Not on the Mountain

Posted on 19 Mar 2017, Pastor: Adam
  • John 4:5-42

    Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

    A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

    Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, 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 know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

    Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

    Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

    Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 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 what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

 

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f we are to understand the gospel reading this morning, then we must first understand who the Samaritans were. For they were not just random foreigners in a long list of Israel’s neighbors. The Samaritans were the people descended of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, the “Lost Tribes of Israel” if you will. They shared a common history with the Judeans, Jesus’ people. More than that, they shared a very similar religion, both having descended from the religion of the Ancient Israelites. As is so often the case with those who are most like you, it was the little differences that caused hostility and mistrust between the Judeans and the Samaritans. It was no small thing that Jesus ventured into Samaria with his disciples and struck up a conversation with the woman at the well.

This woman, for whom history has provided no name, was well aware of the taboos being broken when Jesus spoke to her. She even calls him out on it, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Then by way of a follow-up to that statement, she adds, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem [the city on the mountain].” This is important, you see, because while the religions of Judah and Samaria are very similar, they do differ. One such difference, in fact the major difference, was the location of the holy mountain of God—the Samaritans believed it was Mount Gerizim and the Judeans believed it was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This woman is saying to Jesus, “My people say God is on this mountain, but your people say that God is on that mountain.” What is not questioned, of course, is the assumption that God is on a mountain.

“The Well in Samarai” Sadao Watanabe, print on kneaded paper, 1979

This isn’t surprising, though. We all have assumptions about where we will find God in our world, and these days that assumption is that we will find God in the church. That might not sound like a profound statement, but it allows us to take leaps of faith and imagine possibilities that we might never have entertained otherwise. For example, on Christmas Eve in my previous church, we would regularly have a thousand or more people pass through our doors across five different Christmas Eve services. Our church did not have a thousand members, so this meant that our Christmas services were populated largely by visitors.

A former parishioner of mine told me a story from one of these packed services, where she found herself sitting near a complete stranger—a man with some sort of mental illness. As they sat there, listening to the music before the service started, the man began proclaiming to all those who sat near him that he was Jesus. After a little bit of this, my parishioner became irritated and turned to the man and said, “No you’re not!” As she told me this story, she said, “And then I felt really bad, because what if he was?”

If this interaction had occurred anywhere else, I don’t think she would have questioned her assertion that this man was not Jesus. However, because it occurred inside a church, she had to at least entertain the possibility. Our mountains may be a bit different now, but we most definitely have places where we anticipate encountering God. We all, collectively and individually, have mountains that we have ascribed to the Lord.

The Good News, perhaps even the troubling news, of our reading this morning is that God has come down off the mountain. The 38 verses we read from John could be summarized with this simple paraphrase: “Your people say that God is on that mountain and my people say that God is on this mountain,” the woman said to Jesus. Jesus replied, “And I say that I am no longer on the mountain, but now stand here before you.”

The Good News is that God is at the well and God meets us face to face. The troubling news is that this is not where God is supposed to be! We have expectations about where we will encounter God, whether it is in the church or even occasionally the soup kitchen, but we also have expectations about where we won’t encounter God.

This may sound odd, but wouldn’t strike most of us as weird if we gathered for worship next to an abandoned barn in an empty field or shared the Eucharist around the picnic table next to the 7-Eleven just up the road in Moodus? It only seems peculiar because we don’t expect to meet God at the gas station. We don’t expect to meet God at the checkout line at the grocery store. And we certainly don’t expect to meet God on the other side of the counter at the DMV!

It’s like the 90’s song, “One of us” by Joan Osborne that asks the question, “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus?” Except that in the story from John, this is not a hypothetical question. God has come to this woman as a stranger sitting next to the well where she draws her water. When she meets God in this place that God is not supposed to be, her world is turned on its head. Old divisions and hostilities become meaningless; it hardly matters which mountain is the Holy Mountain of God when God is standing before you. The transformation does not stop there, for when she spread the news of her experience with her town, the entire community welcomes Jesus and his disciples, not as old enemies but as honored guests.

Over the next week, I encourage you to ask yourself where those places are that you do not expect to find God. Where is it that God is not supposed to be in your life? How will your life change when you encounter God in those places? How would life be different if we anticipated meeting God in all our interactions? The Gospel whispers to us a strange story that excites and frightens; God has come down off the mountain. The places we once thought profane are now inhabited by the divine and anything is possible. God has entered the unholy places of our world and is waiting to meet us, face to face.

Preached by Adam Yates