Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Worshiping Anywhere in Spirit and Truth"

1 Kings 8:26-30

John 4:20-21, 23-24

      I’m going to do something this morning I have rarely done over thirty plus years of preaching.

I’m going to double back and return to a passage I just preached on: the story of Jesus and the

Samaritan woman by the well we talked about last Sunday.  This week, however, I want to specifi-

cally lift four verses from that lengthy passage and focus on those as we prepare to reopen our

sanctuary next Sunday for public worship. 

      (Read John 4:20-21, 23-24)

      As Jesus, in a manner of speaking, forces the woman to take a good look in the mirror and face

herself, what’s the first thing she does?  She does what any of us tend to do when faced with the

truth about ourselves.  We try to change the subject.  That’s the context for the verses we read this

morning.  After Jesus confronts the woman about her past and present relationships with men –

revealing that she’s been looking to satisfy her thirst for love and acceptance in all the wrong  

places – she tries to steer the conversation in a radically different direction.  Nineteenth century

theologian and commentator Charles Ellicott writes this of the woman’s sudden lane change:  “It is

not that the question of worship is the all-engrossing problem of her mind….. Such questions hardly

came then within the circle of a Samaritan woman’s thoughts, and this woman’s life had not been

such to make her an exception to the rule; but the heart, quivering before the eye that reads it as it

never before had read itself, shrinks from the light that is let in upon it.  She will speak of anything

rather than self.”  So she poses to Jesus:  “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you

[this is a plural form of “you” referring to “you Jews”] say that the place where people must wor-

ship is in Jerusalem.”  Rather than responding something like, “Come on dear heart, don’t be trying

to wiggle out of this,” Jesus seems to take the bait. 

      The woman’s question, while clearly a diversionary tactic, is a legitimate one.  She along with all

Samaritans were taught that the proper place to offer worship was not Mount Moriah in Jersualem

where the Jewish temple stood, but rather Mount Gerazim, not far from the village of Sychar.  Ano-

ther temple had been built at Gerazim by a Samaritan official named Sanballat who was opposed to

the rebuilding of the temple ruins in Jerusalem by Nehemiah.  I’ll spare you all the politics behind

this, but suffice to say that the building of this alternate temple was deeply offensive to the Jews,

and one of the reasons Jews and Samaritans were such bitter enemies.

      Jesus takes advantage of the woman’s diversion and turns it into a teachable moment – for her,

and for us.  He responds:  “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this

mountain nor in Jerusalem.”  This raises yet another question, especially for a woman who lived in

a day when the location of worship was of such great importance.  God was believed to literally

dwell in the structures people built for God; structures like tabernacles, and synagogues, and

temples.  And the location of these structures was equally important; usually mountain locations

where significant encounters with God had taken place, like Mt. Sinai where Moses was given the

tablets of the Law; or Mt. Moriah where the Jews believed Abraham took his son Isaac to be

offered as a sacrifice; or Mt. Gerazim where the Samaritans claimed Abraham took Isaac to be

offered.  The point is that God was considered a geographic entity, and could only be worshiped at

certain, right places.  The Jews believed the Samaritans were worshiping in the wrong place.  The

Samaritans believed that the Jews were worshiping in the wrong place.  Jesus makes it clear to the

woman – and to us – that they’re both wrong, as it had nothing to do with right or wrong places. 

He responds:  “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship

the Father in spirit and truth.”

      As much as it may offend the woman’s or our right and wrong place sensibilities, Jesus is saying

in effect:  It doesn’t really matter where you worship.  It’s how you worship.  And how are we to

worship?  “in spirit and truth.”  Jesus even tells us why:  “God is spirit.”  To the extent that our

sovereign, invisible, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God is not limited by time or

space, neither is our worship of God limited by time or space.  God can be worshipped anywhere,

any time, and for that matter, in any number of ways.  What is of ultimate importance is that our

worship offered to God is genuine; not for show or entertainment; not to make us look good and

right, and others look bad and wrong; not to satisfy ourselves and our own theological, or political,

or personal agendas. These are all worldly purposes.  Jesus teaches that our worship should only be

for spiritual purposes, and to discover spiritual truths.  For the One we worship is not of the world,

but of Spirit.

