Pastor Roger Barkley begins a three-week series through our church’s mission statement, beginning with a message about worship. Jesus’ message is especially relevant in this age of religious and political polarization. Roger is particularly concerned that Christianity has been usurped by political forces that use Christianity as part of tribal identity while largely ignoring Jesus’ message.
Statement of Faith
Week 1: Worship Christ and Live as Christ Leads
November 4, 2018 John 4:1-26 selected verses
Roger Barkley Congregational Church of Northridge
We’re going to spend a couple of weeks walking through our church’s Mission Statement, today focusing on worship.
Planning today’s message, I thought that the well-known passage from John 4 would be a good place to start our exploration of worship, but it has so much going on in it that I couldn’t decide where to begin until something grabbed my attention that I’d never noticed before.
John 4:3-4 So (Jesus) left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria.
But wait. Look at a map.
There were other routes back home, including the one he had just taken to Jerusalem, so from a logistical point of view he didn’t have to go through Samaria.
In fact, some Jews chose longer routes to avoid the region because they were sometimes heckled or even attacked by Samaritan locals.
So, when the Bible says Jesus had to take that route, we should ask what was so important that he had to do in Samaria?
The hostilities between Jews and Samaritans dated back centuries.
Ancient people used to build altars on mountaintops to get closer to their gods.
Solomon built the first Jerusalem temple on a mountaintop known as Moriah, where Abraham’s faith had been tested.
In ancient religious traditions, people thought God actually dwelled in the temple, making it the most sacred place on earth.
When Assyria conquered the northern half of Israel in 722 BC, they deported most of its residents to foreign lands, and then replaced them with people from other distant lands who brought their own gods with them.
So, this region called Samaria (which is just about smack in the middle of Israel) had some Jews and some foreigners with their own gods who intermarried and over the years evolved a hybrid faith that resembled ancient Jewish piety.
But because of their mixed ethnicity and somewhat different faith, they were rejected by the Jews of the south, and so they built their own temple on Mount Gerizim, the highest mountain in their region.
The sacred Samaritan texts only go as far as the Pentateuch, – the first five books of our bible – meaning that all the books of prophets and of David and Solomon are not part of their scripture.
They claimed that Mount Gerizim was the place of Abraham’s test, and they believed that God actually dwelled in their temple there, not in Jerusalem … and that’s such an important point for them this it is actually written into their version of the Ten Commandments.
That’s why the woman says to Jesus,
John 4:20 “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
About 130 years before Jesus, a Jewish king destroyed the Gerizim temple, and in revenge, some Samaritans smuggled corpses into the Jerusalem temple – the ultimate act of defilement, that led to the banning of all Samaritans from the Jerusalem temple grounds.
So, there was no love lost between these next-door neighbors.
Have you noticed that when Jesus wanted to challenge traditional social barriers or expand our understanding of God, he often went to the most unlikely of people?
He used a Roman Centurion as an example of faith – sort of like using a U.S. Border Patrol agent as an example of faith to a desperate El Salvadorian woman seeking asylum.
He used a despised Samaritan as an example of compassion.
And now he sits at the base of Mount Gerizim to say that God can’t be contained by any temple.
John 4:21, 23 “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem…. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.”
Worship is addressed to God.
The Music Team reminds themselves of this all the time.
They are called to offer their gifts and talents with excellence, but they are not singing to us … their audience is God, Whom we want to please with our worship.
And that is true for each of us: in worship, we offer God our praise, gratitude, confession – and a willingness to sacrifice.
We may not sacrifice animals as was done in the early temples, but we are called to the sacrifice of praise, a term that might be confusing, so let me just say something about it.
If you just want praise music or hymns, iTunes has them all – and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your home.
If you just want a good sermon, the internet is full of them, and you can listen at your leisure.
If you just want fellowship, pull out your BBQ and invite your friends over
and you can hand pick whom to spend your time with.
Yes, worship includes music, a sermon, and community, but it is more than the sum of its parts because together we turn to the transcendent, together we experience the Spirit.
