A Hymn:- StF 663 I, the Lord of sea and sky.
The only thing on the news at the moment is Corona-virus, all the phone calls I am getting at the moment are questions asking me if we should cancel this or that, or what we should do about this or that to prevent infections. My email inbox is similarly filled with emails , its become our main item of conversation.
So how on earth can I think straight to write a sermon on Water, and yet water seems to be part of our salvation from this virus. Alcohol Hand Gel seems to be out of stock in the whole country, as well as toilet rolls and pasta.
So we are being told to wash our hands regularly, and to not shake hands with people, to avoid touching our faces, mouths, nose and eyes. I did a funeral on Friday, and I found myself holding my hands like this, to avoid shaking hands, but at least 2 people took hold of my hand and insisted on shaking it. Strangely, I felt unclean and immediately rushed off to wash my hands in soap and water.
Water we are told, even if it is cold combined with soap, ordinary soap, will wash away this virus. I found a newspaper article that explained this very well. Pall Thordarson a professor of chemistry at the University of New South Wales, Sydney writing in the Guardian says this:- Health authorities have been giving us two messages: once you have the virus there are no drugs that can kill it or help you get rid of it. But also, wash your hands to stop the virus spreading. This seems odd. You can’t, even for a million dollars, get a drug for the corona-virus – but your grandmother’s bar of soap kills the virus. So why does soap work so well on the Sars-CoV-2, the corona-virus and indeed most viruses? The short story: because the virus is a self-assembled nanoparticle in which the weakest link is the lipid (fatty) bilayer. Soap dissolves the fat membrane and the virus falls apart like a house of cards and dies – or rather, we should say it becomes inactive as viruses aren’t really alive.
The slightly longer story is that most viruses consist of three key building blocks: ribonucleic acid (RNA), proteins and lipids. A virus-infected cell makes lots of these building blocks, which then spontaneously self-assemble to form the virus. Critically, there are no strong ”covalent bonds” holding these units together, which means you do not necessarily need harsh chemicals to split those units apart. When an infected cell dies, all these new viruses escape and go on to infect other cells. Some end up also in the airways of lungs. When you cough, or especially when you sneeze, tiny droplets from the airways can fly up to 10 metres. The larger ones are thought to be the main coronavirus carriers and they can go at least two metres.
These tiny droplets end on surfaces and often dry out quickly. But the viruses remain active. Human skin is an ideal surface for a virus. It is “organic” and the proteins and fatty acids in the dead cells on the surface interact with the virus.
When you touch, say, a steel surface with a virus particle on it, it will stick to your skin and hence get transferred on to your hands. If you then touch your face, especially your eyes, nostrils or mouth, you can get infected. And it turns out that most people touch their face once every two to five minutes.
Washing the virus off with water alone might work. But water is not good at competing with the strong, glue-like interactions between the skin and the virus. Water isn’t enough.
Soapy water is totally different. Soap contains fat-like substances known as amphiphiles, some of which are structurally very similar to the lipids in the virus membrane. The soap molecules “compete” with the lipids in the virus membrane. This is more or less how soap also removes normal dirt from the skin.
The soap not only loosens the “glue” between the virus and the skin but also the Velcro-like interactions that hold the proteins, lipids and RNA in the virus together.
Alcohol-based products, which pretty much includes all “disinfectant” products, contain a high-percentage alcohol solution (typically 60-80% ethanol) and kill viruses in a similar fashion. But soap is better because you only need a fairly small amount of soapy water, which, with rubbing, covers your entire hand easily. Whereas you need to literally soak the virus in ethanol for a brief moment, and wipes or rubbing a gel on the hands does not guarantee that you soak every corner of the skin on your hands effectively enough.
So, soap is the best, but do please use alcohol-based sanitiser when soap is not handy or practical.
Water cleanses, water washes us clean. Not just the dirt from our hands, the grease from our hair. There is something about being clean, I love having a shower in the morning, it wakes me up and invigorates me. Clean and fresh to start the day.
