What Is the Antidote to Loneliness?
- Mary Southerland Journey Ministry, Inc
- 2023 24 Jan
Christmas 2022 has come and gone. I have returned the gifts that did not fit, were not wanted, or were not well received. That was a chore. I am about to tackle taking down the Christmas decorations. That will be a chore. And I am remembering the great moments with family this Christmas while at the same time, the house seems strangely quiet, strangely still, strangely empty.
Psychologists tell us that January is when people report feeling a high level of loneliness. Maybe that is because the holidays are done, the parties are over, and life is back to normal. Maybe that is because they deal with loneliness all year but are reminded of it by the rush of Christmas and the stillness of the days after the New Year starts.
There is a nationwide Epidemic of Loneliness.
Most of us want to belong. Not just to fit in but to be seen and known. To feel accepted and valued for who we are - even our bumps, quirks, and oddities. Everybody feels a longing for connection, yet most of us struggle to find it. This struggle to find belonging has led to what some experts call a "loneliness epidemic."
For many people, navigating the Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, but the problem of loneliness was already part of our culture long before 2020. A 2018 study revealed that nearly half of Americans report "sometimes or always feeling alone." Nearly half! That means many of us in this room likely have felt lonely recently. Perhaps you are feeling alone today. Loneliness doesn't play favorites; it's something that any of us can experience.
Even those who might seem to have it all together - to have achieved greatness or fame, still talk about feeling lonely. Check out these quotes on loneliness from people that most of us would presume have their act together.
"Loneliness - the feeling of being unwanted - is the worst poverty of all." Mother Teresa
"Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life. The thing that I'm most worried about is just being alone without anybody to care for or someone who will care for me." Anne Hathaway
"It is strange to be known so universally, and yet to be so lonely." Albert Einstein
There is a universal human need to belong. We all need to know and be known. We all need to love and be loved.
Emmanuel: God with us.
In western culture, we do not view names as they do in eastern culture. In Jesus' day, this was even more true. Names mattered. One of the names used for Jesus is Emmanuel. It literally means "God with us." The Apostle John tries to capture the immensity of this wonder. In Eugene Peterson's translation, John's words read like this:
"The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, Generous inside and out, true from start to finish." John 1:14 (The Message)
Jesus became "God with us," and the world has never been the same.
Jesus illustrates the importance of belonging in his encounter with the woman at the well. The story is found in John chapter 4 and begins with Jesus deciding to take a road trip from Jerusalem back to his hometown in Galilee. On this journey, he comes to a town in Samaria called Sychar, and he's tired. I'm sure he was exhausted from the journey itself. After all, to this point, he had walked 30 miles on foot, and its noon, the hottest time of the day. But I also wonder if he was a little tired of his traveling companions.
Did you ever take a road trip when you were a kid? Maybe to grandma's house? If you have siblings, chances are your mom and dad had that moment when they hit their limit with you. How many of you know you drove your parents crazy in the car?
I wonder if Jesus wanted a little peace and quiet because when he arrives in Sychar, he sends his disciples into the town to buy food while he stays behind by himself and sits down by a well.
Photo credit: ©Pexels/Frans Van Heerden
As he's sitting there, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Now, this was an odd scene. Typically, the women from the town would travel together to fetch water, but this woman was alone. And she came at noon, the hottest time of the day, the hardest time to complete this errand. The fact that this Samaritan woman comes to draw water alone suggests that she either wanted to avoid the other women in the town or they didn't want to be around her.
Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. How isolating would that feel?
I picture this as what it would feel like to be ostracized in a small town. Are any of you from a small town? I grew up in a small town. Everyone knew everyone else's business.
What would it have been like to be that woman living in a town where everyone knew everything about her? Where she was surrounded by familiar faces, yet alone?
But then she comes across a strange man sitting by the well, and he asks her for a drink.
You may have heard this story before and know that Jesus is breaking all sorts of cultural rules by speaking with her. The woman herself is shocked as she responds:
"You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" John 4:9
In those days, hostility reigned between the Jewish people and Samaritans. They didn't associate with each other. And culturally, a man would never even acknowledge a woman's presence in public, much less speak to her. In fact, Jesus engaging her in a conversation could easily have been interpreted as him flirting with her, something that crossed all the boundaries of Jewish piety.
As the conversation goes on, Jesus reveals insight into this woman's life that he could not have had by natural means. He asks her to get her husband, to which she replies, "I have no husband." And then Jesus tells her he knows she has had five husbands, and the man she has now isn't her husband.
Now there are different views of what that means. Many scholars think it reveals the woman's scandalous history, which might explain why the other women in the town don't want to be seen with her. Some scholars believe it could also mean that the woman has been widowed five times over. If this was the case, her grief could have led her to pull away in isolation.
Whatever the situation, I want us to notice this: Jesus sees her. He knows her in a way that others don't know her. Being seen and being known in this way turns this woman's world upside down. Look what happens next in the story.
"Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 'Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?"' John 4:28-29
Think about it. The very people she had been avoiding, she now seeks out. She tells them, "I met a man who really sees me, who really knows me!"
Maybe even more remarkable, the people listen to her! Here's how John tells the story:
"Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, 'He told me everything I ever did.' So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers." John 4:39-41
As I picture this scene, I see Jesus spending two days in Sychar as the talk of the town. Everybody wants to be near him. Everyone wants to hear the words he is saying. And do you know what else I see? I see the Samaritan woman right there in the center of it all. The people tell her:
"We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world." John 4:42
The way this passage ends is worth reflecting on. Here is a woman who, a matter of an hour or so before, had been a social outcast who was utterly alone. Every day she carried around the baggage of her past and made sure she went to the well at a time of day when there would be no one around to shame or stare. But now, she becomes the first person to carry the good news about Jesus to the Samaritan people! She testifies that he is the Messiah! And when they come to see Jesus for themselves, the people join her in declaring that he is the Savior of the world!
Her encounter with Jesus transformed her relationship with God and her relationships with the people in her community. Imagine how things may have been different for her after Jesus left.
No more isolation. No more lonely trips to the well. Because of Jesus, the one who was once an outcast now receives the gift of belonging. The Gift of Belonging is for YOU!
Jesus offered the gift of belonging to the woman he met at the well. And Jesus offers that same gift to us today. He made way for us to live in right relationship with God and others. God adopts us as his children. He is our loving Father, and we have become brothers and sisters. We belong eternally to him and to each other as his Kingdom Community.
Many of us have been living solitary lives, disconnected from God and each other. Perhaps it seems that the loneliness you feel will always be there. Maybe you feel misunderstood or unheard. Like the Voyager spacecraft, you might feel as if you are traveling in space, carrying this message of longing and hope for connection.
But that doesn't have to be your story. Jesus' gift of belonging is a gift of being seen and known. Jesus' gift of belonging means you don't have to be alone.
Jesus does not want you to be lonely.
Jesus wants to do life with us.
Jesus offers to do life with you.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/CandyRetriever
Mary Southerland is also the Co-founder of Girlfriends in God, a conference and devotion ministry for women. Mary’s books include, Hope in the Midst of Depression, Sandpaper People, Escaping the Stress Trap, Experiencing God’s Power in Your Ministry, 10-Day Trust Adventure, You Make Me So Angry, How to Study the Bible, Fit for Life, Joy for the Journey, and Life Is So Daily. Mary relishes her ministry as a wife, a mother to their two children, Jered and Danna, and Mimi to her six grandchildren – Jaydan, Lelia, Justus, Hudson, Mo, and Nori.