The Character of True Worship

Scripture Reference: John 4: 5-42. Focus verse is 23, “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.”

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, “When it rains, it pours. “Friday and Saturday were such days for me. It started Friday, March 13, 2020, after I awakened to face two new realities, both required me to make decisions quickly. The first had to do with whether to seek medical treatment or self-medicate for an allergic reaction that sprang up overnight. My ears and throat itched like crazy, I had a dripping nose, and my head felt bloated. I experienced the first allergic reaction I had in more than thirty years.

Futilely, I diligently searched my medicine cabinet for over-the-counter drugs to ease the itching. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the house I could use to treat the annoying allergy. By the time I’d finished showering, dressing, and primping, The discomfort had increased, so I decided to visit the nearest Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare system walk-in clinic. By the conclusion of the visit, I was sure I had made the correct decision.

Usually, the decision to seek medical help would not be a big deal; if the symptoms warrant, see a doctor. Friday was different because of the rapid spread and transmission of the coronavirus. My dilemma was whether to clog further a healthcare system already strained with caring for the sick, to seek medical attention for what I believed was a minor allergic reaction.

In addition to my mini-medical plight, as the newly appointed transitional pastor of a small congregation, I was faced with the decision of whether to ask the Session – the ruling body of a Presbyterian congregation- to close our facility. The decision about closing was particularly tricky because several other organizations rent space in our building; closing the entire facility would require our renters to cease operations as well.

After receiving multiple telephone calls and an email from congregants, I decided to ask the Session to close the building to help curtail the rapid spreading of the coronavirus. Closing the building presented a unique quandary for our church and me as a relatively new pastor. Six other organizations besides my own would be affected.  The decision to close was made and notification sent to our members, partners in ministry, and other service providers. I slept Friday night feeling better physically and at peace with the decision.

However, Saturday morning I awakened to observe nearly 90% of my son’s body covered with hives.  The cause of his hives most likely came from a reaction to something  he ate or from something in the heart-shape keychain the take-out-driver gave him. The hives were spreading so rapidly we decided to go to an urgent care center,  where Davaughn was treated and released.

Saturday afternoon, I went to the church, expecting to have a relatively quiet and peaceful day.  What I encountered was surprising. Instead of peace and harmony, I was greeted with yelling and language that I had previously heard only from teens with severe emotional problems. I found myself in an interesting predicament – should I stay and try to reason with the person, or walk away and shake the dust of that person from my feet. I chose the latter.

I could have, but did not, envisioned some negative backlash over closing the building. But I did not expect viciousness. Closing was a tactical decision made to assist in the effort to reduce the rapid spread of the coronavirus, especially to those populations most susceptible to the illness. Until late yesterday afternoon, it had not occurred to me that one decision would cause such a volatile outburst.  The decision was not intended to interfere with worship, but to protect people and change the way services are rendered.

Last night and early into this morning, as I mulled over today’s sermon, it occurred to me the focus verse from today’s Revised Common Lectionary Reading, Year A, John 4:23, addresses the importance of distinguishing spiritual worship from engaging in corporate worship in a designated place.  Those who focus on the physical often miss the spiritual.

The Samaritan woman depicted in today’s New Testament text began her interaction with Jesus by focusing on the wrong things. First, the woman zoned in on the ethnic difference between her and Jesus. (John 4:9) Second, she focused on what Jesus didn’t have (a bucket). (v 10) Next, she taunted Jesus, “Sir, give me this water so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water,” the woman was looking at Jesus through non spiritual eyes.

In verse 19, the woman’s spiritual eyes began to open. She saw enough to know Jesus was a prophet of God, not just an ordinary person asking for help (that’s a whole other sermon for another time.) Her breakthrough is evident in V.20 when she becomes reflective and focuses on what, for her, must have been a spiritual dilemma.- admitting she might have learned the wrong thing about where worship takes place.

In today’s vernacular, the woman might have asked, “Are you telling me that all the prophets before you who said this is the place where we must worship were wrong?”

Jesus’s gracious reply reminds us of his amazing grace:
“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.”

Jesus helped the woman understand God is more significant than any physical space.  Jesus wanted the woman at the well, and us, to understand true worship takes place in the heart and is based on a right relationship with God. Praise God; the Samaritan woman eventually got the message to focus on the spiritual, not the material.

Like the woman at the well, at times, we too get bogged down by focusing on the physical aspects of worship- where we worship and how we express devotion, instead of concentrating on the spiritual nature of true worship, which the Apostle James called pure religion. Jesus said godly worship is based on and can only come from a place of righteousness.

God is concerned about the character of worship, not where worship takes place. However, given another chance, I probably would have given our ministry partners a little more than a day’s notice to plan alternatives to in-person gatherings. But, for those of us, whose houses of worship are closed today, let’s remember Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, it is not where we worship, but the character of our worship that God accepts.

Thank God for amazing grace, technology, and the power to worship and experience God’s guidance when we are under pressure!

Prayer- God, grant us the grace to always worship you in spirit and truth and to do the right thing and trust you for the outcome. Amen