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The cure for a lonely soul

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: John 4:21-26

My father-in-law recently sent me this story. It seems that a young preacher was asked by the local funeral director to hold a graveside service at a small local cemetery. The deceased had no family or friends. The preacher got lost getting to the cemetery. Half an hour late, he saw a backhoe and its crew, but the hearse was nowhere in sight and the workmen were eating lunch.

The diligent young pastor went to the open grave and found the vault lid already in place. Taking out his Bible, he began to speak. Feeling guilty because of his tardiness, he delivered an impassioned and lengthy message. As he was returning to his car, he overheard one of the workmen say, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for 20 years and have never seen anything like that.”

At least the preacher was passionate. We could do worse today.

This morning we begin a biblical series titled, “Knowing the Great ‘I Am.’” In these weeks we will see God as he really is. Not the God our culture imagines, a kindly Grandfather in the sky who never interferes with our lives and makes no demands of us. Nor the God some religions imagine, a Judge with religious requirements and legalistic rules.

I’ll be showing you God as he really is. How do I know? Because we will study Jesus’ own autobiography. Eight events where he says, “I am.” Eight stages where he pulls back the curtain and reveals himself to us. Eight invitations to worship him as he requires, and to be transformed by the experience.

We begin today with the first “I am,” and its call to worship God “in spirit and truth.” This morning we are called to worship the Great I Am with personal passion and intensity. Unless we offer such worship, our souls are lonely, weak, and impoverished, more than we may know. Here is their cure.

Rejoice in his grace (vs. 1-6)

Jesus is in the first year of his public ministry. The Pharisees learn of his growing success; to avoid conflict at this early stage of his work, he leaves Judea for Galilee. And so “he had to go through Samaria” (v. 4). Not geographically, but spiritually.

Samaria was that land between Judea to the south and Galilee to the north; it was the most direct route for Jesus’ journey. But most Jews avoided it like the plague, for reasons we’ll soon see. They crossed the Jordan River to the east, traveled north through Perea, and then re-crossed the Jordan into Galilee.

But not Jesus. He was compelled by the Spirit of God to go through this forsaken, despised, rejected region.

He found himself at Sychar, the modern village of Askar. It was an important place historically; Joseph’s bones were buried there (Joshua 24:32), and the “well of Jacob” was located half a mile south. The well is 100 feet deep; you can still drink its water today.

It is the “sixth hour” (v. 6), 12:00 noon, the hottest part of the day. So Jesus sits on the wooden platform built around the mouth of the well. And talks to a Samaritan woman, one of the most shocking things our Lord ever did on this planet.

Why the shock?

She is a Samaritan, and “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v. 9). When the Assyrian king captured the Jewish Northern Kingdom, he replaced the Jews in Samaria with foreigners who worshiped the Lord but also their own idolatrous gods. The Jews despised them, so they built their own Temple on Mt. Gerazim to rival the one in Jerusalem, rejected all the books of the Jewish Bible except the first five, and made their own high priest.

In 129 B.C., John Hyrcanus led the Jews to attack Samaria and destroy their temple. In retaliation, the Samaritans worked with the Romans against the Jews. They welcomed all who had been excommunicated by the Jews. And so the Jews considered them the worst of the human race. And this woman is one of them.

She is a woman. And no Jewish rabbi would speak to a woman in public—not even his own wife, daughter, or sister.

And she is a sinner. She has had five husbands, and is living with a sixth man now. She is so rejected by her society that she must walk half a mile, past 80 springs in the area, to get water during the heat of the day.

What would people think if they saw a visiting rabbi, a single man, alone with the most notorious adulteress in town?

Jesus doesn’t care what the crowds or disciples will think. He cares only for this lonely soul. If he cares about her, he cares about you. And me. If he knows her past, he knows ours. If he knows her failings, he knows ours. He knows our troubles at work, our problems at school, our frustrations with our parents or our children. He knows our temptations and weaknesses. He knows who we are when no one else is looking. And if he would accept her, he will accept us.

But there’s a string attached.

Worship him with the passion he deserves (vs. 21-26)

The woman has asked Jesus where they should worship—on Mt. Gerazim or in Jerusalem. Hear his reply: “…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” (v. 23). Why? Because “God is Spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (v. 24).

Anyone can worship God. As Augustine said, we can trust our past to God’s mercy, our present to his love, and our future to his providence. Any of us can know God as he truly is. But only if we worship him “in spirit and truth.” Let’s explore both.

First, we must worship God “in spirit.”

