I love this account from John’s Gospel. It’s a long story, but there’s no way to break it up for two Sundays. Its tight-knit unity requires that it be heard in one pass. At the same time, it contains enough material for at least 5 sermons: one on Jews and Samaritans (the discrimination sermon), one on Jesus as “living water” (the sacramental sermon), one on the deity of Jesus as He’s able to discern the woman’s personal history (the Christological sermon), one on sowing and reaping (the personal evangelism sermon), and one on accepting Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (the salvation sermon). And while some of you might fear that I will try to preach all 5 sermons this morning, I promise instead to look only at two things that might be left out of all 5 sermons, following the adage that “God is in the details.”
Our passage starts right off with such a detail. We read: “Jesus left Judea and went away again into Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria.” Actually, He didn’t have to! There were several really good reasons for not passing through Samaria at all. The one most frequently offered is the one stated in our passage: the Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. Some other route would have been friendlier and, in the Jewish mind, “purer.” And such an alternative was ready-at-hand. In fact the alternate route was the only one the Pharisees were willing to take, as they refused to risk contamination through contact with Samaritans. Not only that, but their route, going along the Jordan River valley, while less direct, was far more user-friendly in terms of the terrain. It was flat, fertile, facile and beautiful. It’s true that the way through Samaria was the one more commonly used by Galileans because of its directness. If you were going to walk a hundred miles every time there was a Jewish feast requiring temple attendance, you might prefer the shorter route even if it proved to be somewhat more arduous. Still, going through Samaria required going up and over one high hill after another, or at least going around all of them; and it meant dealing with those unfriendly Samaritans.[i]
So why does John tell us that Jesus had to go through Samaria on a trek that He and other Galileans made all the time? Jesus’ choice had nothing to do with geography or ethnic discrimination; it had to do purely with the compulsion the divine Jesus had, in His own words, “to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” On this occasion, it meant finding His way to Jacob’s well specifically in order to meet with this Samaritan woman and to change not only her life, but the lives of the “many more (who) believed because of His word.” It was a path required for witnessing, for meeting the specific needs of specific people, and for doing the Father’s will.
When that woman went to the well on that day to draw water, a routine duty that she may have needed to perform every day, she had no idea that she would meet the Savior of the world Who would tell her everything she had ever done and offer her living water to quench her thirst eternally. And when Jesus begins speaking to the woman in spiritual terms about the water that springs up to eternal life and He further reveals His knowledge of her personal history, she responds with a question. We often hear it said that the question was a deliberate change of subject designed to get the focus off her remarkable marital history. But I think her question was quite sincere, as it was a very basic bone of contention between Jews and Samaritans, and she had perceived that Jesus was a prophet who might be qualified to resolve the issue for her.
In any case, His answer stands as one of His more frequently quoted lines, especially in church circles: “God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” The Samaritan woman was puzzled by this statement and, amusingly, responded that Messiah would make these things clear when He comes. Jesus simply said, “I am He.” But what exactly did He mean, and how might we apply it to the actual way that we worship in our 21st-century churches? We could start with the seemingly easier of the two things: worshiping in truth. We certainly would not wish to risk worshiping God in falsehood. But just how is it that truth in worship is to be discovered?
It might be easier to answer the question in a negative way rather than a positive one: when is our worship not in truth? Scripture gives us lots of clues in that regard. Trying to make worship syncretistic, that is, trying to blend what we do as believers with what is done by non-believers is unlikely to qualify as true worship. God through His holy prophets made it abundantly clear in Old Testament times that whenever His chosen people tried to introduce elements from the pagan worship of their neighbors, God found it utterly abhorrent. Read Jeremiah if you want to find a non-stop indictment of this sort of false worship. Yet our world today is absolutely filled with churches that try to do a 21st-century equivalent of that very thing under the guise of making Christianity relevant or contemporary or in alignment with other faiths. This may fill more pews, but it never will gain God’s approval. Who are we worshiping? Are we worshiping the God of all creation Who reveals Himself in His Holy Word and in His only Son, or are we worshiping our cultural adaptations of God, which is roughly equivalent to saying that we’re worshiping ourselves?
