Worship That Heals — John 4:5-42
We take water for granted, but we couldn’t survive without it. We drink it, bathe in it, swim in it. We nurture our plants with it and even put it in our cars. Most of us, for now, have no trouble obtaining it. Not so for the Samaritan woman. She had to trudge all the way to a well to fetch it. She did not go to the well to gain insight about herself and about worship. She did not intend to become part of sharing God’s message. She went to slake her thirst. She thought she would simply draw the water, fill her jar and then trudge back home. <!–split–>
The conversation started innocently enough. Jesus asked her for a drink. We would think nothing of such a request, but in that day, Jesus’ seemingly simple request broke all kinds of barriers.
Important relationships often started at wells. Abraham’s servant found Rebekah at a well, and brought her home for Isaac. Jacob met Rachael at a well. But when Jesus, a Jewish man, asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, he reached through layers of taboo to make a connection.
Underneath the gender and religious issues, the two people at the well shared some things. They shared thirst, weariness and a common humanity. They both looked to the books of Moses for insight into God. Although her people considered this people outsiders and vice versa, they had some common ground. Despite all the reason not to ask for some water, Jesus started a conversation. Even with her objections, Jesus opened the door.
Despite the rough start, the conversation grew more profound with each exchange. The woman challenged both Jesus’ initiative in speaking to her and his ability to draw living water. She herself brought up their common heritage, their ancestor Jacob. Even so, she took a while to enter into the conversation. She seemed to acknowledge that her soul thirsted as much as her body. When she asked for living water, perhaps she was beginning to understand just who she was sharing a conversation with. She still understood at too concrete and literal a level, but she thought Jesus had something important to offer. Initially, she thought, as too many people today think, that Jesus would meet her physical or material needs.
Changing The Subject
We find out about one of her personal needs when Jesus asks her about her husband. The woman had been married five times. Jesus respected her privacy, as we should; he did not probe for details. Did she divorce, or had each husband died? We don’t know or need to know. She has felt deep grief. We need to know only that.
We might think that the woman tried to change the subject with her talk of worship. Asking about Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem might seem a way to distract Jesus from the pain of her relationships. However, the turn in the conversation makes more sense than we might think at first. We know that grief over broken relationships or the death of a loved one can cause great anguish. So can harmful worship. This conversation may show us the connection between grief over relationships and the grief over harmful worship.
We have known those who have experienced hurt over bad relationships. A betrayal, an abandonment, a trust violated can leave deep wounds that take much time to heal. We may live with the scars, but the hurt lingers. Worship, too, can leave us wounded and hurting. Instead of joy and celebration, some worship falls heavy on guilt and shame. Worship can leave us feeling inadequate, unwanted, excluded. The scars and pain linger. Have we not known those who, having heard nothing but fire and brimstone as children, cannot feel deeply the love of God?
The Samaritan woman raises the question about whether worship should be at Mt. Gerizim or Jerusalem. A temple had stood near Mt. Gerizim, close to Shechem, since the fourth century B.C. As a high mountain, it was considered by the people of the northern Hebrew kingdom a point where heaven and earth met. The temple in Jerusalem, initially built by Solomon and restored after the people’s return from exile, represented to the Judeans of the southern Hebrew kingdom the very presence of God.
If Jesus knew so much, perhaps Jesus could clarify where one should properly worship God. Jesus does indeed clarify about worship. True worship occurs in the heart. True worship is in spirit and in truth. Worship flows from the heart in gratitude to God. We should not focus on location, but on what happens within us. Does worship flow from within us? How does worship feed our spirits? How does worship connect us to God? Worship in spirit and in truth can take place in so-called high church or in informal settings.
Understanding Jesus’ Identity
The story itself points to an important aspect of worship. Worship heals our hurts, and worship breaks down barriers. In John’s gospel, every character has layers of meaning. We should see each person as an individual character, with feelings and insight about coming to believe in Jesus as the Christ. The characters in John represent something more as well. We understand Nicodemus as a real person, with real fears about coming to Jesus, and real questions. Nicodemus also represents the Pharisees. We understand the Samaritan woman as a real woman. She cried real tears over her five marriages. She also represents the Samaritans. In the minds of the Jews of that day, the Samaritans had practiced idolatry by worshiping false gods. They did not hear the command not to worship other gods. “So these nations worshiped the LORD, but also served their carved images; to this day their children and their children’s children continue to do as their ancestors did.” The woman in the story teaches us that Jesus cares about our broken relationships and about the ways worship has hurt us.
The woman who began by mocking Jesus, comparing him to Jacob, came to understand Jesus’ true identity. Jesus met her where she was. She expected a messiah who fulfilled the promise of a prophet like Moses, not a new King David. The woman, who had come to the well in the middle of the day alone, went back into the village to share the identity of Jesus with others.
Worship That Heals
We want worship that heals our hurts, wherever they may come from. Part of that healing comes from knowing that God understands us and loves us anyway. We want worship that breaks down barriers. We want to break down barriers even if others feel the shock of the disciples that Jesus spoke to a woman. We want worship that breaks down the barriers between liberals and conservatives, and between Democrats and Republicans. We want worship that breaks barriers between cultures and languages, between economic classes and social strata. We want worship that unites us and shows us our common humanity. We want worship that brings out our potential for ministry. We want worship that brings a deeper understanding of Jesus. We want worship that connects us to our tradition, but also pushes us into new territory. We want worship that gives us new strength and joy, bringing us closer to God. We want worship that nourishes us like a drink from a well, that cleanses us like a bath and that refreshes us like a dip in a pool.
May we open ourselves to people looking for true worship. May we open ourselves to those who seek healing. May we open ourselves to those who have experienced hurtful relationships and hurtful worship. May we open ourselves to those who worship in a different way from our way. May we open ourselves to those who come for no other reason than that they feel thirsty, even if they are not quite sure what they are thirst for.