50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
For the past several weeks we’ve been talking about Worship here at First Presbyterian Church, using the acronym WORSHIP, which stands for Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, Intelligent, and Public.
Today, we’re focusing on the H, for Honest. And so I’m reminded of the story of the Honest Wife, who was on her way home one night with her husband, and the husband (who is driving) gets pulled over by the police. The officer tells the husband that he was stopped because his tail light was burned out, to which he replies, “I’m very sorry officer, I didn’t realize it was out, I’ll get it fixed right away.” Just then his wife speaks up and says, “I knew this would happen when I told you two days ago to get that light fixed.”
So the officer asks for the husband’s license, and after looking at it says, “Sir your license has expired.” Once again, the husband apologizes and mentions that he didn’t realize that it had expired and that he would take care of it first thing in the morning.
The honest wife interjects, saying, “I told you a week ago that you got a letter from the state of Texas, telling you that your license had expired.”
Well by this time, the husband is quite upset with his wife contradicting him in front of the officer. He turns to her, and in a rather loud voice says, “Will you just shut up for once??” At this, the officer leans over toward the wife and asks, “Does your husband always talk to you like that?”
With a steely gaze, the honest wife calmly replies, “Only when he’s drunk, officer. Only when he’s drunk.”
Honesty can be brutal at times.
In our scripture passage today from the gospel of John, the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is remarkable for its brutal honesty. Neither Jesus nor the Samaritan woman hold back, or shy away from difficult topics that others (in their time as well as ours) would avoid at all costs.
In the verses leading up to our passage today, Jesus approaches the woman at the well and asks her for a drink. Instead of meekly complying, she calls him out, saying “wait a minute–you’re a Jew and I’m a Samaritan. Why are you even talking to me?” In other words, less than five seconds into the conversation, she plays the race card.
A little while later in their conversation, Jesus calls her out, this time on her complicated marriage history. In other words, he plays the sex and gender card.
Neither one gets upset, and each is perhaps surprised by the other’s forthright, direct approach. The only taboo subject they haven’t yet covered is religion, and for a Jew and a Samaritan, that’s the most divisive subject of them all.
Jesus was a self-identified Jew. Judaism is a religion and ethnicity that originates from Judah, in southern Israel. The woman at the well is a Samaritan. Her ethnicity and her religion originate from Samaria in northern Israel. Jews and Samaritans (to this day) worship the same God, both acknowledge Moses as their central prophet, and both follow the Torah (with some variations), the first five books of the Old Testament.
But that’s where their similarities end. For Jews, the most sacred place on earth is the city of Jerusalem, the location of the temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, and for many centuries, the only acceptable place where God could legitimately be worshiped.
For the Samaritans the most sacred place on earth is Mount Gerzim (close to where our scripture passage takes place), which they believe is the highest, oldest, and most central mountain in the world, and hence, God’s true dwelling place, and the only acceptable place where God can legitimately be worshiped.
And so in the continued spirit of brutal honesty, the woman at the well cuts right to the chase: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you (in Greek this is plural, as in y’all, or your people) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” What’s the deal?
Now the answer that the earliest readers of this scripture passage in the 1st century would have expected from Jesus, the “correct” answer for a Jewish Messiah (and the absolute wrong answer for a Samaritan) would have been, “Yep. We’re right and you’re wrong. Jerusalem is more holy than Gerzim, and so you gotta worship God there.”
Incidentally, this is the favorite approach in a lot of religions today, including, unfortunately, many branches of Christianity. We’re right, you’re wrong, our interpretation of scripture is correct, and that settles it.
But Jesus takes a different, surprising approach, and tells the woman, “Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” At which point, some modern day readers will no doubt say, “that’s right, Jesus! You tell ’em! ‘Cause WE know that the REAL place that God has blessed, the holiest place on earth, and the place where everyone ought to worship him is right here in ‘Merica!”
Or at best, we think, “That’s right, Jesus, because we enlightened, 21st century Christians know that God is everywhere and so we can worship him anywhere…right? That’s what you mean, isn’t it, Jesus?”
But then Jesus goes on to say something really cryptic, something that has nothing to do with geography at all.
He tells the woman at the well, “You (meaning Samaritans) worship what you do not know; we (meaning Jews) worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”
This is not one upmanship. He’s not saying, “you don’t even know what you’re worshiping, and besides salvation can only come from my faith.”
