Third Sunday of Lent, March 15, 2020
Ex 17:1-7; Ps 95; Rom 1:16-32; John 4:5-26
Will you pray with me: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
With our present concern with precautions about the coronavirus, I’m sure we have all been giving a great deal of thought about our physical bodies this week. Sometimes the truly radical part of a time of heightened concern like we’re currently going through is how you can’t take the same things for granted. For instance, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been in the habit to giving much thought to washing my hands. It was just something I did, now I’m forced to ask myself if I’m doing it often enough, or long enough. We’re also thinking about what we touch around us, how often we touch our faces, and who we’re in contact with throughout the day. Ironically, even before we were forced to confront these concerns and fears about our bodies, I was planning on preaching this week about the connection of our material, physical bodies and our worship. My goal today is still to emphasize that our whole bodies are involved in worship, but I’m now forced to preface these remarks with a note that everything will be alright even if we do have to spend a future period without being able to physically gather today in worship. Father Bryan and the Mission Council continue to re-evaluate the situation, but prudent distance for a time shouldn’t lesson the greater point about the dangers of removing our whole persons from the equation of worship.
Our readings for today are one of those lovely times when you can clearly see connections between our Old Testament and New Testament passages. There is a wonderful theme running through our passages this morning using water as both a physical substance and a spiritual image that beautifully pictures the grace of God. In Exodus 17, the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness and quickly doubting God’s provision and Moses’ leadership because they are thirsty, receive water from the rock that God commands Moses to strike. We cannot take this passage in a purely material sense of focusing on the water as a basic sustenance for life because if we do that we’re liable to agree with the grumbling Israelites that obviously it is dangerous to be without water in the desert. Rather we know we must read the passage spiritually as Paul so wonderfully does when he writes in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 “Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock…, and the Rock was Christ.” So the physical blessing of water’s life giving power is clearly used as an analogy for our spiritual need for Christ to give us spiritual life. We might say that this water in the wilderness should be understood sacramentally as a means of grace because it was meant to turn the people’s hearts to their need and dependence on God.
However, Paul’s larger context in this passage of 1 Corinthians 10, is a warning that the Jewish people misunderstood the truth of the revelation they had received. Despite drinking the physical water provided, not all were drinking the spiritual water of God’s grace. As Paul says in our New Testament reading from Romans 1, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” It should sober us that many of those who had directly witnessed God’s mighty works on their behalf during the Exodus were not saved after this experience, but perished in the wilderness. Likewise, the Jewish leaders who knew the scriptures best were some of those who rejected Jesus’ public ministry and worked for his crucifixion. These two reminders direct us towards the true heart of the Gospel that beyond our physical needs which can be apparently met, only Christ can provide our soul’s great need of grace in salvation.
This point can easily be drawn out of Jesus’ conversation about water with the woman at the well in John 4. And it would be entirely fitting to dwell at length on Jesus’ majestic offer of “living water” to this Samaritan woman, but I want to be sure that we also consider the context of the physical reality that keeps coming up in our passages and the possibilities for confusion this creates as well as what this says about how we live our Christian lives. My concern when reading these passages is that we modern Protestants too quickly turn to the spiritual significance and underestimate the confusion and dangers that come by dwelling on the life-giving spirit and not thinking enough about the means God uses for his grace. In a word, we quickly grasp the need for the spiritual substance of God’s grace, but then may be tempted to run too far in thinking that spiritual reality is all we need. I would argue that thinking sacramentally and liturgically about God’s grace gives us a deeper understanding then I used to have before I was an Anglican.
I assume that you are all fairly familiar with the story of the woman at the well from John’s gospel, so I want to work a bit to make you think about it again from a different angle in our time this morning. Instead of focusing primarily on Jesus’ reference to “living water” that “will become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” I want to focus on the latter part of the encounter.