On my visit to the Temple in Jerusalem, we were shown the site of the Mikvah baths, where the Jews in the time of Jesus would come to be bathed if you were unclean and wanted to be ritually cleansed to enter the temple. There was though a cost and an effort to this that we know people did not want to have to go through. Jesus highlights this in the story of the Good Samaritan, when the Priest and the Levite cross the road to avoid the injured man in case they became unclean. Then there were the tax collectors the shepherds the haemorrhaging woman all permanently unclean and so unfit to attend the temple. Jesus came to save the world starting with the Jews, and through his healing and through his sacrifice on the cross he was going to help us all become free from sin, and clean and ready to be in a right relationship with God.
As a precursor to this Jesus symbolically washed the disciples feet at the last supper the day before his crucifixion, and there is a long dialogue with Simon Peter as to whether he needed to have his whole body washed or just his feet. In the moment of the story its just Peter’s feet that are dirty because of the dusty roads and the sandals they wore. Tom Wright explains this well “Jesus must wash us if we are to belong to him. Yet he has already washed us, in calling us to belong to him (15:3); what we need day by day is the regular washing of those parts of ourselves, our personalities and bodies, which get dusty and dirty.”
John 15:3 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): 3 You have already been cleansed[a] by the word that I have spoken to you.
A huge part of our faith is about being in a right relationship with God. We are cleansed from our sins when we are called to follow Jesus and as we follow him. Any time we slip away or turn our faces away from God, we can come back, we can turn back, turn our faces back towards Jesus, “repent” and ask for forgiveness with the simplest of prayers.
Let’s turn back to water. Water is such an essential part of our lives, in fact up to 60% of our body is water. No wonder it is so important for us to keep hydrated!
We’ve had so much rain recently that we are all fed up with water, but we need water to drink. The Israelites were also fed up, here they were in the wilderness, hungry and thirsty. They’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long they’ve begun to forget what life was like in Egypt, and are remembering that at least they had food and water. They start complaining to Moses, has God brought us into the dessert, the wilderness to die. We visited the wilderness on our way from Jerusalem to Nazareth. No water to be seen and so hot. Moses and the Israelites were further south, closer to the equator, hotter. Here in this reading we see God reach out to his people, whilst they are still in sin. The provision of water, an essential for life, is another powerful symbol of God’s care for his people. He knows both what they want, and what they need. It also points to the description Jesus uses about himself; ‘The living water,’ in this week’s reading from John.
Take a moment in this week, take a time in the midst of all our worries and concerns of viruses to reflect on the times when God has provided what we need, in the midst of our own wilderness, our own mistrust. Make an opportunity for a time of praise, thanking God for his gifts, and the unchanging nature of his love.
Finally we come to our gospel reading, and this wonderful convoluted story of the woman at the well. You will have heard many sermons on this. Its noon, it’s the middle of the day, most are hiding from the heat. Jesus approaches a woman at the well. Possibly she’s there at the middle of the day as she is regarded as unclean, living in sin with her 5th man. Maybe she is just avoiding the gossiping women earlier in the day, maybe she’s just run out of water. Jesus is breaking down barriers, first he speaks to a woman, a Rabbi, a holy man would not normally have spoken on his own to a lone woman, second she is a Samaritan, and we know from the story of the Good Samaritan that there was a socio cultural barrier between Jews and Samaritans. Here was Jesus suggesting he would drink from the same cup as her. Jesus is showing us how we should break down barriers and show our love and care to all we meet.
However, Jesus does not really need water, he tells the woman that she should have asked him for one – this is an acted out parable to teach us of God’s love, God’s provision, God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness.
Jesus tells the woman that he can provide living water, a new life, he can provide salvation that will satisfy our spiritual thirst. Not only will the water he’s offering quench your thirst so that you’ll never be thirsty again. It will become a spring bubbling up inside you, refreshing you with the new life which is coming into the world with Jesus.
In the dialogue they have, she talks about the differences between the Jews and the Samaritans, and her hope that when the Messiah comes, all will be resolved. It is at this point that Jesus reveals himself to be the Messiah: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.. And immediately there is a change in this woman, the holy spirit the living water indeed has changed her – the woman then acts as an evangelist going and telling others her story of meeting a man who told her “everything I have ever done” and bringing them to faith.
Let’s also take some time this week to reflect on this living water, that Jesus our Messiah, our Christ, our Lord offers us. Let’s receive again this living water, and allow the Holy Spirit not the virus to re-infect us. Let’s allow Jesus to wash us clean again, and let’s go afresh like the woman did as an evangelist, and tell others our story of how God’s love and God’s living water has made us new.