Just yesterday I watched a brief exit interview with the founding archbishop of ACNA as he was emerging from a world-wide Anglican gathering in England. He reported with dismay that the meeting had concluded with a Buddhist prayer. And you may have heard about the bishop in Scotland who ended a service with a prayer from the Quran. It’s hard to imagine the same God Who detested the false syncretistic worship of His chosen people Israel being any less dismayed by the same bending of the truth in our worship. He wants us to worship Him in truth.
What about worshiping God in spirit, or, perhaps better, worshiping Him as Spirit? Now we may be wandering into less clearly defined territory where subjective understandings of what this means can send us off in very different directions. Every major branch of Christianity tries to defend its theology and practice as being more authentic and ancient than that of any other branch, truer to the theology and practice of the early Church and more attuned to its spirit. I found it interesting in my study this week that we actually have some fairly complete services of Christian worship from the earliest centuries of the Church, and their Eucharistic Prayer not only contains all the same elements as ours but in many cases the identical words! And that includes churches in the East that were not influenced by Rome. What we do here at this table is not a recent innovation. Abandoning it is a recent innovation with a very short history!
One thing in particular stands out to me whenever I think of worshiping the One who is Spirit by worshiping Him in spirit: we definitely are speaking of Someone the worship of Whom contains a huge element of mystery. If we attempt to reduce worshiping God to maintaining a certain set of propositional truths with an intensely personal mode of expressing our faith, we may have crowded the Spirit right out of our worship, once again making it more about ourselves than about God.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here, as these could sound like fighting words to some of you. I absolutely believe in propositional truth, and, at least figuratively speaking, there are many hills of propositional truth on which I would be willing to die. And I adamantly believe that private, personal worship not only is valuable but that it is in fact indispensable to the very survival of Christianity in this and every generation. You’ve heard me say with some frequency and conviction that I question the faith of Sunday morning Christians who seldom crack open the Bible or speak to God in private prayer from Monday through Saturday. But the question of the Samaritan woman was not about personal private worship. It was about corporate worship in a definite time and place, whether on Mount Gerazim in Samaria or on the temple mount in Jerusalem. And in one sense there’s no ambiguity in Jesus’ answer: “An hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. An hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” (vs. 23).
Are we among the persons whom God is seeking to be His worshipers? Absolutely! How are we measuring up to worshiping Him in spirit and in truth? Here I think the answer is very personal; and I also think that most of us know in our heart of hearts whether we are measuring up to God’s wishes and expectations. But, as I said before, I also think that the focus both of the Samaritan woman’s question and of Jesus’ answer needs to be applied to corporate worship, not just to private worship. And here, in the context of all that remains mysterious in our faith, we must come together in spirit and in truth not to be entertained, not to be instructed in the finer points of theology, not to be overawed by great architecture and art and music, but to find the means by which our spirits are communing with God’s Spirit. Here we’re not bound by definitions. Nor are we bound by practices. We certainly are not bound by the eloquence of the preacher, nor are we restricted by the preacher’s lack of eloquence. The worst sermon ever preached should not distract us from worshiping God in spirit and in truth, as participants and not as spectators.
One of the things that I treasure in Anglican worship is something that we share with all true Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran worshipers, among others: we believe with all our hearts and minds that God is here. He’s not only representatively here because He’s here through the person or persons up front. He’s not only here because each of us as a Christian carries Him in our hearts. He Himself is truly here because He promises to be here and, unlike us, God always keeps His promises. And He’s here in the Person of His only Son, Whose Real Presence permeates every place where Christ mysteriously presents Himself to us in His very Body and Blood.
Is that something that only happens when certain words are said or certain actions take place at the Eucharist, or is He here from the moment two or three of us enter this space? Yes, He’s here as soon as two or three enter because that promise came from the very lips of Jesus: “There am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). But He also is here because, in the Eucharistic meal that He instituted with His disciples in the Upper Room, He pledged His presence in a sacramental sense that’s beyond our understanding but that decidedly is not beyond our experience. Whenever we open our hearts to Him, He comes afresh, again and again. He comes once to save, but over and over to offer us His sanctifying grace.