Ancient religion specialized in rituals and routines, in physical acts and appearance. If you went to the right temple, offered the right sacrifices, and performed the right religious actions, you had worshiped God.

Most world religions still focus on such externals. A good Muslim is one who prays five times a day, gives 2.5% of his goods to the poor, visits Mecca, observes the fast of Ramadan, and says out loud that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet. A good Buddhist or Hindu is one who observes the ascetic disciplines of his or her faith tradition. A good Jew, especially in the Orthodox tradition, is one who keeps kosher dietary laws, Sabbath regulations, and the rest of Torah.

A good Baptist is one who comes to church services each weekend, gives some money, fulfills his or her responsibilities to the choir or Sunday school class or committee, and lives morally. At least that’s what some of us think.

I will confess that “worship” for much of my Christian life was defined by such religious, external actions. Worship equals going to church, singing hymns, listening to the choir and pastor, giving money. It is a noun, an activity, a thing. Answer honestly: is that “worship” for you?

It is not for Jesus. He says we “must” worship God “in spirit,” not in “flesh.”

Worship “in flesh” is worship in externals, in appearance. Worship in “spirit” is worship with personal passion. It is worship with intensity, with internal commitment and interaction.

Because God is Spirit, he knows our spirits, our thoughts and minds and attitudes. He is the “righteous god who searches minds and hearts” (Psalm 7:9). These must be right, or our worship is not real, and he knows it.

William Barclay got at this issue well: “A man’s spirit is the highest part of him. That is the part which lasts when the physical part has vanished. That is the part which dreams the dreams and sees the visions which, because of the weakness and faultiness of the body, may never be carried out. It is the spirit of a man which is the source of his highest dreams and thoughts and ideals and desires. The true worship is when man, through his spirit, attains to friendship and intimacy with God. Genuine worship does not consist in coming to a certain place or in going through a certain ritual or liturgy or even in bringing certain gifts. True worship is when the spirit, the immortal and invisible part of man, speaks to and meets with God, himself immortal and invisible” (The Gospel of John 1:161).

If you have encountered God “in spirit,” with personal passion and intensity, you have worshiped him. If you have not, you have not.

We “must” worship God “in spirit” but also “in truth.” With biblical and theological integrity. And with our minds engaged.

Jesus commanded us to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Matthew 22:37). We do not leave our intellect at the door. We do not merely sit through a sermon. We come to worship each week expecting to hear his truth for us. To read the Bible as “God preaching,” as J. I. Packer says. To hear its truth as “love letters from home,” as Augustine put it.

And to think hard about what we discover. I grew up thinking that I wasn’t supposed to think about my faith. If I had questions or intellectual issues I was to keep them private. Faith meant that I had no doubts or questions. Then I realized that Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If he could ask his question, so can I. So can you. If he could struggle, so can we.

To worship God “in truth” is to seek his truth with our minds and hearts. It is to listen intently to his Spirit as we study his word, to wrestle with what we hear, and to work with its truth until we have found its relevance for our lives.

If you have encountered God today “in truth,” hearing his personal word for you and applying it to your life, you have worshiped him. If you have not, you have not.

Conclusion

When we worship God with personal, passionate, intellectual engagement, here’s what happens: we encounter Jesus. This woman and her fellow Samaritans have been waiting for the Messiah, for centuries. Now she hears this Jewish rabbi say, “I am he.” I am God’s Anointed, the One he promised would redeem his people and purchase their eternal life. Not just a rabbi or a prophet, but the Messiah himself. God himself.

Have you heard from God today? Not from a rabbi or a prophet, but from the Messiah? Here’s how to know: you will leave changed. You cannot meet the living God and stay the same.

The woman had to take the news to her town, and the town to her new Lord. They saw a change in her life which they wanted in theirs. They “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v. 39); when last did that happen with your life?

Then they concluded: “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (v. 42).

Changed people change the world. No one else can.

I found an interesting item in this week’s newspapers. It seems scientists have identified the origins of a meteorite which landed in Oman about 10,000 years ago and was discovered in 2002. Its chemical composition leads them to know that it came from the Lalande Crater in the Imbrium basin, a large area on the near side of the Moon. It was impacted by other asteroids 2.8 billion and 200 million years ago. 340,000 years ago, something struck it and hurled it into space, sending it to Earth.

And that’s just one very small part of a very small moon of a very small planet in a small solar system of a small galaxy of the universe made by the Great I Am. The One who is sitting beside your well today.

How the conversation goes is up to you.