Worship and Sanctuary

Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well

This post is the first in a new series that will explore key Bible passages illustrating how Christianity is beautiful, good, and best of all true. What I hope it that while looking at these our hearts will marvel at God and say, “And can it be?” I believe there is nothing more needful in our culture today than for believers to cry tears of joy “The gospel is true!” And for unbelievers to hope with all their heart that somehow it just might be. The method we’ll use is to look at the universal longings of the human heart—a few of which are family and belonging, righteousness and nakedness, home and place, work and rest, peace and flourishing, justice and judgment—and discover how only the God of the Bible can fulfill them. When it comes to life’s big topics, there’s no better place to start than the primary cause of our deep desires. God tells us that cause is our unending need for worship and sanctuary.

Which bring us to our foundational question: What are you living for? Whatever it is, it must be both transcendent (bigger and higher than you) and immanent (accessible and near you). But here’s the problem: the things we live for—in the Bible’s terminology, what we worship—always let us down. They are either too far from us and thus so foreign we cannot relate to them. Or they are too near to us and thus so much like us we cannot escape the smallness of ourselves.  The well-known story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) is brimming with beautiful jewels of truth.  Of these, this is what I want to focus on: Jesus seeks true worshipers by breaking every kind of social and spiritual barrier, redeeming worshipers who are eternally satisfied in him and who joyfully share their satisfaction. You cannot help being a worshiper who spiritually thirsts. Only Jesus can quench that thirst forever, so drink of him.

Whenever we jump into a Bible passage in mid-stream is it necessary to survey where we are swimming.  When we look around, the text reminds us that at that time Jews and Samaritans hated and rejected each other. Their animosity was in one sense deeper than that between Jews and Gentiles. It was rooted in betrayal and perceived superiority, like a war between two former lovers who continue to attack each other. Samaritans were descendants of the ten northern tribes of Israel who intermarried with foreign pagans. But for several historical and theological reasons (which the Bible does not affirm), from their perspective Samaritans were the true worshipers and Jews were imposters. On the other end, the Jews had their own reasons justifying their hatred of their racial half-brothers. Both religious groups excommunicated each other and avoided any intimate contact with the enemy. Such hatred led to a customary geographic segregation.  Now we are ready to examine this wonderful story.

Our Compulsion to Worship

Jesus “had to” pass through Samaria (vv. 1-6)

Note the compulsion to worship is not a feature of our fallen nature. It is not primarily fueled by guilt, fear, or ignorance. Consider that even Jesus was compelled to worship. Why did Jesus “have to” go through Samaria (the region, not just the city)? Logically, it was the most direct route between Judea and his destination in Galilee. But spiritually speaking, going to spread the gospel to a people group who have not yet been introduced to Jesus is part of God’s commission for him. “Had to” is literally “it is necessary” which is a Greek word that always indicates divine necessity or requirement elsewhere in John (3:7, 14, 30; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9). Jesus is compelled to take a certain road because mission is directing him, not geography. His travel itinerary is controlled by obeying his heavenly Father. For Jesus, even where he walks is an act of worship.

The Samaritan woman’s first question for a prophet (vv. 19-20)

An immoral woman, an outsider in every way, is compelled to worship. But not at first. See how Jesus gently leads her to feel the desire to worship. First, he stirs her hopes by using words that can have two meanings. “Living water” contrasts with still water. It flows, is fresh, and is great for drinking. In the arid Middle East climate where being parched is all too common, Jesus appeals to her felt need. She considers how wonderful it would be to have clean, flowing water nearby to eliminate her daily walk to the well. But living water can also refer to the grace of God that eternally satisfies. Jesus speaks of this kind of living water, helping her move from thinking of the physical to the spiritual, which he knows she doesn’t have but desperately needs (Jer 2:13). So what does Jesus do? Second, in a sense he puts his finger on what she “worships” instead of God. That’s why he asks about her husband. He’s not changing the subject, but helping her identify and evaluate her “broken cistern”—the thing she has put her hope and trust in that is not satisfying.

Once she is convicted of her particular broken cistern (having a man) and understands Jesus has prophetic insight into her life, she wakes up to her spiritual need. And then her first question is about worship, which happens to be the most controversial theological topic between Jews and Samaritans. Who are the true worshipers and where is the true place to worship and offer sacrifices? Keep in mind the ancestor patriarchs of both Jews and Samaritans, including Abraham and Jacob, had worshiped on Mount Gerizim in Samaria (“this mountain”; Gen 12:6-7; 33:19-20). The Samaritan temple was built there because the Samaritan Pentateuch (the only OT books that Samaritans accepted as canon) places the altar on this mountain. Their version of the 10 Commandments even demands worship at Mount Gerizim! Where to worship was the big question because the stakes were high for a Samaritan who desired to rightly worship the LORD. They were unwelcome at the Jerusalem temple, so if the Jews were correct about the proper worship place, then Samaritans are spiritual outcasts. She is excluded from truly worshiping God.

