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We Have Seen His Glory asks — and answers — the question of what worship would and should look like in light of the eschatological future, of kingdom come. Ben Witherington here contends that it cannot be a matter of merely continuing ancient practices. Instead, it must also be a matter of preparation for worship in the Kingdom of God when it comes on earth. / "I am convinced that one of the great problems to having a more reflective and more Christian approach to worship is that even many of our ministers and ...
We Have Seen His Glory asks — and answers — the question of what worship would and should look like in light of the eschatological future, of kingdom come. Ben Witherington here contends that it cannot be a matter of merely continuing ancient practices. Instead, it must also be a matter of preparation for worship in the Kingdom of God when it comes on earth. / "I am convinced that one of the great problems to having a more reflective and more Christian approach to worship is that even many of our ministers and worship leaders have very little understanding of what the New Testament actually says about worship, what it is meant to be, what it entails, and what we ought to do. In this study I hope to remedy some of that problem and tease some minds into active thought about what worship should look like if we really believe that God's Kingdom is coming. . . . It is time for us to explore a more Biblical and Kingdom-oriented vision of worship." / — Ben Witherington, from the prelude
It must be a gift of evolution that humans Can't sustain wonder. We'd never have gotten up From our knees if we could. Robert Hass, Time and Materials: Poems, 1997-2005
If there is one characteristic more than others that contemporary public worship needs to recapture, it is this awe before the surpassingly great and gracious God. Henry Sloane Coffin
The story in John 4 of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is one of the most beloved and belabored of all Gospel tales. While on the surface it may seem a rather pastoral or idyllic tale, it is in fact one fraught with social tension, and we will be well served to consider it in some depth before we inquire about its importance for our discussion of worship.
As most readers of this study will already know, the animus between Jews and Samaritans was enormous at this point in history, and from the outset this fact is underlined by two statements — Jesus leaves Judea and "has to go through Samaria" (John 4:4, emphasis mine) in order to get to Galilee, presumably because he wants to get to Galilee quickly. What is implied is that he might have preferred the more roundabout way, or at least his disciples might have preferred it; many Jews took it to avoid Samaritan territory. Verse 9 further underlines the fractured nature of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. When Jesus asks the woman at the well for a drink of water, the Evangelist tells us that "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans." More broadly, we could say that even in a setting where hospitality was supposed to be universally offered, Jews and Samaritans disliked each other so much, they were totally inhospitable toward each other. This explains quite clearly the reaction of the Samaritan woman to Jesus' request. Jews and Samaritans wouldn't eat or drink together, wouldn't work together, and most certainly wouldn't worship together.
The social setting of the discussion between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is also crucial to understanding the tale, because it is not just anywhere in Samaria that Jesus chooses to ask for water — it is at Jacob's well near Sychar, one of the great holy places for Samaritans, who affirmed only the patriarchal religion of the Pentateuch, the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For Samaritans, worship focused on the theology of the Pentateuch, the worship practices mentioned in the Pentateuch and known to be practiced by the patriarchs, and on Mt. Gerizim. Samaritans were not interested in worship patterns that didn't exist before David and Solomon, who aren't mentioned in the Pentateuch, or in Temple-focused worship in Jerusalem, which was the legacy of those monarchs.
One further feature, an anomaly, sets up the story. Jesus is tired and sits by the well at midday, which is not at all the normal hour for a woman to come and draw water. This signals something is awry. (Further, Jesus' making his request of a woman he doesn't know is in part precipitated by the fact that his disciples have gone to town to buy food and are not available to help him.)
It is interesting that the woman instantly knows that Jesus isn't a Samaritan (v. 9). Is it because of his accent, or because she's accustomed to Pentateuchal Hebrew, and he speaks to her in Aramaic? We cannot be sure. In any case, the great divide between them is punctuated from the outset. The woman's question is direct: "How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?" This violated several possible protocols: Jewish men weren't supposed to speak to strange women; Jews weren't supposed to speak to Samaritans; and men weren't supposed to speak to immoral women (for we later learn that the Samaritan woman is such). Jesus shouldn't have spoken to this woman at all, much less asked for a cup of water which she had touched and so made unclean. But Jesus is unconcerned with such rules. He is simply thirsty. Or is something else really going on here?
Verse 10 suggests that the main issue is not Jesus' needing a favor, but the woman's needing to ask Jesus for "living water," a typical Johannine double entendre which in its mundane sense means "running water" (i.e., a stream). Notice as well that Jesus suggests that the woman is ignorant of "the gift of God." What does this connote? It doesn't seem to mean the same thing as "the generosity of God," or Jesus would have said so. Is Jesus saying, "If you knew me, the gift of God, and so knew who was asking you for water ..."? This is possible. What both the context and the opening character of this dialogue do is set up the obviously theological discussion that ensues, which highlights the difference between Jesus' worship theology and traditional Samaritan worship theology, which is Pentateuchally based, land-locked, holy place–centered, and not at all Davidically messianic in character.
