Psalm 138:1-8, John 4:7-26
February 16, 2014
Jesus met this woman at the well. And even more significant was the fact that Jesus met this Samaritan woman at the well. And what happened there was not only very unorthodox, but it would have been shocking to the people who were there, and to the readers of this story. “When his disciples returned,” John tells us “they marveled that he was talking to her.” And that word “marveled” is either understated, or it’s not translated very well! Shocked would have been more like it!
That’s because, just to talk to this woman, was a huge breach of social etiquette and religious convention! Men in that culture simply did not talk to women in public, who were not their wives. And of course, Jews would not talk to Samaritans at all. And certainly none would ask from a Samaritan a drink of water. So, her question to Jesus is probably also understated! “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
The people around her would have asked the same thing. But there probably weren’t any people there. One scholar pointed out that this was “the sixth hour.” It was the middle of the day. That was not the time the women came to the well to draw water. But this woman was one of questionable “reputation,” as pointed out by Jesus. So she was probably a social outcast and she came to draw water after everyone else was gone. That was the kind of woman Jesus chose to talk to. And many, including his disciples, would have told him it wasn’t a very smart thing to do!
Now, as we read this story all these years later, we don’t get a sense of all of those social and religious implications, do we? As I often point out, we read these stories with our “Bible voice!” And that often makes us miss a lot of what is going on in them. Even so, we do know that this was an awkward situation! We see that when Jesus brings out a lot of the issues in this woman’s life.
At one point he asks her to go and get her husband, and of course that’s when a lot of the awkward details of her life are exposed. And when he tells her she has had five husbands, and the man she is now with is not her husband, we can only imagine the “pregnant pause” that ensued! Then she made this huge understatement “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.”
This story is rife with understatements! And if we look at it closely like this, we find it’s full of very awkward and uncomfortable moments. At this point, we see the discomfort in the way this woman very quickly changes the subject! She switches the attention from her personal life, by bringing up “the big issue.” And the big issue is the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.
We know that’s a big issue. There are examples of it throughout the Gospels. And what we know about that issue is that it goes back to the time of the Babylonian exile, which of course was a very large part of Jewish history. Well, when the Babylonians took the Jews into exile, they didn’t take them all. They left certain groups in the land. And some of them were the Samaritans. And while they were occupied by the Babylonians, they had done the unthinkable. They had intermarried with them. They had tainted the blood line of the Jewish race! And the Jews – the true Jews – thought very ill of them for it! And of course they still did in the time of Jesus. So the Samaritans set up their own religious order, with their own center of worship. That’s what this woman was talking about.
So she asks this question about where “true worship” takes place, evoking this whole Jewish/Samaritan controversy. But instead of answering her question, which probably didn’t have an actual answer, Jesus used this, not only as a lesson about “true worship,” but also a lesson about love and acceptance. And he was telling her that those two things go hand in hand. And that’s a lesson, I think, for all times!
So, let’s think for a moment about this thing I’m using in my title for today. What is “true worship?” Let me start by using one of my favorite statements about worship. And that is, that “Many people think worship is something you go someplace to watch other people do.” The downside of the way we do “corporate worship,” is that it looks too much like an “entertainment venue.” There’s a stage and an audience. And it’s too easy to think of me as a performer. That’s what we’re used to, right? But that’s not what “true worship” is about. As Soren Kierkegaard pointed out, you aren’t the “audience.” God is the audience. You are the performers!
We could say that, in it’s purest form, worship is people praising God. But even more important than that, worship is people making that connection with God. That’s what Jesus was saying about true worshippers worshipping “in spirit and in truth.” Our spirit reaches out to God, and vice-versa. Then, the second thing Jesus is saying is that true worship is people making a connection with God in connection with other people. It is not insignificant that in answering this woman, Jesus said, “The time is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship!”
What that means is, the statement he was making about worship, cannot be “divorced” from this whole conversation about the Jews and the Samaritans! Jesus was saying that true worship is not about location – Jerusalem or the mountain of the Samaritans. It’s about attitude. And in tying it to the question she asked, it’s about taking those negative “religious conventions” out of the picture. It’s about removing the things that separate people – religiously, socially, and politically – and making them one in the worship of God.
That is so important to see. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Jesus would tell this woman that, if you think you are worshipping properly, and you are still holding that kind of negativity towards someone else, you’re fooling yourself! Remember that Jesus told the people in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you are in worship, offering your gift at the alter, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift, and go make that human connection first.”
Too many people use worship as something they do to “feel better” about ourselves, while avoiding the fact that they’re still holding onto grudges, bitter feelings, or prejudices toward others. It cannot be that. And it cannot be “true worship” when we still have those things inside of us! Anybody feeling uncomfortable now? This lesson is hard! “True worship” can happen when we ask God to forgive us for those things, and when we pledge ourselves, with his help, not to be that kind of person any more!
Anybody who thinks this is easy is not listening very well! But remember, a few weeks ago, we talked about the “call of God.” And we said that God calls all of us, not just a select few. We said how he calls us to service in his kingdom. Well, I would also say that he calls us to a higher level of living. We should feel that higher calling. Our lives should be different. If we’re going to be like Jesus, that’s going to be evident!
So I suggest that we start with worship. And I would suggest that we do so thinking of “true worship,” which is connection with God – honest, truthful connection with God. Not, “I don’t think very often about you, and at times I even avoid you, God, but here’s a nice hymn of praise.” – not that, but rather an honest, outpouring of the heart to God. And as we do so, let it also be an awareness of our shortcomings towards others, and not just a confession or a sorrow for them, but a determination to forsake them and move forward.
That, my friends, is “true worship.”
Eternal God, you know us better than we know ourselves. And we often try to hide those things that aren’t so pleasant to you. But if we’re honest, we know we cannot do so. Help us, Lord, to know your presence. Help us to be “in tune” with your Holy Spirit in our lives, as you guide us, comfort us, and even convict us, desiring to be with us and we with you. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.