True worship requires something of each of us – the effort of getting here, sitting on wooden pews … and participating in ways that will stretch us and sometimes will make us feel uncomfortable.
An intellectual person may be stretched to pray, sing and move.
A shy person may stretch to read the liturgy.
An emotional person may have to concentrate on the spoken message.
Worship is a whole-being experience, and only by being vulnerable and bringing our whole being – our soul – can we be transformed by the Spirit.
Notice that Jesus did not say to the Samaritan woman what his culture would expect of a rabbi: that someday you Samaritans will come around to realize that the only true place to worship is Jerusalem.
That would not expand our understanding of God, it would dig deeper into his culture’s tribalism: my god is better than your god.
That presumed move would only sharpen the hostility between them.
I was talking with someone the other day about how the background score of our lives in recent years has been gnawing anxiety caused by the growing polarization and tensions in our country.
Some politicians have become experts at stoking their bases’ fears as a way of rallying them to an escalating “us” against “them” narrative – a narrative that uses religion as a symbol of their socio-political tribe.
Once people buy into their narrative, facts no longer matter, nuanced debate is not possible, and the actual teaching of Jesus is lost.
People’s tribal identity morphs into the demonization of the other side, which makes members of their own tribe bond to one another.
And it is happening on both sides of our country’s divide.
I mention this because I think Jesus has something to say to us through today’s passage.
Both the Samaritans and the Jews used their temple locations and their traditions not just to worship God, but to unite in hate of the other.
Hate and distrust of others are great unifiers of people, but they never lead to anywhere good.
In our country, we’re suddenly hearing the unfamiliar term “nationalism” used by some of our leaders – and it is a qualitative shift in the national conversation.
We are patriotic – we love our country.
As patriots, we are willing to sacrifice for our country because we believe in its principles and we love our people.
As patriots, we may have differing political or religious beliefs, but we can look beyond our differences because we’re bound together by the values of our republic – values like liberty and justice for all.
By contrast, nationalism is patriotism turned inside out into a poisonous sentiment of national superiority.
It is black and white – you’re either loyal to us or you’re an enemy.
By its nature, nationalism stirs prejudice, turns to isolationism and inevitably leads to war.
Nationalism can feel a lot like a religion, but it replaces God’s supremacy of love with the supposed supremacy of one’s ethnicity or nation.
If you see video footage from nationalist rallies through history, you see something that looks very much like worship where masses of people experience the ecstasy of feeling bonded together and in sync with something transcendent to themselves … but that something is hate, not love.
So rather than feed the tribalism that pitted Jews against their immediate neighbors, the Samaritans, Jesus invited an expanded view of God – a bigger God who couldn’t be contained by either Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim.
John 4:24 “God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
This is the Spirit first encountered at the moment of creation, the Spirit that, in the Genesis creation poem, hovered over the chaos to calm the waters, separated the earth from the sea and brought plants, animals and humans to life.
I read some sermons to prepare for this morning and when a couple of them got to the sentence where Jesus says we must worship in spirit and truth they essentially said, “Well the ‘truth’ part of Jesus’ statement is easy because we have clear teachings about truth,” and then briefly referred to their neatly packaged infallible beliefs.
But I suggest that Jesus was, as always, referring to the bigger truth, the bigger story of the Bible where God is leading us to freedom, inviting forgiveness and empowering love between people.
What is the alternative to two warring temples just 30-miles apart?
Through the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ spirit suggests a new kind of temple.
Ephesians 2:20-22 God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.
Do you hear the invitation?
Just like worship invites full participation, so does life in the new temple … a sacred space created between people as they treat one another with compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.
This isn’t a Hallmark card sentiment; it is an urgent message from Jesus for any people tempted with religious or political tribalism, which is why scripture says that Jesus had to go to Samaria where he sat and waited for the woman.
Rabbis did not normally talk to unescorted women, certainly not divorced women, and most certainly not those in Samaria.
But she was exactly the person in exactly the place he needed to see to give this message to a divided world.