The dialogue takes an interesting turn at verse 12, where the woman, apparently exasperated with Jesus because he seems to actually have nothing to offer her but verbiage, says, "Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well ...?" Jesus' immediate reply implies that the answer to this question is yes. Jacob left only ordinary water for the Samaritans, though that was a most precious gift in a dry and weary land. But Jesus is offering an everlasting and deeply spiritual source of refreshment which will quench souls' thirst once and for all. Indeed, Jesus says he offers water that, when imbibed, "will become in them a spring of water welling up to everlasting life" — in short, the gift that keeps on giving. Jesus would seem to be referring to the gift of the Holy Spirit, for later Paul, perhaps reflecting on this very saying, remarks, "for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and we were all given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Cor. 12:13, emphasis mine).
Alas, as verse 15 shows, the woman still doesn't get the spiritual point and asks for directions to the stream nearer town so that she doesn't have to continue to make such trips to the well in the heat of the day, and especially can avoid the scrutiny of her fellow Samaritans (and in particular the women who draw water early in the morning). And it is at this juncture in the dialogue that Jesus chooses to puncture the woman's façade. "Go and call your husband and come back," he urges, to which she abruptly replies, "I have no husband!" Jesus then proceeds to tell her that technically she is correct, since she has had five husbands and the man she now lives with is not her husband. It is this word of prophetic insight into the actual condition of the woman's life and her past that causes her façade to crumble, and a real theological dialogue to ensue.
But then the woman makes a foray into flattery: "I perceive you are a prophet, sir" (surely the highest compliment a Samaritan could give, since Samaritans believed that the messianic figure would be a prophet after the manner of Moses). Is this, and her tandem foray into theological speculation about the best holy mountain, an artful dodge? Like so many before her and since, is she holding the personal ethical questions at bay by offering instead to debate worship theology? Perhaps. In any case, Jesus takes the bait to debate and declares outright, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and truth" (vv. 21-24).
This is one of the most intriguing segments of continuous theological reflection in this entire Gospel, and we must give it due attention, but note that the woman's response and confession — "I know that Messiah is coming.... When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us" — is true enough but inadequate. Jesus in turn replies, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." Jesus will deal with the woman where she is in her intellectual, spiritual, and ethical pilgrimage, and he will seek to lead her beyond it. Interestingly, the woman says no more, abandons her water jar, and runs back to town, both confessing that she has been unmasked and wondering out loud if Jesus could be the Redeemer longed for by the Samaritans and predicted by Moses.
Let us return for a moment to Jesus' words in verses 21-24. Is verse 21 a warning about the Jewish war that was to come in the sixties and ruin temple-centered religion, especially in Jerusalem, but also cause trouble in Samaria? This may well be so. Verse 22 is even more intriguing. Jesus seems to suggest that the Samaritans are worshipping the true God, but doing so in ignorance. He then asserts that Jews know whom they worship because "salvation is from the Jews," by which Jesus seems to mean that the revelation of the true identity and nature of God came to the Jews, and therefore they have the saving knowledge of God which the Samaritans lack. But the Samaritans had the Pentateuch — did Jesus see that as inadequate? Apparently so, as did most Jews. The Prophets and even the Writings were crucial to knowing God and the full revelation of the divine nature and salvation.
This comports quite well with the constant theme of this Gospel, for we have a crescendo of confessions in this book, all of which are true but inadequate until we arrive at the Easter confession of Thomas in John 20. Verse 23, however, adds more fuel to the fire. Jesus speaks of a time which has already begun when the true worshippers of the one true God will worship in spirit and truth, the very kind of worshippers God seeks. But what does this mean?
Should we be capitalizing the word Spirit here? I think we probably should, not least because of the close association of Spirit and truth, and because the Spirit is the one who leads the disciple into all truth in John 14–17. In other words, Jesus is announcing that the time for eschatological worship is dawning, worship grounded in a clear knowledge of the truth/revelation and salvation that has come from the Jews in the person of Jesus, and is guided and inspired by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
Why is it that God wants that sort of worshipper? Apparently because it comports with the very nature of God — who is Spirit and who is The Truth — and so his true worshippers need to be offering worship that involves both the truth and the Spirit, not ignorance and the absence of the Spirit. Yet, Jesus did imply that the Samaritans were worshipping the true God in ignorance, it would seem. We could say a good deal about the rest of this story, but it doesn't bear on our discussion of worship and the points we need now to highlight:
1. Jesus says the time is now for the beginning of a kind of worship that is eschatological in character, and dwells no more on the old culture wars, the worship wars, the edifice complex, the "in which building is true worship happening" issue. Worship in spirit and truth can happen anywhere and everywhere, and one does not need to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or anywhere else to find it. Why is that? Because, of course, through the Christ event, the Spirit is made universally available. God's presence is not a "located" presence, nor should it even be conceived of as a located presence anymore, as if God dwells in buildings made by human hands.
