisible yet real boundaries in order to relate, and connect, and quench the thirst of loneliness.
For as the gospels frequently tell us Jesus was not understood by his critics, his audiences, his followers, or even those closest to him. I suspect even when with the likes of Simon, Mary, Andrew, James, and John, he felt alone. Like a teenager with a 1000 Facebook friends but with no one who they can trust with their soul.
Popularity is not a panacea for loneliness, then or now. Did Jesus have a friend to aid in quenching the thirst of his soul? He sat by this well of life and promise but as the story poignantly states had no one to share a drink with.
Similarly, the Samaritan woman I suspect, living through multiple marriages and their endings, experiencing life very differently from her childhood peers and small-town contemporaries, often felt isolated, or deliberately was isolated, shunned. She too I suspect had a thirst for acceptance, connection, and friendship. She wanted someone to share a drink with.
This drama when stripped of all its religious, theological, and cultural drapery, holds out the alluring possibility that even across the chasms of difference, between men we consider wise and heroic and between women we consider dysfunctional and needy, across religion, racism, sexism, and prejudice, there may be the chance, the hope, of a friendship, a connection, to quench the deep thirst of loneliness in a way that is mutual and enduring.
Murthy writes about the good news of finding creative solutions to live more connected lives. And I can’t help but think of those nascent Jesus groups of the 1st century meeting in hired room to break bread together, to socialise, support, listen, care, and remember the wisdom and courage of kindness towards all. They met to survive the brutality of their lives, the prejudices, the injustices, and the isolation.
And I can’t help but think that this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman arose out of the context of those times of breaking bread – a story to encourage us to help quench the thirst of each other’s loneliness, and to be brave enough to step round or over the conventions or laws keeping races, genders, religions, and classes separate in order to talk with and to draw water for each other.
And I can’t help but think that this is real purpose of Christian communities today: to break the bread of friendship with each other, and to quench the thirst of loneliness.
Think of a time in your life when you felt deeply lonely, and what others said or did that you found really helpful?