by Dan McCoig
Worship | John 4:1-26 | 23 March 2014 | Dan McCoig
Worship is one of the odder things the Christian community does. That’s saying something, because the Christian community does a lot of odd things. We forgive when our culture tells us to get even. We rush to help when so many others look the other way or feign ignorance. We give away our hard earned money for the sake of others. Our default mode is compassion and generosity. We talk to God. We listen for God.
Recently, I was giving some thought as to what is sacred in our society. I believe the weekend is. We work for it. We live for it. We look forward to it. We recall it fondly on Monday morning. Americans love their leisure almost to the point of idolatry. But, Christians set aside some of their weekend, usually Sunday mornings, for worship. Talk about odd. We could be sleeping in, on the golf course, at brunch, on the trout stream, lingering over the Sunday newspaper with another cup of coffee, logging a few extra billable hours. Yet, here we are. At least, here some of us are.
One of my favorite novelists and short story writers, David Foster Wallace, said this about worship in an interview. Listen.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship is about as religious a word as there is. When under the Christian bubble or on the Christian reservation, we can use the word and safely assume most persons have a general idea of what we are talking about. But if we use it at work, school, social settings, it’s likely that we will confuse and mystify some people.
The 16th century Protestant Reformation in Western Europe was about a lot of things. One of those things was worship. The Protestants were convinced that the Catholics were doing it all wrong. In time, the Protestants began to suspect that the Protestants who were not their particular brand were doing it all wrong as well.
Much of the acrimony involved what I will call the mechanics. Should worshippers stand, sit, or kneel for prayer? Who sings: the choir only or the congregation only or choir and congregation? What about musical accompaniment? If yes, then what kind of instrument or instruments? Then, of course, there are the sacraments. How many are there: seven or two? And about baptism, do you baptize infants and children or only adults or both? And, about communion, how open should the table be? Baptized Christians from your tradition only? Baptized Christians only, but of any and all Christian traditions? What about children of Christians? Then there is the question of frequency. Every Sunday? Monthly? Quarterly? Annually?
To put it mildly, there has never been unanimity on these worship issues. Nor, I believe, will there be.
In our lesson from John 4, Jesus is on the road in order to get away from his antagonists, the Pharisees. He is getting out of Judea and making his way back to Galilee. Jesus was growing more and more popular by the moment.
Jesus’ crowds had surpassed John’s crowds. The number of persons baptized into the Jesus movement was greater than the number of persons baptized into the John movement. Evidently, the Pharisees were scorekeeping on this matter; something, by the way, they apparently liked to do on a whole host of matters. If John was trouble, this Jesus, given his ever increasing following, was even more trouble.
On his way back to Galilee, Jesus passes through Samaria to the west of the Jordan River. Ordinarily, a Jew would travel from the south to the north on the east side of the Jordan River to avoid Samaria altogether.
For much of their history Judeans and Samaritans were one people — Hebraic, but in 722 BCE the Assyrians conquered the north of Israel and separated Samaria from Judea. By the year 30 CE, roughly the final year of Jesus’ public ministry, Judeans and Samaritans had lived separate from one another for so long that they no longer associated with one another and developed a lot of less than flattering notions about one another. Sadly, they had discovered how easy it could be to dehumanize and even demonize people who are different from you with whom you no longer interacted.
Near Sychar, a Samaritan village, Jesus stops to rest by a well, and an important one at that. The disciples have gone into town to buy lunch. It is the heat of the day.
A Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Jesus asks her for a drink. Both of these things are wrong. One, you gather water in the morning before the sun is high. Two, Jews don’t speak to Samaritans and Samaritans don’t speak to Jews. Everybody knows this.
It turns out that the woman has come at noon so that she would not have to face the harsh judgment of the other women in the village. We learn that she has had a succession of five husbands and currently lives with a man who is not her husband. In her culture, she was someone deserving of all the scorn and contempt you cared to heap upon her.
The woman is the wrong everything — wrong gender, ethnicity, moral practices. Jesus knows all of this and, yet, speaks to her anyway. That’s what Jesus does. That’s who Jesus is. Scorn and contempt has never restored anyone. Grace and kindness have and do.
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman — we don’t know her name, she is one of the many nameless women of the gospels — turns religious. Her ancestors, the Samaritans, worshiped on Mt. Gerizim and still do, the woman tells Jesus. The Jews worshiped in Jerusalem and still do. Who’s right?, she wants to know, because right worship in the right place is important.
