March 23, 2014: How to Worship in Spirit and Truth by Rev. Chris Dierkes

Rev Chris Dierkes: How to Worship in Spirit and Truth  

Read the PDF: Rev Chris Dierkes March 23 2014

Let’s take a look at our gospel reading today. But first we need a bit of backdrop because there is a whole lot of layers to this story that our 21st century eyes and ears probably miss–layers that are fundamentally crucial if we are going to get to the bottom of this story. And I think getting to the bottom of this story will indeed be a revelation.

So the first piece of information we need is the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. If you remember your Hebrew Bible, recall the figures of King David and King Solomon. They ruled over a united kingdom of the 12 tribes of Israel. After Solomon died however the united kingdom broke into two separate kingdoms: The 10 tribes of the North formed the Kingdom of Israel and the 2 tribes from the south formed the Kingdom of Judah.

So Kingdom of Israel in the North. Kingdom of Judah in the South. Each kingdom had its own capital. The capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judah was Jerusalem. The capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was Samaria. Jerusalem in the south, Samaria in the north. Each capital city also had its own sacred mountain (or holy hill). The holy hill in Jerusalem was Mt. Zion (which you hear about constantly in the Psalms). The holy hill in Samaria was Mt. Gerizim.

Mt. Zion in the south, Mt. Gerizim in the north.

Each holy hill in each capital city had its own temple built atop the holy hill. The temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem was the Temple of Solomon. And then there was a temple in the North. There was a temple as well on Mt. Gerizim.

Both temples and both peoples derived their history and their identity from common ancestors. They shared their same scriptures (the first five books of the Bible). Though they interpreted them in slightly different ways.

So they come from the same root but branch out in different ways. Though the history is really complex and we don’t have time to go through it all, a somewhat simplified account is the Samaritan peoples have their roots in the northern kingdom, while the Southern kingdom is the heartland of the Jewish tradition.

The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in the year 721 B.C.E. Many of its peoples were exiled or killed. This led to the history of the so-called 10 Lost Tribes of Israel. But it’s not clear they were lost so much as some remnants remained in the land.

As of today there are likely less than 1,000 Samaritans in our world, the vast majority of whom live in very close proximity to Mt. Gerizim. In the time of Jesus however they were a much larger population, a recognizably distinct one.

From the Southern Jerusalem point-of-view the Samaritans were heretics. They had been infected by foreign influence, had their strange ways and had gone off the path. From the Samaritan point of view, they (not surprisingly) were the true heirs of Abraham.

The history of conflict suggests that often it’s the groups closest to us but just slightly different that we treat the worst. Think of the history of violence between various Christian denominations as an example.

So two peoples with a common revelation, religion, practice, ancestry yet a different development of the meaning. And a huge fight over who was right.

This is the context of Jesus and Samaritan woman meeting at well. This is the gulf that sits between them. There’s also the gulf that Jesus is a rabbi and she is a woman. He’s not supposed to be talking to her out in public. She’s a woman. Worse she’s a Samaritan.

So these two fascinating characters, The Samaritan woman and Jesus are crossing all kinds of lines: ethnic, religious, gender.

And yet the conversation they end up having is about spiritual truth. Each while hesitant is willing to go with the other at potential cost to themselves.

Jesus meets the woman at high noon. In the Gospel of John whenever Jesus interacts with a character in daytime they eventually come to understand and believe. They are illuminated. Whenever Jesus interacts with a character at nighttime, they fail to grasp his meaning and purpose.

So Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at high noon–meaning that she is going to come to understand his teaching in the fullest sense. High noon, sun at its highest point.

A woman. A Samaritan.

That is not who we should expect to get the story. But the teaching of Jesus is clear: those who appear by worldly standards to be on the outside are often closest to the kingdom of God.

The conversation between the Samaritan woman and Jesus takes a number of fascinating turns. I want to focus however on this remarkable passage.

