Worshiping in Spirit
 and in Truth

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts
 March 9, 2003


 
Readings

Micah 6:6-8 What does the Lord require of you?

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

John 4:4-24 Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman

Jesus had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan town called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." (His disciples had gone to the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

"Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?"

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drink this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water I give them will never be thirsty. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water."

He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."

"I have no husband," she replied.

Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband. What you have said is quite true."

"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

Arcana Coelestia #1083 Inner and outer worship

Where there is a church, there must be an inner level and an outer level, since human beings, who are the church, has both an inner self and an outer self. . . .

The inner level of the ancient church involved everything relating to kindness and the faith that comes from it, all humbleness, all worship of the Lord that comes from kindness, every good feeling toward the neighbor, and other qualities like these. The outward aspects of that church were sacrifices, drink offerings, and many other things. All of them looked to the Lord and kept him in view by what they represented. So the inner things were within the outward ones, and they made one church.

The inner aspects of the Christian church are just the same as those of the ancient church, but the outward expression has changed. Sacrifices and such been replaced by symbolic rituals that look to the Lord in a similar way. So in the Christian church the inner and outer levels also make one.

Sermon

The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:23, 24)

If you look at the front of your service bulletin, you will see that it says, in great big letters, "Sunday Morning Worship." However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel compelled to inform you that this headline verges on false advertising. We have become very accustomed to thinking that what we are doing in church every Sunday is worshiping the Lord. That may or may not be true. And even if it is true, it is true in a secondary sense. There's an old advertising slogan, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." What we do here in church on Sunday may be the sizzle of worship, but it is definitely not the steak.

This issue is central to Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar. In reading the story, we may tend to focus on the water in the well versus the "living water" that "wells up to eternal life." And of course, that is a central theme of the story. Yet it is leading up to something even more central.

In the geography of New Testament Palestine, there were three political divisions. In the south was the region of Judea, taking its name from the Jews. Jerusalem was in this region, and it is where the bulk of the Jewish people lived. These were the Jews of the former southern kingdom of Old Testament times, who had been taken captive to Babylon and then returned seventy or more years later, to rebuild the temple and re-institute their rituals, sacrifices, and overall religious life. Judea, and especially Jerusalem, was the center of that Jewish religious life.

At the northern end of Palestine was Galilee. As far as the Judeans were concerned, Galilee was the boondocks--a rough-and-ready place where the more adventurous Jews might go to live. And yet, Galilee was, in fact, much more of a crossroads, and much more cosmopolitan, than Judea. The southern region of Judea was mountainous and forbidding to travelers, and off the beaten track of the trade and travel routes of the day. Galilee, on the other hand, lay right across some of the most well-traveled routes. So Galilee was where Jews met and lived with people of all different backgrounds and nationalities.

Between the two was Samaria. Travelers from and to other parts of the ancient world did also pass through Samaria, but not through its center as they did through Galilee. However, anyone traveling from Judea to Galilee had to pass through Samaria--and, like Jesus traveling through Sychar, would likely go right through the heart of Samaria.

Now to the Jews, the Samaritans were neither fish nor fowl. That was their problem. The Samaritans were, in fact, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. When the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were taken captive by Assyria in Old Testament times, all the nobles, the educated, and the skilled were carried off into exile in a foreign land, where they apparently melted into the local population and were never heard from again. But moving the entire population was too large a task for a conquering empire, so the poor and unskilled were generally left in the land, while the ruling and skilled classes of other conquered nations were, in turn, imported from their native lands. This was a standard way of breaking the resistance of conquered peoples and making sure that, displaced as they were in unfamiliar territory, they would have neither the will nor the means to rebel.

As a result of this practice, and Israel's history in relation to it, the Samaritans were, as I said, a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. As a result, their religious life was a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish practices. This is reflected in the story, in which the Samaritan woman at the well recognizes Jacob as her ancestor, and yet she relates how her ancestors worshiped on the nearby mountain, whereas the worship of the Jews was restricted to the city of Jerusalem--where the temple was.

This mix of Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry and practices was precisely why the Jews held the Samaritans in contempt. Central to Jewish religion and life was keeping both the stock and the religion pure. Jews were strictly forbidden to intermarry with people of other nations and religions. The only circumstances under which they were permitted to do so were when their intended spouse completely renounced the old religion and practices, and became a fully believing and practicing Jew. The Jews were also strictly forbidden to mix their own religious practices with those of any other nation--which would have involved worshiping other gods besides Jehovah, the God of the Jews. The Samaritans had both intermarried with gentiles and mixed Jewish and gentile religious practices. Therefore, to a devout Jew of Jesus' day, they were to be condemned and shunned.