Jesus tells her she’s missing the point. The place doesn’t matter. Worship itself, however, does matters, especially spiritual worship, true worship. Jesus talks about worshipping in spirit and truth, which gets to one’s identity and the conduct of one’s life. And worshipping in spirit and truth, because of the transforming grace of God — an encounter with God’s Christ in Jesus — is inclusive and all-embracing. The woman is welcome despite her gender, despite her ethnicity, despite her former worship practices, despite her unconventional morality. None of that matters now. Because of Christ, she is welcome. Because of Christ, everyone is welcome.
This confuses the woman. It may confuse us. The woman was taught that there is a right place and right way to worship and only some were welcome and certainly not all. Worship delineated insiders from outsiders. It served a gatekeeping function.
Then, the woman affirms her belief in the coming Messiah who will settle everything, including her confusion. Jesus tells her he is the Messiah.
Worship, Jesus tells us, is to be in spirit and truth. Whose spirit? Whose truth? For a millennia and a half, the Roman Catholic Church provided the guidance regarding what spiritual worship was, what true worship was. That all changed in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformers.
Presbyterian Christianity’s founder, the Frenchman John Calvin, had some very definite ideas about worship and what made it spiritual and true. For Calvin, the public worship of the Christian community had to be clearly identifiable as God-focused, Biblically based, and spiritually simple.
If the worship was more about someone or something other than God, it was unspiritual and untrue. If the worship was incongruent with the broad scope and sweep of the scriptures — love of God and love of neighbor, mercy, justice, it was unspiritual and untrue. If the worship was confusing in anyway and had taken the simple truth of the gospel of God’s transforming grace in Jesus Christ and complicated it, it was unspiritual and untrue.
For Calvin, there were four non-negotiable worship practices. In worship, God’s people should read the Bible and listen to the Bible proclaimed; God’s people should pray — speak to God, listen for God; God’s people should commune with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and one another through the celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; and God’s people should make their offerings of themselves and their resources for the advancement of God’s kingdom in the world. If worship lacked any of these four practices, according to Calvin, it was poorer by that much and risked venturing into becoming unspiritual and untrue.
Worship. It’s a good word. We shouldn’t apologize for it. It’s an old word. In English, it shows up before the year 900 as the Middle English word “worthssipe”, which means “worthy.” In the Christian tradition, no one — person or thing — is worthy of our highest adoration other than God and God alone. History, by the way, is replete with cautionary tales where people have forgotten this.
Our challenge, I believe, is to understand worship today or, better yet, to foster and experience it. In other words, if we are to ever “get” worship, it will be because we have worshipped, repeatedly. Occasional worship is an oxymoron.
When I think of worship several phrases come to mind: extravagant love, extreme submission, matters of the heart, something that is expressed in a life of holiness.
Very early in my Christian walk when I was rather immature in my faith I believe I harbored an unhealthy idea about worship. Then, worship was a transaction of sorts, a quid pro quo. I would show up on Sunday morning, every Sunday morning, for worship and by doing so I somehow obligated God to answer my prayers and meet my needs.
Somewhere along the way I ran across what William Temple, the Church of England’s Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, had to say about worship. I had to abandon my childish notions of worship and grow up. Temple wrote:
[Worship is the] submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by God’s holiness; the nourishment of the mind with God’s truth; the purifying of the imagination by God’s beauty; the opening of the heart to God’s love; the surrender of the will to God’s purposes; and all of this is gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of actual sin.
Worship is all about God. God is spirit. God is truth. Jesus said as much there by the well in Samaria.
Worship is all about God. God’s words. God’s actions. God’s character. Worship is not a transaction. Worship is not for my amusement or edification or enjoyment. Occasionally I will catch myself talking as if it were. The preacher’s jokes weren’t funny. I have no idea what that skit was about. That song just didn’t do it for me at all. I may feel better after worship. I may not. I may feel as if a burden has been lifted. Or not. I may even feel as if a burden has been placed upon me.
However, in worship or rather at worship or better yet when worshipping, I occasionally encounter something of God’s holiness, God’s truth, God’s beauty, God’s love. When I do, it’s God’s doing. I pray for as much, hope for as much, anticipate as much. Without worship, I believe, there is the very real potential and possibility that I will die spiritually and so will you, that I will become spiritually malnourished and so will you, impure, close-minded and close-hearted, and selfish. But, with worship there is the very real potential and possibility that, by God’s Spirit, I will be enlivened, nourished, purified, opened, surrendered and so will you.