Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, June 2, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon is available via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!
There are those outside the Orthodox Church who say that Orthodox worship is empty and meaningless ritual, that it is “dead religion” at its worst. To them, what we do in worship is just “going through the motions,” a sort of dedication to pointless tradition for its own sake. When they look at our vast liturgical tradition, all they see is Pharisaical rules and regulations designed not just to confuse people but to control them, to numb their spirits, to destroy any spark of faith within them.
And there are even some people, perhaps many people, inside the Orthodox Church who have a similar view. It is probably not articulated out loud, but it is spoken by their actions. They do not care too much what the liturgical season is. They do not bother to come to church services aside from liturgy on Sunday morning. They regard discussion of the details of our worship to be annoying and tedious at best, something reserved for ecclesiastical nerds with nothing better to do with their time. It’s nice in some sense that all that complexity is there, but they can’t be bothered with learning it or trying to understand it in any way but the most superficial.
What ties both of these attitudes together is a movement from the churches of the Reformation that began in the 17th century, a movement called Pietism. Without getting too deep into the history of the movement, let us define it simply as the feeling—not so much the teaching, mind you, but the feeling—that the details of doctrine and worship do not really matter. What matters is mostly that you have strong conviction and/or that you are a good moral person. And it is precisely through the lens of Pietism that many people interpret the Gospel reading from this morning, especially the passage on worship. Let’s hear that selection one more time, just to bring it again to our memory:
The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and Thou sayest that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Listen especially to the words that Christ uses: “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Someone outside the Orthodox Church who looks at what we do as pointless, “dead” religion, then true worship that is “in spirit and truth” will have nothing to do with liturgics. Instead, “true worship” “in spirit and truth” will probably be something made up sometime recently, using exciting, emotional music and a big spectacular show that will leave the congregation feeling charged up at the end. Using ancient rituals is fake, and they leave people feeling dead and perhaps even trapped in a mind-numbing sameness that doesn’t do anything for anyone.
And yet, speaking as someone who used to work in “show business” and used to participate in precisely that religious world, I can tell you that that entertainment-focused approach to worship can be quite as dead, fake and entrapping as they think liturgical ritual must be. There can be enormous pressure to “perform,” to make everything perfect and polished, to stay constantly up to date with whatever cultural trends are on the radio or in the pages of Christianity Today, to be more “relevant” every day. The canon for propriety in that kind of worship is not measured by anything except the demands of a public hungry for innovation and smooth-talking preachers projecting a successful image.
What is important is that people feel good, that they have an emotional experience, but because what is popular in entertainment can go out of style so quickly, and because churches will never be able to keep up with the frenetic pace of the Top 40, the glitter gets dull and the music gets campy and the architecture goes out of style. And what do you have? Dead religion. It used to feel good, but it’s just not that cool any more. And so such churches, despite all their apparent outward success, have an enormous turnover rate for their members, who eventually leave, looking for something else that will feed their desire for what’s missing.
But someone inside the Orthodox Church, while not actually rejecting liturgical worship, may nevertheless not really care much about it, either. If he comes only to Sunday liturgy while neglecting Vespers and Matins, he may notice that not much changes from week to week. He may notice that the choir eventually cycles through only a certain repertoire of pieces. He may notice that the priest is preaching on the same passage from Scripture he did last year at this time. He may notice all the services listed in the schedule but think to himself, “That’s just for religious fanatics” or “I don’t have time for that.” But what he really means is “That’s boring, and I don’t care.”
And he certainly looks around and notices that hardly anyone else around him seems to care much about such things, either. That one time he came to Saturday Vespers or Sunday Matins, he made up half the congregation. So it must be okay. And surely God does not care about such details. Those are all man-made, anyway, stuff for clergy and crazy converts to bother over. And there it is in the Bible today: worship God in spirit and in truth. Doesn’t that mean that, as long as you’re a good person, as long as you really believe, that the rest just doesn’t matter? What matters is the “spirit,” right? Isn’t that the “truth”?