This was the religious and political context in which Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman took place. This is the background of the woman saying to Jesus, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" This woman was used to being avoided and condemned by Jews, and couldn't quite get her mind around this Jewish rabbi asking her for a drink. In particular, the Jews would not share dishes and other utensils with Samaritans; so for Jesus to take a drink out of the woman's pitcher would have been a violation of Jewish religious traditions. Therefore, right from the start of the conversation, when Jesus said to the woman, "Give me a drink," she became acutely aware that this was no ordinary Jew.

This, apparently, was no ordinary Samaritan either. This woman (we are never given her name) was eager to engage the unorthodox Jewish rabbi in religious conversation. And Jesus drew her deeper and deeper into it. First, as they conversed by Jacob's well, he began lifting her mind above material things by his talk of living water welling up to eternal life. The woman did not understand at first, thinking he was still talking about literal water that she could drink with her physical mouth to satisfy her physical thirst. But that was not the kind of water Jesus was talking about.

Then Jesus began to show her that his knowledge extended beyond the realm of the ordinary. "Go, call your husband and come back," he said to her. "I have no husband," she replied. Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband. What you have said is quite true." And then: "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet."

Now that the woman began to realize that she was indeed talking with no ordinary teacher, but with a man who saw beyond the surface of things to the realities within and beyond, she brought up an issue that was a major religious stumbling block between the Jews and the Samaritans. "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain," she said," but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

This gave Jesus the opening to offer the teaching that is our theme for this morning: "Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

This was certainly not accepted Jewish teaching--a fact that the Samaritan woman could not have missed. In the story line of the Hebrew Bible, Jerusalem increasingly becomes the focus as the only place where the Jews were permitted to engage in their worship of burnt offerings and other sacrifices. Engaging in sacrifice and ritual worship anywhere else was strictly forbidden. Yet now Jesus was saying that not only was the time coming, but was now here, when the true worshipers would worship neither on the mountain, as the Samaritans did, nor in Jerusalem, as the Jews did. This new form of worship would transcend all the outward customs and rituals of Jew and non-Jew alike. This new form of worship would not consist in ritual actions. Instead, the true worshipers would worship "in spirit and in truth."

Ah! Now we are finally getting back to where we started! Worship as ritual--what we do here in church--versus worship in spirit and in truth.

The Samaritan woman and the Jews both shared a common attitude toward worship. Worship was a ritual that one engaged in. You did it on a mountain, or in a temple, and it involved various prescribed words and actions. We Christians of today tend to think the same way about worship. But listen to what Swedenborg has to say about this:

People who thought that divine worship consisted in sacrifices, and in religious ceremonies and rules--which represented the spiritual and heavenly realities of the Lord's kingdom--were concerned with external things. Those who thought that divine worship also consisted in the heavenly and spiritual realities that were represented were concerned with internal things. It is similar today. Some people think that divine worship consists in going to church, listening to sermons, attending the Holy Supper, and doing these things devoutly--yet think of them merely as duties to be done regularly because they have been instituted and commanded. These people belong to the external church. Others, however, also believe that such duties should be attended to, but that the essential element of worship is the life of faith, which is kindness towards the neighbor and love to the Lord. These people belong to the internal church. (Arcana Coelestia #8762)

In another place, he expands on this meaning of true worship:

True worship consists in engaging in useful services, and thus in showing kindness. Anyone who thinks that serving the Lord means merely going to church regularly, listening to the preaching, and saying prayers, and that this is enough, is very much mistaken. True worship of the Lord means engaging in useful service. This service, during our life in the world, involves the proper fulfillment of our duties, whatever our position may be. In other words, it involves serving our country, our community, and our neighbor with all our heart. It also involves honest dealings with our fellow human beings, and the conscientious performance of our duties, with full consideration each person's character. These useful deeds are the primary way of showing "charity" (or kindness), and the primary way of worshiping the Lord. Going to church regularly, listening to sermons, and saying our prayers is also necessary; but without useful deeds these things have no value at all, for they do not form our life, but rather teach what our life ought to be like. (Arcana Coelestia #7038)

These passages from Swedenborg's writings, as long as they are, represent a far larger body of teachings about worship, all of which center around this concept: "Inner worship, which is from love and kindness, is real worship. Without this, outer worship is not worship at all" (Arcana Coelestia #1175). Or to put it in more practical terms, "True worship of the Lord consists in living according to his commandments. This is also true love of God and true faith in him" (Arcana Coelestia#10143.5).

Now, at last, we can understand those strange and mysterious words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. Going to church, listening to sermons, and offering prayers, as useful as they are in reminding us of the Lord and his presence and teachings, are not in themselves true worship. To worship the Lord in spirit and in truth is to love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). And as Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15).

The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. And we worship the Father in spirit and truth when our gathering here in worship is part of a wider life that is fully devoted to living in the way that the Lord has taught us: serving one another from love, and with joy. Amen.

 



Music:  Velvet and Diamonds (the star-filled sky)
2003 
Bruce DeBoer