If you are looking for a sign of the providence of God in all things, if you need reassurance that “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” then you need look no further than the Lessons and Collect appointed for today. They are all perfectly suited for the tumultuous week just past. And these things do not happen by accident.
Let’s begin with the collect. “Almighty God,” we pray, “who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” It’s the perfect prayer for us, because it teaches us where to look for help in time of need, and because it shows us what matters most.
“We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” we pray. In good times, it’s pretty easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we don’t need to look outside ourselves for help, that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But hard times strip those illusions away. Weeks like the one past lay bare the weakness and uncertainty of human life. They bring us to the limit of our resources, and reveal that we do not possess unlimited power, demonstrate to us that we need help. They drive us to our knees. They teach us that God is “our only help in time of need.” They teach us to pray, with the psalmist,
My help cometh from the LORD,
who hath made heaven and earth. (Ps 121:2)
GOD is our hope and strength, * a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, * and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though the waters thereof rage and swell, * and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same. (Ps 46:1–3)
And so, we turn to God and ask that he would “keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls.” We ask for help both outwardly and inwardly, material and spiritual, for both body and soul. In so ask, we learn to look to God for help in every area of our lives, in matters both material and spiritual, because the entirety of our lives matter to God our heavenly Father. And we also learn what matters most. We rightly ask God’s defense against “all adversities which may happen to the body.” But we have even greater need to ask God to keep and defend us from all that “assaults and hurts the soul.”
These days, we’re keenly aware of the “adversities which may happen to the body.” Indeed, the very circumstances of this liturgy throw them in stark relief. —Which makes this a good place to reiterate why we’re doing what we’re doing. The most immediate reason is that we are under the authority of the Bishop of Oklahoma, who has directed the temporary suspension of public worship services and church events until Palm Sunday in all churches in the diocese. But we’re not doing this only because the bishop told us to. We’ve taken these measures for the common good: to do what is in our power to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. We are sacrificing gathering together in person for the sake of others. We are laying aside our prerogatives, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of those lives which may be spared if the spread of this pandemic is slowed. We are not reacting in fear; rather, we are acting in love.
So, when we ask to be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, remember that we are not asking this merely for our own sakes, but for the sake of others. We are interceding for the life of the world, for whom Christ died and rose again.
Now, while we rightly ask God to defend us from all adversities which may happen to the body, our Lord clearly teaches that there are deeper concerns. “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul,” Jesus says (Mt 10:28). And again, in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Mt 6:31–33)
So, it’s clear that the adversities which may happen to the body are not the worst thing that can happen to a person. What’s more dangerous to a person are “the evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” And this brings us in a roundabout way to St Paul, who shows so powerfully that what matters most is the health of our souls, and that, when it comes to our souls, we have absolutely no power of ourselves to help ourselves. But all is the gift and grace of God. As St Paul puts it, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” And again, “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”
Again, it is no accident that we are given this passage this morning. It is what God wants us to hear. And, by God’s infinite wisdom, it’s a passage perfectly suited for today, because it proclaims with such clarity and power the central truth of the gospel: the good news that, “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” My brothers and sisters, this is what matters most: that through the broken body of Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us, we are reconciled to God. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” who was crucified for us, who is himself our peace. Who died and was buried and rose again for us, that we might share in his abundant life and know his peace which passeth understanding, even now in the midst of the storms of this life. “Peace I leave with you,” he says, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). “Be careful for nothing, but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6–7).
Neither it is an accident that the Gospel Lesson appointed for this morning is the story of the Woman at the Well. It shows in narrative form the truths that the Epistle and the Collect proclaim.
We see this especially in the two senses of water at play in the story. The woman thinks in terms of the adversities which may happen to the body; she is concerned with outward, physical thirst. Jesus speaks in terms of the evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; he is concerned with inward, spiritual thirst. “If thou knewest the gift of God,” he says, “and who it is that saith to thee, Give me a drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.”
And again, “Whoseover drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up to everlasting life.”
Christ is our life and our peace. He gives us everything we need. Let us turn to him, let us ask of him, that he might give us living water. Let us heed his voice, for he calls to us, saying,
Ho, every one who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in fatness.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55:1–3).
GOD is our hope and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will we not fear.
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38