I live in an increasingly pluralistic age and stand in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic society–a country which is coming to grips with the decline of Christendom and the emergence of a new, multi-faith public square. It might be true that the vast majority of our nation still claims Christianity as their religious faith. However, religious expression in public discourse has become increasingly minimized, as matters of conviction and faith have been closeted.
Last night I had the opportunity to explore the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman found in John 4. A careful reading of this passage yields a great example of what it means to be in radical engagement of the other. Jesus crosses lines of gender (v.7), he discusses differences of religious opinion(v.19-20), he ignores ethnic barriers (v.9), and he even addresses private morality (v.16-18). As a Jew engaging with a Samaritan, Jesus sets a radical example of how we are to engage our enemies. There is even an occasion where literal and figurative interpretation of language is considered–modern interpreters take note (v.13-15)!
Throughout the passage Jesus and this woman dance around issues of truth. I am most struck by this portion of the discourse:
21Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Remember, Jesus is in dialog with someone who holds similar, yet distinct religious convictions. There is a clear divide between Jews and Samaritans, illustrated here by Jesus’ response to the woman’s question concerning the proper place for worship. I find it fascinating that Jesus is very clear in addressing the differences which exists between Jews and Samaritans while at the same time painting a picture of the radical shift in a future time where the centralized worship of the deity will no longer hold the greatest significance. What will take precedence? Spirit and truth.
What do those words mean? First, I understand Jesus to be addressing central matters of the heart, or our overall orientation towards God when we engage in worship. Are our motives pure? Are we extending ourselves toward the Father with the totality of our being? Are we sincere? Passionate? Open to healing, instruction, guidance, and direction?
Second, Jesus is making claims of truth. As a Christian person, I hold particular convictions about the stories of Israel and Jesus, most notably God’s action on the cross. The particulars matter. They make a difference. As much as we are called to follow after Jesus’ example in how we engage and listen to others, we are also called to hold and express our convictions with clarity and consistency as an expression of our commitment to Jesus Christ.
The Samaritan woman was wise to say, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus was just as bold in sharing, “I who speak to you am he.”
Upon hearing these words may we be blessed with the gift of faith which comes by grace, taking hold of our particular claims and sharing them without fear. Like the Samaritan woman, may we boldly share with others what we have seen and heard with generosity, love, enthusiasm, and courage.