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A Shocking Story, a Radical Truth
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 23, 2014
Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42 Psalm 95
The story we heard from John is as shocking as it is radical. There are three elements in this story that make it so. First, Jesus is talking with a woman. And not only is Jesus talking with this woman, but He reveals a radical and profound teaching to her. What is shocking about all this is that women held no status in the world of the New Testament. Yet Jesus talks with this woman and it is to her that He reveals His profound teaching about worship. Second is the shocking truth about how true worshipers will worship in the spirit, not in a specific place–or even, perhaps, according to the traditions of a specific religion. Third, this woman is a Samaritan. What is shocking about this is that the Samaritans were held in contempt by orthodox Jews in Jesus’ day. Yet this woman, this Samaritan woman receives the profound truth about worshipping in the spirit. Let’s look at these points one by one.
There are very few women in the Gospels. In all four Gospels, there are about four or five women who figure in stories. I can think of only five women whose names are given: Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, the sisters Mary and Martha, and John mentions a certain Mary, the wife of Clopas who was present at the crucifixion but has no other role in the Gospels. So to have Jesus talk at length with a woman at all is remarkable. Maybe even shocking. John tells us that Jesus’ disciples, “marveled that he was talking with a woman” (John 4:27). It is remarkable that John records this story in his Gospel and that it occupies such great length. Then the story proceeds in a remarkable way. This woman carries the story of her encounter with Jesus to her fellow Samaritans. John tells us that, “Many Samaritans believed because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). So I think we can say that this woman was one of the very first Christian evangelists, or preachers.
Then there is the fact that Jesus is not only talking with this woman, but He reveals to her profound teachings. These are teachings that Jesus hasn’t yet told His own male disciples. He tells the woman about living water. Jesus says, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst; the water that I give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Here Jesus is talking about truth that gives eternal life, to which water corresponds. But there is another teaching that Jesus entrusts to this remarkable woman. I mean the teaching about true worshipers. Being a Samaritan, the woman worships on Mount Gerizim where the Samaritans had their temple. Mount Gerizim was north of Jerusalem. The temple for Jews, as we know, was in Jerusalem. Jesus tells the woman a radical teaching about worship. He tells her that true worshippers will not go to Mount Gerizim nor to Jerusalem, but will worship in spirit,
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:21, 23-24).
This radical truth says that sacrifices in the temple do not matter as much as our spiritual disposition toward God. Jesus, here, is liberating the Jews and the Samaritans both from temple sacrifices. God is not in a place, but as a Spirit is present everywhere. But I think that there is a further and even more radical teaching in these words. Isn’t Jesus here saying that distinctions like Samaritan and Jew no longer matter? Isn’t this implied by saying that on neither Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem is God to be worshiped, but in spirit. The distinction of orthodoxy that the Jews claimed against the heresy they thought the Samaritans represented dissolves. This is certainly what Paul has in mind when he says,
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
And to underscore the idea that in Jesus all are one, John tells us that the Samaritans, too, believe in Jesus–making them equal to the believing Jews.
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony . . . So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (John 4:39, 40-42).
Finally, to emphasize the dissolution of lines between orthodoxy and heresy, this story takes place in Samaria. And the woman whom the Jewish Jesus talks to is a Samaritan. Orthodox Jews held the Samaritans in contempt as foreigners and as heretics. This was a time when Jews were extremely strict about their bloodlines. They prided themselves on being descendents from Abraham and from the tribes that returned from the Babylonian exile. So when Paul wants to brag (satirically) about being a Jew, he says he is, “Of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew or Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5). The book of Nehemiah tells us to what great extent foreigners were actually forbidden in Israel’s pure society. Reflecting on Israel’s past sins, the prophet emphasizes the sin of marrying foreign women,
In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but the language of each people. I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. . . . Shall we listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign (Nehemiah 13:23-24, 25, 27, 30).
So we can see how precious to the ancient Jews purity of bloodline was. The Samaritans were foreigners, transplanted from Assyria and other places, who colonized northern Israel after the ten northern tribes were wiped out. They had a different Bible than the Jews used. And they worshiped on Mount Gerizim. In fact, to attack and denounce Jesus, the Pharisees accuse Him of having a devil and being a Samaritan, “The Jews answered him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’” (John 8:48). And yet, despite all these prejudices, John praises the Samaritans for believing in Jesus. And Jesus gives the teachings about universal worship in spirit to a Samaritan woman.
What does this say to us? Jesus dissolved the distinction between Jew and Samaritan. Paul also preached equality between foreigners and Jews, and even between different religions–”There is neither Jew nor Greek.” Jesus speaks of a universal worship in spirit and in truth. I take this to mean that the distinctions we make between differing forms of Christianity are false. Paul said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is a radical teaching and inflamed James and the Jerusalem Christians against him. Today, shall we say, “In Christ there is no Anglican nor Catholic, but we are all one.” Shall we also say, “In Christ there is neither Swedenborgian nor United, but we are all one in Christ?” I would go further. In this passage, Jesus uses the most inclusive and general language, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The language used here is not Jesus’ name, not the Father, but the broadest word, God. It is God who must be worshipped in spirit and truth. To me, this opens the door for all the world’s religions. In God there is neither Christian nor Hindu. There is no Jew nor Muslim. We are all one in God. This idea follows well the passage from Revelation 5 that I cited last Sunday. The brother and sisterhood of all believers are one under God’s loving wing. Let the words of Revelation conclude this talk,
I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth . . . the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: . . .
“with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. . They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:6, 8, 9, 11-13)
Lord, this city is made up of many different races and religions. And this world is made up of many different races and religions. We are taught that your heavenly kingdom is made of countless different societies and people. We pray for understanding, so that we may see the fellow humanity we share with others of different races and different religions. Sometimes in our own lives we draw a circle around our friends and around the people we consider proper and good. But may we see with increasing wisdom how others can fit into our circle. May we draw our circles with increasingly wider circumferences to include more and more of your people, be they similar to us or appear different. May we see with your eyes, who included Samaritan, Roman, and Jew among your children while you were here on earth.