The current coronavirus pandemic, as declared by the World Health Organization, conspires with this week’s text in a way that makes it easier for us to see the contagious nature of desire.
Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. He is the first person in the story to name his desire—he is thirsty. So, he asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. She imitates his desire by declaring her thirst as well; she wants “living water.” Desire then goes viral, and spreads exponentially. She shares her desire with the town, many of whom identify their own desire by borrowing hers. As a result, “many believe.”
What’s being described here is the process of social contagion. This is how the Gospel spreads. It is not unlike the spread of a virus. Once it gets going, it’s hard to control.
Anthropologist, Rene Girard, was the first to notice that human beings are fundamentally “mimetic” beings. It’s hardwired into our biology. We imitate each other at profound levels. That’s how we become human. He says, we “desire according to the desires of others.” In other words, we don’t have our own unique desires. Instead, we borrow our desires from others. This is a difficult thing for most of us to see, let alone accept.
We want to think of ourselves as autonomous beings hermetically sealed from the desires of others, but we aren’t. We are highly susceptible and highly suggestible. Jesus gets this. That’s why, in this week’s text, he models his desire to the Samaritan woman. She imitates his desire and makes it her own. She then models that for the town, who does the same. This is how the Gospel spreads.
Why is this important?
Because amidst all the thoughtful and necessary precautions being taken due to the spread of the coronavirus, we can see the beginnings of another outbreak—the social contagion of fear and anxiety. Look no further than the empty shelves that once contained mountains of toilet paper.
Fortunately, we can also see the possibility of another kind of contagion, and, in fact, it too is an outbreak waiting to happen. It’s an outbreak of the Spirit. I can’t think of a more important time for us to get clear about how desire spreads in our interconnected, interdependent world and what that means for the Gospel.
Faith, hope and love are the antidotes to social chaos. But let’s be honest, they take a bit longer to spread than fear and anxiety. That is why in times like these, as the body of Christ, we are invited to get clear about what we want and whose desires we are borrowing. Jesus and the Samaritan woman show us the way to spread a friendly virus of God’s affection.