For instance, has it ever seemed strange to you how the woman responds to Jesus? After he has brought up an offer of eternal life and shockingly revealed that he knows all about this unnamed woman’s life history, the first thing she says to him is: “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” As a young Puritan wannabe, I always thought this question was strange, it certainly doesn’t seem like the first thing that would come to my mind if I had been in her shoes. And the strangeness of the question was heightened by the wonderfulness of Jesus’ answer. As a very low-church Protestant I reveled in Jesus’ answer that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” I took Jesus to be totally discounting the woman’s question and both slighting the Samaritan reverence for heights of the mountain where God’s people had worship when they were first coming into the promised land, as well as the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. I figure that if this was Jesus’ attitude toward the accumulated history of ancient worship, then I had every reason to use this passage as a foundation for rejecting all manner of received forms and symbols within the church and to try to bask in the purity of Jesus’ insistence that we “worship in spirit and truth.” As a logical outworking of this position, I can even mention that one of my previous churches was entirely devoid of ornamentation and images, the church even lacked a simple cross anywhere in the sanctuary.
So, despite my surprise at the woman’s question, I loved the answer. Now, though my love for the answer hasn’t lessened, I’ve grown to appreciate the question and I think it actually helps give a better understanding of Jesus’ insistence that we “worship in spirit and truth.” And her question about whether she should worship on a particular mountain or in the temple in Jerusalem connects this passage to my concern about the physical reality that has attended our passages’ pre-figurements of God’s grace. In a sense, we are speaking about what might be more precisely called sacramental theology. Follow the argument as I flesh out this sacramental point.
The idea of the connection between a particular place or thing was well established in all ancient near-eastern cultures, and the Jewish people were no different. Consider Jacob’s experience of receiving the dream of the ladder and his reaction to the experience in Genesis 28: 10-19.
Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder[b] set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it[c] and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel
Notice that despite the Lord’s assurance to Jacob that “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,” Jacob’s reaction is to build an alter on a particular spot and exclaim, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” As I said, this was following a common ancient conception. The political philosopher Eric Voegelin has written, “The symbol [to express this experience] may be called by the Greek name omphalos, meaning navel of the world, [or the point] at which transcendent forces of being flow into the social order.” Voegelin continues on to explain how “the symbol of the omphalos proved adaptable to every empirical situation.” For instance, the omphalos at Delphi was a stone they took to marked the center of the universe, while the Roman forum featured a milestone “in the shape of an omphalos” that represented this point as the center of the Roman world empire. I bring in Eric Voegelin here not only to point out the naturalness of the desire to acknowledge the occurrence of a special irruption of the transcendent into our view, but also because as a political philosopher Voegelin was particularly attuned to the inevitable difficulties that humans have for dealing with such transcendent experiences.
Voegelin points out that in all ancient civilizations, including the Israelites, experiencing the transcendent within life created “a perpetual mortgage of the world-immanent, concrete event on the transcendent truth that on its occasion was revealed.” That is to say, as humans who experience the transcendent in a particular moment, place, or time, we are liable to connect finite or concrete particularity to the manifestation of infinite being. In the case of Jacob’s dream, he marginalized the truth that all of creation can be the gate of heaven for God by thinking the particular spot of land was more important than others. The God of creation is not bound to only appear or only care about a particular place or people group. However, this created a definite tension for Israel as God’s chosen people with a specific promised land. As Fr. Mark reminded us last week, and as can be seen reiterated in Jacob’s dream, Abraham was particularly called, but in receiving the call he was assured that through him “all the nations of the earth” would be blessed. So we see the tension that existed between the universal and the particular. Voegelin writes, “The relationship between the life of the spirit and life in the world is the problem that lies unresolved at the bottom of the Israelite difficulties. Let us hasten to say that the problem by its nature is not capable of a solution valid for all times. Balances that work for a while can be found and have been found. But habituation, institutionalization, and ritualization inevitably, by their finiteness, degenerate sooner or later into a captivity of the spirit that is infinite; and then the time has come for the spirit to break a balance that has become demonic imprisonment.”