2. True worship comes from the same source as genuine salvation, which is to say that it comes from the same source as living water — God, in the person of his Son, Jesus. Jesus says that Jews know whom they worship, which is an essential prerequisite to being saved, and thus to offering true worship in spirit and truth. True worship is a result of having a saving relationship with God. Indeed, as we will have many occasions to say in this study, worship is the ultimate aim and goal of salvation. Salvation is but a means to an end, not an end in itself.
3. The character of the worship should comport with the character of the one being worshipped — the one true God who is spirit.
The story in John 4 is remarkably rich, both theologically and ethically, but here it will be wise to emphasize the ethical point that believing in Jesus is seen as an ethical act, the right thing to do. Furthermore, we are reminded that the Gospel breaks down ethnic barriers in such a fashion that even Samaritans can be saved, for while salvation is from the Jews, it is for the world, and Jesus is the Savior of the world. Neither immorality nor gender difference nor ethnicity nor varied religious praxis prove to be barriers that Jesus and the Gospel cannot hurdle on the road to a worldwide people of God.
Equally important, here is where I stress that true worship is an ethical act. Indeed, it is the fulfillment of the Great Commandment to love God with all our being, and also the fulfillment of those mandates from the Ten Commandments to have no other gods and make no idols. Let me say that again: Worship is the ultimate ethical act on earth, the most important act on earth because it is the ultimate fulfillment of the Shema, the Great Commandment, and indeed the First and Second Commandments.
But there is a hint of something more here which has to do with things eschatological. Listen again to Jesus' words from John 4 in a more literal translation: "But the hour is coming and now is when the true/genuine worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking these sorts of worshippers. God is spirit, and for those [truly] worshipping him, it is a necessity to worship him in spirit and in truth."
This, I submit, is an eschatological manifesto, a throwing down of the gauntlet. Worship can no longer be just the same old thing. Jesus is inaugurating, without fully explaining, eschatological worship, and he tells us that worshippers who worship in spirit and truth are the very sort of worshippers whom God is seeking. In fact, Jesus insists that it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth, now that he has come and brought in the Kingdom on earth.
To fully grasp the import of this, we must remember the social context. Worship of Jews and Samaritans was ethnocentric and patrilocal. It was temple-centered and priest-controlled. It focused on literal sacrifices, and it was a smelly, noisy, messy process. Jesus is inaugurating a worship without temples, priests, and literal sacrifices, all of which are said to be fulfilled by and in Jesus. He is the new temple of God, where God's presence dwells (see John 2). He is the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world (see John 1). And he is the priest who will offer himself as the perfect sacrifice in Jerusalem on Golgotha's heights, a theology spelled out in great detail in the book of Hebrews.
Henceforth, now that the eschatological age has begun, true worshippers will not be needing the old sorts of temples located in particular "high holy places"; will not be needing the old sorts of sacrifices, since Christ's sacrifice will make literal sacrifices both fulfilled and obsolete; will not be needing the old sorts of priests as human mediators between God and humanity. In the new covenant which "now is," the only priests are Christ, the heavenly high priest, and the priesthood of all believers. The only sacrifices are of self, of service, of true praise and worship. And the only temples are the Body of Christ collectively (i.e., the church), and one's own physical body, for that is where God in Christ now dwells.
Eschatological worship dwells no more in the past. It is forward-looking and forward-thinking, and it focuses on the future and what it means to worship in spirit and truth, rather than in Swansea and Duluth. God is eagerly seeking such worship and such worshippers. The only question is, Can we handle it? When the writer of the Gospel of John says, "we have seen his glory," he probably means that he has seen the radiant risen Christ, the Christ who began the new age in earnest on Easter, though even before then there were harbingers of it. And when we have seen the vision glorious, there is only one fully adequate response: to glorify God with all that we have and all that we are. In the next chapter we will consider another Johannine text which helps us to think further about these things: Revelation 4–5.
Excerpted from We Have seen His Glory by Ben Witherington III Copyright © 2010 by Ben Witherington III. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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