One of the problems of Pietism is that it forgets anything about history and why it matters. It is understandable that someone might read this encounter of the Lord Jesus with the Samaritan Woman, see Him speaking about worship in spirit and truth, and thereby conclude either that one should reject liturgy entirely or that even if one doesn’t reject it, that its details don’t really matter. But such an interpretation just doesn’t hold up in the light of history, and it certainly doesn’t hold up in the light of what has been experienced in liturgical worship by the people we know really made it to Heaven—the saints.
So what does history actually show us about this, and why should we care? First, we should remember that the New Testament as we now know it does not appear in a list we would recognize as our twenty-seven books until the year 367. That’s more than 300 years after Jesus rose from the dead before we might be able to point to something fully recognizable to today’s Christians as “the Bible.”
So what does the historical context of the formation of the Bible actually show us about how Christians worshiped? That is, when the Christians of the first three centuries of Christianity knowingly included the language of worshiping “in spirit and truth” in their Bible, what did they understand it to mean?
After centuries of Jewish liturgical worship that had been directly instituted by God Himself, the first Christians did not immediately drop everything, pull out their guitars and drum sets, and start worshiping God by putting on a big theatrical spectacle while imitating first century pop songs.
But neither did the Apostles go around preaching to the first Christians that all that Scripture and liturgical tradition they had been raised with and were in the process of transforming along Christian lines was now going to be handled by liturgigeek experts and that no one else need bother with knowledge or participation in worship that was anything more than minimal.
Neither is true. What happened is that much of Jewish liturgical tradition was retained and then initially augmented with specifically Christian elements, such as the Eucharist. It all became more specifically Christian especially after the Christians were expelled from the Jewish synagogues. Over time, the liturgical tradition gradually unfolded to what we have today. Even in the 21st century, it still retains the essential shape that it had in the first century, with no radical revisions. And it was always assumed that the vast content of the liturgical life was there both to teach and to shape the Christian as he participated both rationally and bodily. That is what the actual data on worship from the first few centuries of Church life shows.
Doctrine matters. Liturgy matters. And both make a big impact on the authenticity and even the very existence of the Christian spiritual life. If you don’t pay attention to those things as much as you are actually able, you’re not only not doing it right, you might not be doing it at all. So how does this work? And why?
Liturgical worship was instituted by God first for the Jews and then continued and expanded for Christians because it corresponds directly to how human beings are made. If we really want to get close to God and become like Him, then this is how you do it. You may not need to understand every single detail of how it works, but if you only barely understand it or barely participate in it and don’t even care about the details, it will not have much impact on you, and you will remain essentially dead in your sins.
In that respect, it’s very much like being healed by a doctor. You need to listen closely to what he tells you about how the cure is going to work and what you need to do. If you don’t, then you’re probably not going to be healed. And you certainly had better not go about making up your own cures. You’re not the doctor.
The Orthodox Church’s liturgical life is worship in spirit and truth. It is in this worship that we truly receive the Holy Spirit. It is in this worship that we not only learn the truth but actually participate in the truth. In this worship, the wisdom of the ages is packed in tightly. In this worship, the whole of the Church’s theology is not only taught but actually experienced. In this worship, God reaches out to touch us and we receive that touch and are healed.
Anyone who thinks that all that is just going through the motions has never really dived in deep to know it for himself. And anyone who thinks that some minimal knowledge and participation is enough is skipping the great banquet just to munch on a few appetizers available near the door. He will go away hungry.
Worship is what we were made for, brothers and sisters. When Christ tells the Samaritan Woman that the time is coming when all true worshipers would worship His Father in spirit and truth, He is referring not only to the geographic explosion of worship that is about to happen in His time—that the mystical sacrifice will not only be on the Samaritans’ mountain or in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in every place—but He is also telling us that a powerful, overwhelming, holistic, and world-transfiguring form of worship is about to be inaugurated, a form of worship that enfolds every part of what it means to be human—the mind, the body, the soul—everything!
How could anyone want to stand on the outside looking in? How could anyone be content with merely an occasional “observance” that doesn’t take up too much time so as to be inconvenient? How could anyone who truly experiences this think of it as “dead religion”? This is not meaningless ritual—this is the most meaningful action that can happen in human life. This is our encounter with the God before the ages. This is the awesome moment when we not only see God but touch Him and taste Him. This is worship in spirit and truth.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!