The Samaritan woman says in verse 19:

“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem.”

When she says this mountain she is referring to Mt. Gerizim, the site of the former temple of the northern kingdom of Israel. The heart of the Samaritan religion and people–their holiest site.

But you say–i.e. she means you as in Jewish people–say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem–that is on the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, capital of the Southern Kingdom.

Her statement then is a direct question to Jesus–who do you think is right? Us Samaritans or you Jews?

And then Jesus replies with this bombshell:

“Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming and indeed is here is now here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 21, 23-24).

Boom. If anyone happened to have a gong nearby, that would have been the moment to ring it.

Just sit with the radicality of that statement:

“Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming and indeed is here is now here when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4: 21, 23-24).

The spirit of each person for Jesus is the link to the Holy Spirit, the Great Spirit. It is the Spirit alone who worship The Creator. Any religious form–neither on this mountain nor on the mountain in Jerusalem–that is not sourced in the spirit is of no value or purpose.

This is Jesus at his mystical purest.

His words should cut us to the quick. In the contemporary Western world, our established temples and their attendant religious structures are crumbling. Too often our religious institutions have been busy at work just trying to keep the crumbling structure from completely collapsing–just trying to hold it together. Never bothering to ask whether they are worth saving.

Others have built alternative temples–temples of power and money–they have created their priesthood, their sacred texts, their rituals, in order to worship the god of money, egotism, and power.

In these confusing times where do we turn?

Jesus’ answer is simple–stop searching outside yourself for some form, some structure, some thing, some whatever to save you. The only salvation, the only truth, the only real worship is from the Spirit.

Everything depends then on whether we can locate the spirit that guides each of us–the spirit (little s) in each of us that is the link to The Holy Spirit (capital S). For Jesus is completely clear:

God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”

In John’s gospel Jesus speaks from the state and the world of the Spirit. People (including his own disciples) misunderstand him to be speaking on a literal level. Any temple or structure of place of the holy is a pointer, at best a glimpse, a mediator of grace. But we take the vessel, the pointer, the glimpse and try to domesticate it, try to contain it, try to control it, try to make it fit our agendas. And then these pointers no longer point us to another truth. They are no longer a means to a spiritual end. They become an end in themselves–they become in the language of the Bible idols. And idols need to be smashed. And boy oh boy has Jesus just smashed some idols–two people’s holiest religious sites, including his own.

But the pointers are there in the material.

We have to worship in spirit and in truth but if are eyes are open sometimes we can see the spiritual precisely in the material.

In particular there was a very powerful pointer in that temple on Mt Gerizim in the heartland of the Samaritan people, in the temple of the religion of the woman Jesus interacts with in this story.

In the temple on Mt. Gerizim there was a throne representing the authority or dominion of the deity. Under the throne was a footstool. The throne represented the more transcendental nature of God–as Eternal Creator, as over all, as a Ruler. The footstool however represented the Divine as deeply intimate, the Lord’s feet gently touching earth.

The footstool was not a literal place for the god to put its feet down. It was a mystical pointer. Our hearts are the footstool of The Divine. Our hearts are the place where the feet of The Beautiful Lord of Love touches into all creation.

To worship in spirit and in truth is to worship from the deeps of our hearts. Our hearts must be a footstool for The Divine. We must surrender, bow down, receive like a footstool. In so doing God’s feet, God’s reality can touch this world in and through us.

Take a few moments and simply feel, naturally locate this heart in yourself and in this temple. Find, symbolically speaking, the footstool for God within your own heart. A place of warmth, a place of ease, a place of deep abiding communion. If we locate that inner footstool of the heart, then we will worship in spirit and in truth.

We will worship in this space and we then go from here, by grace, to worship Love by serving her in all life–by acts of mercy and justice, compassion and truth, wisdom and tenderness.

The days are surely coming when you will worship neither on this mountain nor on any other mountain. God is Spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.