      All that having been said, we will begin returning to our worship space here in the sanctuary of

Central Presbyterian next Sunday.  As we talked about when we first began our live streamed wor-

ship into your homes some four months ago, important as it is to be physically gathered, what is far

more important is that we are gathered, in Jesus’ words, “in spirit and truth.”  It’s not about being

in the same room, but it is about being in the same Spirit.  Now please don’t misunderstand.  In

Jesus’ day, synagogues and temples held great significance as places of gathering for God’s people,

just as sanctuaries and cathedrals do in our day.  This space in which our worship team is gathered

this morning, and where we and others will be gathered next week, is extremely important.  It is

designed, and furnished, and decorated to direct our attention and affirm our belief that “surely the

presence of the Lord is in this place.”  But you don’t need a reminder that the Lord is not only in this

place, but everywhere, because the Lord is Spirit.  God is as present in your home right at this mo-

ment as God is in this sanctuary.  Both spaces are hallowed and sacred when, in them, we are

worshiping “in spirit and truth.”  And at the end of the day, we ourselves serve as sanctuaries of

God’s Spirit.  Paul writes in his first Corinthian letter:  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple

and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” 

      Even as we worship online in our homes, and even as we fully understand that spiritual worship

is not about being in the same room, there is a desire on the part of many of us to return at once to

this sanctuary.  This space is significant for us in a dozen ways, not the least of which is that here, we

gather face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm.  I get that.  But as we all know, that is not

going to possible at this time, as we’re still in the tight grip of this pandemic. 

      As you’ve read in the letter the church has sent regarding reopening of our sanctuary to public

worship, for the time being, there will be guidelines we must follow and limitations we must

observe for everyone’s safety.  For instance, all who attend will be required to be masked while in

the building.  All who attend will be asked to maintain six-foot distancing.  There is to be no hand-

shaking, or hugging, or kissing.  All who attend will be ushered to and from their seats, which may

not be the seats they normally sit in.  Frankly, it will not be the face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder,

arm-in-arm experience we’re accustomed to.  I’m confident it will be someday, but not next Sunday,

nor the Sunday after that.  For now, this is a reality we’ll have to adapt to.  So it is we’re making this

plea:  If you have been viewing online, and have been touched and uplifted by our services, continue

to do so over the next several Sundays as we phase into our return.  There are many of our church

family – none of whom are able at this moment to hear my voice – who have not had the means to  

join our live stream worship at all.  Please allow them the opportunity to return and have plenty of

safe space, as our sanctuary will only accommodate around sixty persons properly distanced.  By

continuing to worship at home “in spirit and truth,” together with others in this sanctuary worship-

ping “in spirit and truth,”  all of us – together – will be best protected and best served.  All the

while, we look forward to the day – and the day is coming – when this sanctuary will again be filled;

when we’ll again greet and share; hug and kiss; but not next Sunday, nor the Sunday after that. 

     I’d like to close this message on a note which I hope you’ll not find irreverent or a violation of

God’s written word.  Let’s recast last week’s and this morning’s lesson into contemporary terms. 

Imagine we have met Jesus at a place where we go daily to satisfy our thirst. Jesus firmly, but gently,

begins to take us into some uncomfortable zone where we don’t want to go.  So we change the sub-

ject:  “Sir, our ancestors have always worshiped in this beautiful sanctuary, but you say that until this

pandemic is under control, we should worship in our living rooms, and dens, and kitchens, and

patios.”  Jesus says to us:  “Presbyterians, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship

Almighty God neither in this beautiful sanctuary nor in your living rooms, dens, kitchens and patios. 

But the time has now come when worshipers will worship the Almighty in spirit and truth.  For God is

spirit.  All you who worship God must worship in spirit and truth, and you can do that anywhere you

are.”

God, You who are Spirit and Truth, we are thankful that our worship is limited by neither

time nor space.  We can worship You anytime, anywhere.  All you ask is our worship be

real; that You alone be both subject and object of our praise and thanksgiving.  As we

prepare to reopen this worship space, we invoke your protection, welcome your inspiration,

and pledge ourselves to worshiping you always and everywhere, in spirit and in truth.  Amen.