Ancient people understood why place was so important for worship. If you wanted to worship a god, you had to visit that god’s house—his or her temple—and offer sacrifices. Most people in western culture don’t think that way anymore, but sometimes I think unbelievers understand this mindset better than many Christians do. Ask anyone who grew up only attending church sporadically: Where is the place to get right with God? Church. Where is the place to feel God’s presence? Church. Where is the place to sing, pray, confess your sins, hear from God, and offer a gift? The answer is Church! In a very real sense, when you want to worship God, you have to go somewhere—specifically to the sanctuary where Christians publicly gather to worship God together. It might be a cathedral, a barn, an industrial warehouse, a one-room structure, a traditional church building, a home, an outdoor hut, or a secret catacomb. But wherever it is, if you’re not there, you miss out on worshiping God. And yet if you don’t worship God, you will still worship something.

Some of you may be thinking, “Come on! That’s just something Christians, especially pastors, say.” Not so fast.  Let’s think about this carefully. Listen to what the successful postmodern novelist David Foster Wallace said about worship. These are words he spoke to graduates at a now-famous Kenyon College commencement address. The remarkable thing is that Wallace is not a religious man. He is a secular man who understands the human heart. He said,

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god…to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship you own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you…Worship power, and you will end of feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

These words from a man who struggled with depression and a few years later committed suicide. Tragically, it seems he never found an object of worship that wouldn’t eat him alive.  Do you see that you were designed to worship? You need to worship. You will worship. Why? Because worship is how you relate to what or who you value most. It’s the longing that compels you to give yourself to what you love. Don’t deny or suppress this longing. It is what you were made for. WSC 1. However, Jesus knows we have a problem when it comes to our longing for worship and sanctuary.

Our Corruption of Worship

Idolizing your past: cultural pride (vv. 7-12)

One way we corrupt worship is by idolizing the past, particularly the past of our own culture. Look how the Samaritan woman does this. (1) She elevates her own ancestors while demonizing other races. But for her, it’s not merely her ethnicity that is superior, it’s the ideals her people stand for. This is a sophisticated way racists justify their cultural pride. Not only that, she also (2) adopts as inherently right her own traditions and social prejudices. I imagine her starting to reply to this upstart Jewish man with almost a sneer. While Jesus is ready to break down the barriers of traditions and taboos that prevent him from having a conversation with her about living water, she persists with excuses why she can’t help Jesus. Why? Because (3) the inherited religion that grips her heart and mind prevents her from seeing how the Samaritans are wrong about worship.

Where are you bound up in cultural pride by idolizing your past? Christians are not immune to cultural pride. Neither are Presbyterians. In fact, the Bible demonstrates time and again that you are shaped by your culture far more than the Bible, and you are shaped by your culture far more than you realize. For example, Americans are so financially prosperous compared to the rest of the world that we consider it a birthright that our children will be better off than we are. After all, it seems that’s the way it’s always been for us! But when it doesn’t happen according to our expectation we get angry and look for someone or something to blame. Where did that idea come from? That Americans are somehow superior and therefore God owes us? People from other cultures are shocked at how much money we make and spend on ourselves. Do you see how your cultural pride leads you to corrupt worship? If the promise of the American Dream fails for you, do you cry out to God, “It’s not fair!”? Your cultural pride has led you to worship something other than God. When Jesus brings suffering into your life, or when he exposes your idols, your cultural pride prevents you from seeing his sanctifying work in you as beautiful, good, true.

Trusting your judgment: selfish pride (vv. 15-18)

This kind of pride is at play when the Bible says people “do what is right in their own eyes” (cf. Dt 12:8; Jdg 21:25; Prov 21:2). When Jesus begins speaking to her, she thinks she’s in control. “Who has a water pot? Who is going to get a drink?” This woman is resourceful. She came to the well alone during the hottest time of day, probably because no respectable woman in her village would be seen with her. But every day she manages to survive just fine. She’s probably the kind of person who says, “I know what I’m doing, and I don’t need you.” And when Jesus starts talking about living water, this woman jumps at the opportunity to cut out of her schedule the daily trip to the well. How ruggedly American! How self-sufficient! How foolishly and ignorantly she treats Jesus. How often do you treat him the same? “I know what I’m doing”—that’s one way trust your judgment.