What Voegelin captures here is the problem of the ossification or hardening of our experiences of the divine into a temporal prison, which the spirit will always burst. In the words of John 3:6, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” God sends his grace where he wills and we don’t control it.
In realizing this problem, it can be very tempting to flee from all forms and physical manifestations and think that this will solve the problem because we will have rejected everything physical and temporal that could hinder our worship of God. This was what the English Puritans had attempted when they tried to purify the Church of everything they thought was an invention of the Roman Church. However, acknowledging that physical reality can be a problem does not require us to completely reject the connection between the physical and the spiritual. It is a gnostic temptation to insist that abstract thought is the only avenue for worshipping God and it implies that there is something evil in materiality to move in this direction. It is for this reason that I was so profoundly struck when recently acquainted with Edwin Muir’s poem, “The Incarnate One,” through the work of Malcolm Guite who some of us have been reading as part of The Eagle and Child group. Complaining of this gnostic tendency among some hyper-Calvinists among his Scottish brethren, Muir writes:
“How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?
The Word made flesh here is made word again”
Remember that God has not only created physical reality but he neither shuns it nor denigrates it. Moses struck a rock and water poured forth to foreshadow Christ’s crucifixion, the particular rock was not actually Christ, it was just the physical means God used. However, God still cared about the rock and what its physical treatment implied about its spiritual reality as a foreshadowing of Christ. In fact, when the Israelites pass through this wilderness region again in Numbers 20 and needed water, God commanded Moses to speak to the rock, but instead Moses struck it twice, and for this God barred him from ever entering into the promised land.
So how does sacramental theology help us understand Jesus’ exhortation that those who have received “living water” should “worship in spirit and truth”? For myself, it helps me to avoid gnostic temptations in an attempt to live and worship with misguided conceptions of “pure spirit” restricted to abstract thought. Later in same poem, Muir hauntingly predicts:
“The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.”
Remember that the Samaritan woman’s question was about the correct place of worship, and though Jesus reframes her assumptions in answering her question, he does not totally denigrate the temple in either his life or earthly ministry. Jesus travels to the temple in Jerusalem for the prescribed feasts and he cleanses the temple. He also foretells the temple’s coming destruction, but all these points need to be held in tension without trying to resolve the tension in favor of either the physical or the spiritual. It is better to say that Jesus’ statement that we must “worship in spirit and truth” simply restores the proper understanding of the place of the temple that Solomon captured when he dedicated the temple in 1 Kings 8 praying, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!”
We, therefore, must not reject the physical in our worship or our daily lives, we are created beings and God chooses to come into this world that he has created. That is why Anglicans maintain the rich tradition of artistic and beautiful things in our churches as well as the accompanying actions like bowing towards the cross, crossing ourselves, kneeling, and other physical signs. However, we also acknowledge that these physical things do not encapsulate or control the immaterial spirit of our infinite God. We don’t think that if you don’t bow, cross yourself, or kneel that you are a pagan or that in doing these actions we somehow earn something from God. We believe we benefit from these traditions instead of mandating them because requiring them would kill the sacramental tension between the physical means of grace and spiritual substance of God’s work in our souls.
In terms of our daily lives, Jesus’ statement is also wonderfully affirming for us to understand worship as more than what we do in this place on Sunday mornings. This should be a particularly reassuring point in the present precariousness of our possibility of continuing to meet together in the near term. Since we worship in “spirit and truth” we can see all aspects of our lives as opportunities for worship. Whether we are at home caring for our families, in school learning, or working in earthly jobs we have the means of making these worshipful activities. As we show patience and devotion with things we find difficult or challenging, we can worship in “spirit and truth.” As we labor and rest, we can worship…Our spiritual lives are connected with our physical reality and God has provided means of grace throughout.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…Amen.
 Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, p. 27
 Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, p. 164
 Genesis 22:18
 Voegelin, Israel and Revelation, p. 183