a sermon on John 4:5-24
Something special happens when God’s people gather for worship. We may do things very much the same week after week, following the same basic order of service, sharing very similar words, singing some of the same songs, greeting many of the same people, receiving the same offering, even hearing very similar words of dismissal, but there is something special going on each and every time we gather here.
The church has understood this since its earliest days. The disciples, after all, had gathered in the evening on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to them after his resurrection, and the New Testament recounts several other instances of the early church gathered for worship, not to mention that much of the New Testament was written as letters to be read to the community gathered for worship. Debates over the nature and content of worship were an important part of the reformation impulses of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others some five hundred years ago. And in a file cabinet downstairs, we have files upon files of worship bulletins, everything from last Sunday’s service to special anniversary celebrations and even from the first worship service of this congregation in 1871, reminding us that the first official act of this congregation was to worship God together.
In all these times and places, the church has gathered for worship, most often on the first day of the week, to give praise to God, hear the Word of God, offer prayers for God’s world, and experience the presence of God in one another and in sacrament. So it is no surprise that the third Great End of the Church as adopted by our Presbyterian forebears is “the maintenance of divine worship.” To a certain extent, it is surprising to me that this is the third Great End and not the first, because in many ways it is worship that sets the church apart from so many other institutions. Our worship is rooted in the rich praise of ancient Israel shared with us in the psalms and has grown through millennia of practice before and after the time of Jesus even as we continue to maintain and celebrate it today.
Our scripture reading this morning from the gospel according to John gives us a glimpse of the culture surrounding worship in the time of Jesus through the lens of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. This encounter raises all sorts of interesting questions about interaction between people of different cultures, the impact of tradition and legend on present practice, and the role and status of women in New Testament times. As we examine the meaning of the mission of the church in “the maintenance of divine worship” today, though, it gives us a very helpful glimpse into how Jesus understood the meaning and purpose of worship.
This encounter took place in Samaria, a land between Galilee and Judea that was viewed by residents of both as dangerous and “other.” The people of Samaria were descended from those who had been sent into exile by Assyria in the eighth century BCE, and even though they had returned to their homeland, they were viewed as very different by their neighbors. Samaritans worshiped the same God as the Jews and shared many traditions, practices, and beliefs in common, but they worshiped at Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. Galileans and Judeans used this to justify treating Samaritans as second-class citizens—impure, foreign, and other—even though they lived well within the boundaries of historic Palestine.
The theme of worship therefore loomed very large in the context of this encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well. They first exchanged words over Jesus’ desire to get a drink of water, ending with Jesus explaining to her that he could offer her living water that would quench her thirst forever, for it “will become in [everyone who drinks it] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” When she expressed her desire to receive such a gift, Jesus then began to comment on her family situation, suggesting that she bring her husband back to him in order to receive this living water even as he knew that she had had five husbands and was currently living with a man who was not her husband!
In light of his seeing the truth about her, the woman named Jesus as a prophet and finally put the issue of worship that divided Jews and Samaritans on the table: Why do the Jews exclude the Samaritans because they do not worship in Jerusalem? Instead of trying to answer her question, Jesus suggested that bigger changes were afoot:
The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
He then moved on to offer her some deeper principles about this worship for the present and future:
The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
All the divisions that had led to such separation between Jews and Samaritans would no longer matter because the real unity of worship in spirit and truth would change it all for everyone. This new pathway that Jesus suggested was deeply compelling to the woman, so much so that beyond our story today she started telling others about her encounter with Jesus, and they believed his message for themselves.
Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman about worshiping in spirit and truth ring loud and clear across the ages as we explore what it means to live out “the maintenance of divine worship” in the church today. What does worshiping in spirit and truth look like for us today? First, worship in spirit and truth reflects the wonder, grace and mercy of a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. In worship, we encounter God in Christ just as the woman encountered Jesus at the well. In worship, we hear the Word of God proclaimed. In worship, we see the presence of God in our sisters and brothers who gather with us here. And in worship, we find God meeting us in the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to give us the sign and seal of God’s presence in our midst. The spirit and truth of God are present in our midst as we worship because we encounter God here, offering us living water and amazing grace so that we might go forth in new pathways of life each and every day.
Second, worship in spirit and truth reorients us to the presence of God in our world. Worship is not just about getting together for an hour a week on Sundays. The things that we do here to experience, understand, and praise God do not simply stand on their own. Worship in spirit and truth helps us to see God more clearly in the everyday, to learn more about what God is doing in our lives and our world, to see God at work in ways beyond the assumptions we may have made along the way. When we leave this or any place where we worship, the spirit and truth that lie behind our acts guide us to think differently about the world beyond these doors, reminding us that God’s presence is not just trapped here but must also be visible to us and through us beyond any place of worship.
Finally, worship in spirit and truth means that we open ourselves to God’s transformation in our midst. In her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman’s spirit and truth were both put on full view. The truth of her past was very much visible, but her spirit of hope for something different was also very clear. And so too in our worship, God reveals the truth about ourselves, showing us a new pathway of truth and hope and inviting us to live in ways that embody transformation and new life. Similarly, worship shows us the truth about our world—and even more what God is doing to transform it—so that we might be a part of showing a new and different spirit beyond what we have seen for so long.
Our call to “the maintenance of divine worship” suggests that we are to worship in spirit and truth, to trust that God is actually doing something through the things that we do when we gather Sunday after Sunday here, to proclaim the truth of the transformation that we have encountered and experienced through God in Christ, to let this time together be the beginning of the new thing that we proclaim as we live in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
All these things begin in the sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, we encounter Jesus at a well in our time, in our own lives, asking us questions, naming the truth about who we are, inviting us to share new life. In Baptism, we are washed and made new, transformed beyond a simple human form, claimed as God’s own once and for all. And in Baptism, God offers us the living waters of Christ so that we might go forth to share that new life each and every day with everyone we meet. In a few moments, as we remember and reclaim the promises of the baptismal covenant, I hope and pray that we will encounter God in our midst, worshiping in spirit and in truth as we are transformed once again for new life in the world.
So as we make our way into the world this week, may the worship we share here help us to live each day in spirit and in truth, participating in the wonder of transformation made possible in God’s world by the power of the Holy Spirit, encountering God in Jesus Christ anew each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.