There is another way to corrupt your worship by trusting your judgment. Rather than insisting you’re right, you can admit you’re worshiping a broken cistern—but tell yourself that God understands your decisions. We see this response when Jesus asks her to bring her husband. It’s possible she’s thinking Jesus is her next man. Remember it’s Jacob’s well. There’s no record in the Bible of Jacob digging a well (although the tradition attributing it to him is ancient), but Jacob is associated with a well. It’s where he first met his beloved Rachel (Gen 29:10). Isaac’s representative also met Rebekah at a well. Moses met Jethro’s daughter whom he married at a well. So there is likely a mix of shame and excitement in the Samaritan woman’s words, “I have no husband.” But Jesus doesn’t take the bait because he’s drawing her away from her corrupted form of worship (serial monogamy) to himself as the spiritual, eternal Bridegroom.

What is your broken cistern that you keep dipping into hoping for living water but it’s not satisfying you? For the Samaritan woman it was having a man. It’s what she was willing to give herself up to, to spend her life on whatever the cost to her relationships, her reputation, and her soul. What is it for you? Are you seeking life satisfaction in a romantic relationship? Or your family? Or your career? Or reaching the goal for your retirement account balance? Or your moral performance? Or even to nobility of your spiritual quest? Jesus says these are broken cisterns that cannot hold living water. They were never meant to be worshiped. They are false sanctuaries where you won’t find God’s satisfaction. So what can you do? Hear again Jesus’ offer to return to the One you’ve forsaken. He will redeem you from empty worship.

Our Redemption for Worship

Invigorated by living water (vv. 7, 10, 13-14)

Do you long for the living waters of God’s grace welling up inside you in never-ending satisfaction? Gaze in wonder at the one who not only offers but also gives—he is thirsty! He experienced thirst so you can be quenched. Jesus redeems you by first awakening your soul’s thirst for true worship and then planting a wellspring of eternal life in you that will never run dry. How patient Jesus is to lead the ignorant and discontented to eternal life! Have you drunk deeply from Jesus’ living water? If you’re not certain then ask him today. His offer of living water is for whosoever wills.

Renewed in spirit and truth (vv. 21-24)

Do you long to worship the Father in spirit and truth? Look by faith at the one who knows God intimately—he can direct and energize your worship. Jesus redeems you by redirecting your heart to worship in spirit and truth—in other words, according to reality, and to the glory of the Triune God. How accepting Jesus is to clear the way for whosoever to believe and be redeemed for worship! “The hour is coming, and is now here” in the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus, and in his sending of the Holy Spirit to the Church, when worship and sanctuary are fulfilled. God has removed the Jerusalem temple made with hands to clear the way for the final temple, the eternal dwelling place of God, who is Jesus. Jesus is the true place, the true sanctuary, where we now worship in spirit and truth. This is how God wants it to be, and he is seeking worshipers who will worship at any place where the spirit of Jesus is honored, glorified, listened to, and served. Jesus has broken every kind of cultural and personal barrier so now all who worship him can worship together as one people, in spirit and truth.

Revealed by the Messiah (vv. 25-30, 39-42)

Who is this Jewish rabbi who promises living water, who reorients corrupted worshipers to worship in spirit and truth? The Samaritan woman learns one step at a time he is the Prophet and so much more. He is the long awaited Messiah. Jesus redeems as I AM (the LORD): the Anointed One of God who is the Savior of the world. How gracious Jesus is to reveal his identity so clearly, and to such a nobody as this immoral Samaritan woman!

Are you wondering who this nameless Samaritan woman is who disappears from the Bible after John 4? What happened to her after she ran back to Sychar and brought the whole town back to meet Jesus? “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (Jn 4:29)? There is a story preserved and celebrated in the Orthodox Church that after Jesus rose from the dead, this Samaritan woman turned evangelist was baptized with the Christian name “Photini” (“the enlightened one”). Early Christian tradition records she, along with her 2 sons and 5 daughters (remember she had 5 husbands), went to Carthage to spread the gospel. She was later martyred with her family during the reign of Emperor Nero by—are you ready for this?—being thrown into a well! Seems she couldn’t ever turn off the spring of living water that never stopped bubbling up inside her. I guess people got so tired of her talking about who she’d met at the well that they finally tossed her into one! We’ll have to wait until heaven to find out if that part is true. I’m going to ask her. If not, I wish deep down it were true, because hey, what a way to go out!

Your deep soul longing for worship—connecting to the God who is grander than anything or anyone else, and also nearer and more real that everything else—is according to the way you are designed. Your heart’s longing for true worship and sanctuary is a feature, not a bug. God planted that inside you so you would seek him, drink of Christ’s living water, and worship him knowing you are acceptable to him. Why? Because God sought you first. On the cross the Messiah and Savior of the world experienced the excruciating soul-thirst for his Father so that you could be filled full. He broke down all the barriers preventing your worship from being acceptable so that you might come near in spirit and truth. Come and drink. Come and worship.


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