Nowhere But Here
Text: John 4:21: “...the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
There are many things that make Christianity distinct from other major religious traditions. Of course most of what makes our faith distinct is bound up in our doctrine; we believe in one God, expressed in three persons; we believe in the basic condition of human sin, which leads to the universal need for salvation; and we believe that God works tirelessly through human history to reconcile us across the gulf of sin, first by giving us rules of life, then by sending prophets to warn us, then by coming to live among us in our own lives, as Jesus Christ; and finally by dwelling among us as God the Holy Spirit.
But some of what makes us different from other faith traditions isn’t our doctrine, but our practice. We are a people gathered around the table, From the very beginning of the church it has been the practice of the faithful community to re-enact the story of Jesus’s meal with his disciples by sharing the bread and wine of holy communion.
In the very earliest days, when Christianity was a tiny movement and not the dominant cultural background, people outside the church so misunderstood what was going on in here on Sunday morning that they though we were engaging in cannibalism. After all, if you sat and listened at the window to what was going on in here, you might get that idea.
Here’s another part of our practice that makes us different. We do not have, and we never have had, a central focus on pilgrimage in the Christian tradition.
Of course, we know that there have been important examples of pilgrim paths in our history; if you ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, you know a little bit about the old English tradition of making a pilgrimage to the site of Bishop Becket’s murder. And even today, pilgrims make their way along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, a path leading from Bilbao to Compostela, in northwestern Spain.
It wasn’t until medieval times that pilgrimages became something that Christians did, and there has never been a doctrinal requirement, or even a strong suggestion, that Christian people must participate in a pilgrimage. To make it clear why this is something distinct about us, think for a moment about Islamic tradition. One of the five pillars of Islam is the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca; it is a matter of doctrine that this act of practice, going at least once on the pilgrimage to the holiest city in Islam, should be done by every able-bodied Muslim able to afford to go. That requirement has existed since the earliest days of Islam, and has endured even as Islam has become a global phenomenon.
Our own roots in Jewish tradition also give us a history of pilgrimage. That’s how we can read the exchange between Jesus and the woman at the well in this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus is a Jew; the woman at the well is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans, as you know, had nothing to do with each other, at least in those days; the Samaritans were a breakaway faith community, who believed that they were holding true to the Jewish faith of the days before the exile to Babylon.
One of the points on which Jews and Samaritans disagreed was the matter of making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem. For Jews after the exile, coming to Jerusalem at least once a year for the feast of Passover was seen as a practice rooted in a doctrinal requirement. What it meant to be a good Jew was, among other things, to make that pilgrimage every year, at least if you were physically able. Whole villages would simply empty out at the time of the pilgrimage feasts, with only the gentiles in town left behind to see to things.
Samaritans, for their part, did not agree with this idea. They felt the whole notion of making regular pilgrimages to the Temple was something that had come along well after the Temple had been rebuilt. So far as they were concerned, it had nothing to do with the earliest practices of the Jewish people, and it was not rooted in the scriptures of the Torah. The Samaritans had a temple instead on Mount Gerazim, which is what the Samaritan woman means when she says “our ancestors worshiped on this mountain”; and to this day there is a community of about 400 or so Samaritans living on Mount Gerazim.
So that’s the background of the conversation we are eavesdropping on today between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It’s a little bit of a set piece; the language is mostly intended for us, the audience, because both of the people in the conversation understood full well the differing claims that separated Samaritans and Jews. So in writing this vignette John the Evangelist is sort of looking back over his shoulder at us, making sure we understand what is happening.
But the conversation between these two takes a turn that no one—not the Samaritans, but also not the Jews—would have anticipated. You people say the only place to worship God is in Jerusalem, and we say it’s here, she says. And he’s supposed to say— yes, that’s right, Jerusalem is the only place to worship God.
But instead, Jesus says—no, a different world is coming. A different relationship between God and everyone is about to break through, and it’s going to mean that God isn’t kept in a building, or a city, or a place anymore.
Jewish tradition said that true believers worshipped God at the Temple in Jerusalem. Full stop. Right worship of God was dependent on a specific location in a specific place.
Jesus announces the end of that idea. Instead, he says ,right worship will not be about a place; it will be about an attitude. It won’t be about where we are; it will be about how we are.
“The true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth, because that is what God is looking for, and it’s what God is”— that’s a roughly contemporary translation of Jesus’s part in this conversation.
This may sound like just another Bible story. I think for us, today, it is nothing short of explosive. If we take this at face value, it could just change the whole way we understand what church is about—what it means, and how it works.
It means at least this: If Jesus is announcing the opening of a time in which you don’t have to go to Jerusalem, or Mount Gerazim, or Rome, or Canterbury, or Mecca, or Wall Street, or anywhere else to be doing right worship, then everyplace, and any place, is a setting for the right worship of God. God isn’t kept in a box in Jerusalem anymore. God can be right here.
So far, so good; we have a church, or at least we have a church- shaped building, and maybe God will see the steeple and come visit. Except that the idea that God can be worshipped anywhere , the idea that God isn’t place-specific, is only half the story.
Because the other half is that Jesus isn’t saying God is simply packing up and moving out of the Temple. God isn’t looking for a new building to call home. God is looking for a new people to call home. And whether or not God will recognize us as those people does not depend on where we worship, or even how we worship.
It depends on something much deeper. It depends on how much of ourselves we bring to worship.
Before, when you had to go to the temple to worship, the idea was that you brought along something, some animal, some offering, to sacrifice. Giving something that was yours over to God made this relationship very real.
But now, Jesus is saying, what you need to bring along is yourself. You can’t just go through the motions anymore, walk the road to the Temple or climb the path up the mountain and go through the motions of a sacrifice. Now, we have to offer ourselves—and do it in such a way that it’s just as real as giving over something we owned.
This means a few important things. None of this depends on the church, not this church or any church. If God truly seeks those who offer their full and true selves in worship, if God is looking for us to offer over not just our stuff but our hearts, then it doesn’t matter where that happens.
Does that mean all those folks who are spiritual but not religious, the ones who are reading their newspapers or taking a long bike ride right now, may be right after all? It might. But I doubt it.
Because doing this, worshipping God in this new way, isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to bring your whole self into the worship. We always want to keep a little bit out of the bargain—you know, just to hedge our bets. It was easier when you had to go to Jerusalem to be in the presence of God, because at least it meant you weren’t really in very much danger of meeting God anywhere else.
But now, it can be anywhere. It takes a lot, a lot of discipline, a lot of reflection, a lot of prayer, to do that kind of right worship. And that is why we need the church. Not because this is the only place God is, but because we need each other’s help to be able to worship the way God is hoping for now.
In spirit, and in truth: All of us, without hesitation, without calculation, without an eye over our shoulder to see what others think of us. That is the worship, those are the people, God is looking for. May God find it whenever, and wherever, we gather. Amen.