There are times when we wish we could have been one of those who had a personal encounter with the incarnate Son of God during His ministry on earth. We would love to have been that woman at the well. Her life was changed forever when she acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. But here at this table, when we come together in spirit and in truth and in the company of all believers, past and present, He comes to each one of us. He is here. And that’s precisely what it means to worship Him in spirit and in truth. We cannot begin to explain His presence. We cannot objectify it or prove it. And what a gift it is that we don’t need to prove or objectify it. Yet we can know it to be true.
Why is this important? Why do we need fresh infusions of sanctifying grace? Why do we need renewed encounters with the risen Christ Whose triumph over sin and death makes such spiritual encounters possible? Why isn’t it entirely sufficient that we should receive Him once, affirm His presence in us and go on our way rejoicing? Those are questions we shouldn’t even be asking. What other relationships in our lives would we wish to try to sustain on that once-only or very occasional basis?
No, God is far wiser than we, and He knows our need for fresh infusions and renewed encounters. Every evening during Lent we pray this collect in Evening Prayer:
“Open our eyes to acknowledge Your presence,
that freed from the misery of sin and shame
we may grow into Your likeness from glory to glory.”
Think on that for a moment. First we need to have our eyes opened, because unless we allow God to open them in spirit and in truth, we will not see Jesus. Then and only then, with eyes that are spiritually opened, we can acknowledge the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Here we acknowledge our freedom “from the misery of sin and shame” because it’s here that we recall His once-for-all sacrifice for our sin. And without seeing Him, how can we possibly expect to grow in His likeness from glory to glory?
It’s a growth that comes through imitation, something that one great 15th century saint, Thomas à Kempis, wrote about in his handbook for the spiritual life, “On the Imitation of Christ.” For Thomas à Kempis, the locus of this imitative walk with Christ was both an interior spiritual experience as well as an encounter through the Eucharist. Similarly, “Saint Augustine viewed the imitation of Christ as the fundamental purpose of Christian life, and as a remedy for our imitation of the sin of Adam. Saint Francis of Assisi believed in the physical as well as the spiritual imitation of Christ.”[ii] But how can we hope to imitate closely someone Whose Real Presence we seldom have experienced?
He is here, not in the same physical sense that He was with the Samaritan woman at the well, but in a sense far higher than human eyes can see. He came to her at the well because He had to pass through Samaria. He comes to each one of us because, by that very same grace and intentionality, He has to come to you and to me, by the will of His Father. And here’s a very important point: did He come to the Samaritan woman because she was special or unusually worthy of His presence? Hardly! Her life had been rather disreputable, and while some of the villagers believed in Jesus as Messiah because of her testimony, John tells us that many more believed when they themselves heard the words of Jesus.
And so, does Jesus come to you because you are special or unusually worthy? The great English preacher Charles Spurgeon famously wrote, “I am sure God chose me before I was born, or He never would have chosen me afterwards.” I find myself reflecting on those words with some regularity because, when it comes to being a special target of God’s grace, I readily identify with such persons as the woman at the well and Charles Spurgeon. Even King David, said to have been “a man after God’s own heart,”[iii] wrote in Psalm 22, “I am a worm and not a man, a reproach of men and despised by the people. All they who see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out their lips and shake their heads. Yet You are He Who brought me forth from the womb; You have been my God from my mother’s womb.”
That was David’s testimony, and it’s mine. And so, Sunday after Sunday, I come here as one who is “freed from the misery of sin and shame,” needing my own renewed encounter with the resurrected Christ and a fresh infusion of His grace, that I might grow into His likeness from glory to glory. He is here. He promised. And He bids you to come to Him, again. He wants to mold you into His image. He wants to feed you with the bread of life, His Body, broken for you. He wants to cleanse you from every sin through His Blood, shed for you. He wants you to look on Him with the eyes of faith so that you may imitate Him more perfectly.
Come to His table, believing that He is truly present here, and be refreshed, renewed, and restored in His image. To Him alone be all glory and praise with thanksgiving, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] See Luke 9:51-56
[ii] Wikipedia article on “Imitation of Christ”
[iii] I Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22