We seem to be living in a somewhat surreal, somewhat liminal time. Every aspect of our lives, our interactions, our assumptions, is changing - at times rapidly - thanks to Coronavirus; and yet, at first glance, nothing seems unchanged. People are still out and about (albeit all the panic-buying is far from normal!), schools and theatres still open, pubs and restaurants still doing business. Nature, too, is carrying on as normal: this afternoon I walked past magnolias and camelias, and under snowy froths of blossom, while birdsong provides a reassuringly normal accompaniment to my typing.
And yet nothing is normal, and the changes between last Sunday and this one were especially obvious when I went to Mass, and experienced the new, extra-precautionary measures now in place. I had chosen carefully: not knowing whether this would be my last live Sunday Mass for a long time, I drove to a neighbouring parish where I knew there would be a lively community spirit - even with a sparser congregation - and an excellent, pastoral, well-grounded homily. I was not disappointed.
Today's Gospel was the account of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42), and the priest began by speaking of her, movingly, as someone thirsting for love. Her many relationships were evidence of this: she had probably been betrayed, let down and disillusioned by these men, but still she searched, desperately, for love; still she longed, not only to receive, but to give love, abundantly. And then this stranger broke into her life, unexpectedly, asking for water and - ultimately - offering her what she most desired.
When I had reflected on this Gospel this morning it had struck me that, rather appropriately for our times, this woman was in effect self-isolating - not through fear of contagion, but due to social norms around shame and dishonour. Maybe she had been hurt by too many malicious comments from her more respectable neighbours; maybe she was blamed for every wandering male. Whatever the possibly multiple causes, she was isolated from her neighbours, physically and socially, and all too aware of their oppobrium.
And then this stranger appears, and in their conversation she is transformed - transfigured, even, as the priest said in his homily, reminding us of last week's Gospel. Yes indeed: she is transformed, transfigured, by Love - the love she has been hunting for all her life; the only Love which can quench her deep thirst. And what is her first instinct? Not to remain with this unnerving, accepting, loving stranger, savouring his presence, but to run back to the very people who had caused her to feel rejected, shamed and isolated - to run back to her neighbours, her community, and share the good news of this encounter. That, surely, is the truest, strongest sign of her transformation.
It's also a sign of the enduring strength and depth of community, and our ties of kinship and friendship. As we go through this time of increasing, enforced isolation, with all its fear and confusion, and potential for greater loneliness, may we find new ways to hold on to this sense of community, and the ties which bind us to each other.