Sunday Worship, March 12, 2023 - SPIRIT AND TRUTH

Texts: 2 Kings17: 24-34; John 4: 5-26

    Think about it.  A chance encounter that changed a life – your life or mine.  It happens when you least expect it.  The conversation that led to courtship and marriage or a job.  In order to return to Galilee from Judea, Jesus had to go through Samaria.  The area called Samaria was not a foreign country, but a region within Israel, whose geographical limits were not clearly defined.

    Originally, it denoted the territory of the tribes of Ephraim and half of Manessah, with the Jordan to the East and the coastal plains to the west.  Its borders were slightly north of Jericho to south of Gezer, a distance of about twenty miles.  Its wealth stemmed from agriculture because of its rich, fertile valleys.  In the eighth century BCE, the Assyrians reconfigured the ethnic landscape by settling non-Israelite deportees alongside the native population, creating ethnic strife as well as a new ethnic group through resulting intermarriages.

     When the Jews returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding the temple, the Samaritans offered their help, which was rejected, and thus the strife between Jew and Samaritan originated.  The situation by the time of Jesus was similar to that we find in many of the former Soviet states outside of Russia with their mixed and so-called pure populations, resulting from Stalin's policy of deporting various groups into areas as a form of political control.

     Although the Samaritans had lived in the area for eight hundred years and worshiped the same God as did the Jews, they were not accepted as pure Jews by those who guarded the Jerusalem temple heritage.  It is very much like The Ukrainian Orthodox and the Russian Orthodox churches.

    Jews and Samaritans generally didn't talk to each other.  They did not share things in common, as the gospel writer explains to his non-Jewish readers.  They were considered to be unclean by Jews and could not be made clean.  To ask for a drink from a Samaritan was like eating with sinners and tax collectors.  Understandably, the woman was startled.  
In this story, she becomes even more startled when Jesus summarized her life history.  The encounter is a springboard for the Gospel's dialog on living water and the resulting discussion where Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah, the one “who will proclaim all things,” as the text so nicely puts it.  This morning's reading stops just before the disciples returned and were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman, not just a Samaritan, but a woman at that.  This chance encounter results in her leaving her water jar, returning to her village, and proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.   Chance encounters can change lives.

    A few years ago I went to an Association meeting, usually a pretty dry kind of experience.  But at that meeting we were challenged by a sociologist, C. Kirk Hathaway, to rethink our approach to church, especially in terms of worship.  Many mainline churches, as he pointed out, are facing decline, even in communities where the demographics should support such churches.  Some churches have changed their style of worship in order to be more attractive, including so-called contemporary worship, usually in the soft rock style of the 70s, which by any standard could not truly be called “contemporary.”

    Rather than focusing on eliminating what he called the “dirges of dead Germans,” he focused on what worship does and should do.  He noted that the sermon, rather than being a dry discourse on some theological point that makes no sense to any of us, should provoke, evoke, and transform.  It isn't that a preacher shouldn’t work to alleviate suffering, or not educate the congregation, or even motivate people to action, but that unless a preacher stirs things up, as did Jesus, or evokes a strong spiritual response, as did Jesus, there will be no transformation of soul, which is the real motivating force.

    The New Testament reveals what one writer calls a “stunning silence” on the outward forms of worship and instead focuses more on the inner life of worship, the experience of reaching towards God, of being “Godward,” this same writer puts it.  In fact, the gathered life of the church in all of the epistles is never called “worship.”  The word for worship used in Hebrew Scripture proskuneo is virtually absent from the New Testament.

    In this morning's text Jesus says that the hour is coming when worship will not occur “on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.... but in spirit and in truth.”   Thus inner spiritual reality replaces a building or a place.  True worship is in our values and the way we live, how we spend our money, what we do with our time, how we love others. True worship is a form of intimacy – intimacy with God.

    Worshiping God in spirit and truth means being open to the transformation that can occur in our lives.  It means being willing to accommodate, make changes, and to realize that any one particular form or order of worship is not the only way to experience a service.  Christian communities have tired many different approaches to worship, some as traditional as the Book fo Common prayer and others as radical as Taaize.  What counts is how we experience God through worship.

    Worshiping God in spirit and truth means being open to new ideas, new ways to express our faith, for the spirit blows where it will.  God cannot be encapsulated in one form, one expression, or one way to state faith we hold.  God is beyond our meager attempts to define, describe, or delineate, for as Jesus states, God is spirit and we need to experience that spirit in ways that speaks to our souls.

    Worshiping is also a community act.  As a community we share our joys, our concerns, our needs, and our desires.  Worshiping as a community draws a community closer together, not just by giving us our common experiences but sharing common dreams in addition to the dreams teach of us may have individually.  Through worship, we also have the opportunity to have that chance encounter with the very soul of God, the soul that gives us life and meaning.

    Let us pray:  Transform us, O God, through our encounter with you.  Transform us, o God, so we may be transformed by those around us.  Transform us, O God, so we may transform the world. Amen.