Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown at Mass in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry

16 Mar 2020

Today’s readings present two different crises. In the first reading, during the long trek out of Egypt to the Promised Land, the Chosen People complain, yet again. This time the problem has to do with a lack of water. And that physical shortage quickly leads on to a deeper crisis. They are tormented by thirst and ask why Moses did not let them stay as slaves to Pharaoh. An unexpected solution is found that provides water in this barren place. And the result is not just water to drink but a deeper sense of trust in the God who is leading them.

In the Gospel, we meet a woman in crisis. Despite neat artistic portrayals of the scene where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well at midday, this was not clean and tidy encounter. He was a foreigner in Samaria, alone, hot and thirsty. She had been married five times and was now with another man.  She came to the well at midday because no-one else would be there. That is what people do when they feel despised by their own neighbours. There seems to be a strong urge for all of us to look down on somebody else. It makes us feel good. She came to draw water – but she also carried with her a deep well of rejection and abuse.

But Jesus finds a way to engage with this outcast among outcasts. He does not take advantage of her fragile condition. He asks her for help, for a service, a little water. He, too, is thirsty. He then offers her something that will slake her thirst for forgiveness, self-acceptance, dignity. She won’t have to limp through life, tormented in a desert of hot, burning resentment and pain. He didn’t condemn her for where she was. He just told her what she could become. And at the end of the meeting with Jesus, she is reconciled with herself, engages with her neighbours and enables a wellspring of new hope to spill from the hard rock of antagonism.

We are facing a time of crisis because of the Coronavirus. Firstly, it is potentially a huge medical crisis. Many fear that the health service will struggle to cope with a sudden wave of sick people. And it is also a crisis for the economy that we have been told could deliver all sorts of wonderful dreams. But the economy depends on people working to earn money which they spend to pay people who are working. If that cycle is broken, the apparently all-powerful ‘buy-buy sell-sell treadmill’ begins to squeak and shudder. And, finally, this is a crisis for a culture that has been accustomed to permanent entertainment and noise. Self-isolation, an end to news about the fantasy world of sports stars and much more silence – these threaten the lifestyle that has kept us ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’ [1]. The ‘me’ culture is threatened when ‘my right to choose’ is challenged. There will be many who feel very disorientated when they discover how shallow that lie is.

The challenge for us in Church is to see how we can speak of hope into a crisis of uncertainty that we face.

Firstly, we have to look after the physical needs and health of those who are most in danger. That means taking precautions so as not to spread the virus in churches – and looking out for people who need extra help in their own homes. We are invited to be thoughtful and generous. This is not a time for selfishness.

Secondly – like in the YouTube videos of Italians singing from their balconies – we have to be creative so that we can laugh together in the face of the fear that threatens to overwhelm many people. Life is already precarious in many homes without this extra threat.  Communities can support one another. As the Samaritan woman in the Gospel discovered, a few of the right words can make all the difference.

Thirdly, as followers of Jesus, we know that difficult time are a call to renewed prayer and penance. Those who know Jesus believe that evil can never win – whether we are talking about physical threats or sin. Never doubt the power of prayer to fight evil in all its forms. As St Paul wrote, Nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus Our Lord. (Romans 8:39). Despite current or future bans of gatherings of over 100, this is a time to pray alone and with others in our homes. Help children to pray in their own houses. Counteract the wave of frightening news that is coming at them from every side. Listen to their worries and concerns. Speak of trust in God and help them to know Jesus who suffered so much. Help them to discover new nourishment in the current desert. Help them to know the spring inside them that will sustain them in this life and will well up to eternal life, as Jesus promises.

I have encouraged all our parishes to keep the churches open for prayer and to provide opportunities for counselling and the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the Stations of the Cross in solidarity with those who suffer. . Webcams offer a great means to beam prayer into people’s homes throughout the day. Outdoor grottos can be great places for people to gather on a daily basis to pray the Rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I know from walking around here in Derry that lots of people want to stop and talk, to ask advice or ask for prayers. I know that our generous priests will do their best to be available and visible, offering time and the chance to pray. There are lots of people who feel like the thirsty Israelites in the desert or like the hurting Samaritan woman. They want support.

Today’s readings tell us that a crisis may be frightening – but that it may open up new doors and draw fresh supplies of water from the wells of salvation. This is a time, not for asking ‘Why has God done this to us?’ or ‘when can we get back to the way things used to be?’ but for asking where we can discover new ways of knowing God and of facing challenges together. Faith gives us an insight into difficulties that doesn’t come from economists or doctors.  As Jesus discovered on Calvary, God is with us even on our crosses. Grace is at work even when many think they have been abandoned. It is especially at a time of crisis that we too can discover – with the Samaritans – that the Jesus of Calvary really is the Saviour of the world. He alone can slake the thirst that lie deep in the centre of our hearts. This Lent may last longer than expected. But it can be a great time of grace.


  • Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.  This Mass took place yesterday, 15 March 2020, in Saint Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.

[1] TS Eliot Burnt Norton