He’s actually making an insightful characterization of the legitimate differences between Jewish and Samaritan worship:
For Jews, there is a profound emphasis on knowledge. The temple in Jerusalem is a visible, concrete, tangible structure that people can see, touch, experience, point to and know what it is and what it’s there for. Jewish law expands on the Torah, through the Tanakh, the Talmud, and Midrash, explaining, interpreting, and listing in great detail all the things that can be concretely known about God and what God wants from us.
Where Jews emphasize knowledge, Samaritans emphasize spirit. They recognize only the Torah and no other books, no other teachings, because they believe that God’s true nature cannot be, known, cannot be understood by the human mind. They have no temple, just a sacred mountain, because they believe that God is Spirit, and has no need for shelter made by human hands.
You worship what you do not know (that’s not an insult, it’s a compliment); we worship what we know (again, not an insult, but a recognition of what is distinct, and good, about each tradition). And then when Jesus says that “salvation is from the Jews” I don’t think this time he’s referring to the Jewish religion, or the Samaritan one for that matter. He’s referring to himself. If he had been raised as a Samaritan, he probably would have said the opposite.
And with this balanced analysis of Judaism and Samaritanism in hand, Jesus goes on to say:
23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Spirit and truth. What is unknown and what is known. What is unknowable and what is knowable. Both of these are important aspects of worship that is honest, straightforward, and authentic–wherever and whenever it takes place.
And that brings us to today, and our worship here at First Presbyterian Church. There are a few things I think we can glean from this passage and this honest interaction between Jesus and the woman at the well.
The first is that honest worship is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects–whether it’s race, gender, sexuality, religion, politics–nothing is off limits as long as it’s approached in an honest, balanced way that listens and evaluates all positions equally, but also critically and thoroughly.
That “balanced” part is important when tackling difficult subjects. Some churches only preach fire and brimstone, hate and judgment, because that’s a lot easier than trying to see the face of Jesus in someone who is different from you.
Other churches only preach messages that are positive an uplifting, which tell you how everything is always going to be okay, and if not, keep waiting…eventually God will bless you with everything you ever wanted. That message is a lot easier than recognizing that pain and suffering and loss are part of this life, for people of faith just like everyone else. Sometimes you get your happy ending, but sometimes you don’t.
If we’re honest, we have to preach and proclaim the good along with the bad–in our sermons, in our scripture readings, in our songs that we sing, and in the prayers that we pray together. Incidentally, that’s why we start every worship service with both a prayer of confession and a reminder of forgiveness.
So Honest worship doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. That’s number one.
Number two is that Honest worship isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I realize that a lot of people come to church for answers, to help them make sense out of their complicated lives. And sometimes we have those answers. But we’ll never be a church that promises we always have the right answers to every question. Because sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the best can do is to say, “Yeah, that’s a great question. I wish I knew the answer. Let’s keep looking for it…together.”
Jesus, in our scripture passage today, affirms both the known AND the unknown as legitimate aspects of worship. Sometimes we come to God confidently, secure in what we know. And sometimes we come to God in spirit, in doubt and in anxiety. But we lay both of those things–all that we know, and all that we don’t know–at his feet.
So honest worship doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, and it isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
The final thing, which is related to the first two, is this:
Honest worship also means being able to say, “Maybe we were wrong about that.”
Throughout the gospels, when people come to Jesus for answers (usually hoping that he’ll declare their faction to be right and all their enemies to be wrong) the truth that he speaks usually surprises, convicts, and affirms both sides. We too, in our worship and in our lives, should always allow ourselves to be surprised by the truth that we just couldn’t see before.
And that’s probably the hardest thing of all–admitting when we’re wrong. It implies an openness, an honesty not just with one another, but with ourselves. We are proud people, but we are not God. Our understanding and our interpretations of scripture, like us are flawed, limited, not bullet-proof, not fixed and unchanging for all time.
And if being honest in our worship leads us to say, “Yeah, I was wrong about that,” then it should also lead us to follow up those words with, “and I’m truly sorry for any damage my beliefs have done, in the church, in my family, in the world.” And if we’ve been on the receiving end of some of those wrong-headed beliefs, then honest worship also leads us to say “you are forgiven. You may be at peace.”
And then we share that peace with each other, and with all the world. Openly, honestly, without pride, without shame, and without fear; worshipping God in spirit and in truth.