In his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Jesus exposes the woman’s sexual sin—an uncomfortable topic that she would rather avoid. So she changes the subject: Where is the correct place to worship God? Why does Jesus let her do this? In this sermon, I argue that it’s because Jesus recognizes the connection between worship and sin: In a way, sin is “worshiping wrongly.” Straightening out our “worship problem,” therefore, helps us straighten our our “sin problem.”
Sermon Text: John 4:16-30
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
I’ll never forget my first day on Emory’s campus when I started seminary. One of the main things I had to do on that first day on campus was go to the Financial Aid department and check on the status of my scholarships and loans. Now, I know from my experience at a large public university like Georgia Tech that dealing with the bureaucracy of Financial Aid means waiting in long lines, putting up with employees who don’t seem happy with their jobs, and who seem to enjoy telling people “no”—all of which is enough to make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. Needless to say, I was expecting the worst when I went to the Financial Aid office at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.
But Emory is not a large public university. I walked into the Financial Aid office of the theology school. I looked around. There was no line. Before I had a chance to introduce myself, I was ushered into the office of the director, who said, “Hello, Mr. White, how may I help you?” And I looked at my shirt to see if I was wearing a name tag or something. I wasn’t. And I’m thinking, “How does she know me?” And all I can figure is that she had names and photos of new theology students who were financial aid recipients. And she had been studying it to match faces with names. I had no other explanation… How did she know me?
And of course, the Samaritan woman at the well must have wondered the same thing after she tells Jesus that she has no husband. And Jesus responds: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” And she’s never met Jesus before in her life! How does he know me? she must have thought.
In this case, of course, what Jesus knows is something that this woman would rather keep hidden: that she’s been married—and likely divorced—five times, and the man with whom she’s currently living isn’t her husband. This woman is guilty of very serious sin, and Jesus wants to get that out in the open first thing.
I saw this terrible meme on social media last week. In it, this educator and activist named Nicholas Ferroni says, “I was born a sinner too. My sin is mentioned in the Bible 25 times. I tried to change but couldn’t… Luckily society learned to accept us left-handed people.” I would suggest that this educator needs to be better educated about the Bible. Because it never, not even once, suggests or implies that being left-handed is sinful. The Church never interpreted the Bible to mean that being left-handed is sinful. It’s completely unfounded. In fact, one of the great heroes of the Bible, Ehud in Judges chapter 3, a man whom God calls to deliver Israel from the Moabites, is able to assassinate the evil Moabite king because he’s left-handed.
But it’s not exactly breaking news that something that’s popular on the internet is inaccurate or untruthful. I bring this up to say that we all know what this guy’s point is: that the Bible, far from being God’s infallible Word to us, is hopelessly outdated—even silly—so we Christians are nuts to take it so seriously, to try to live our lives by it! That’s the underlying message, which is increasingly popular in our culture.
But ironically, Mr. Ferroni gets one thing exactly right: He was born a sinner… He was! He would deny it, of course—and that’s another important message of this meme: Why do we Christians get so hung up on sin? It’s not that big of a deal! But of course, our Lord disagrees, and he’s the only one who gets to say whether it’s a big deal. But it’s true that Mr. Ferroni was born a sinner. And so was I! And so were you! And so was this Samaritan woman.
To say that we’re “born” sinners is what the Church has traditionally referred to “original sin.” It means that we can’t help but sin. We can’t escape it. We’re helpless over it. And apart from Christ we’re hopeless.
But here’s one important thing to know about sin: What God calls sin in the Bible isn’t arbitrary. That’s what we’re afraid of. We think that God gives us this list of do’s and don’t’s for no other reason than to spoil our fun.
We were at some friends’ house one time years ago, and the mother was letting her three-year-old “help” her cook dinner—help is in quotation marks. And she told the child, “Don’t touch the stove it’s hot.” And I promise, less than a minute after she gave that command, the child reached over and touched one of the hot burners on the stove! And of course, then he was crying uncontrollably for the next half hour! So when he disobeyed his mother, he got hurt. And that’s what God’s laws are like: He knows what’s best for us; we don’t. So we trust him when he says to avoid doing or thinking these things that he calls “sins”; otherwise we will get hurt. Sin is spiritually harmful to us and to others.
I’ve said this before, but God wants us to be happy. He does. In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” that word translated as “blessed” means “happy”—a deep and lasting kind of happiness. That’s what God wants for us. Among many other harmful things, sin prevents us from knowing this deep and lasting kind of happiness.
The Samaritan woman was committing adultery and fornication—serious sins. But don’t you just know that, in her own way, she was just trying to find happiness? And she must have thought, “This time, this husband, this man, this relationship, will bring me happiness. I married the wrong guy before, but this time I’ll get it right.” And five times she did that. Until finally, she just gave up on marriage altogether—but I’m sure she imagined that her current relationship would bring her happiness. But Jesus knows that whatever happiness it did bring her, it was far less than the kind of happiness that comes from being a right relationship with God.
So when the woman realizes that Jesus knows her, she says, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” Why does she perceive that? Because, she thinks, only a prophet could know these intimate facts about her life. But it makes her uncomfortable to talk about this painful part of her life, so she changes the subject. Besides, if he really is a prophet, then maybe he can settle a question that has been one of the main sources of contention between Jews and Samaritans: Where is the proper place to worship? The Samaritans said Mt. Gerazim in the north. In fact, they used to have their own Temple there, which was destroyed by the Jews in the second century B.C. Why did the Jews destroy it? Because they understood that the Temple belonged on Mt. Zion, in Jerusalem. This was an ongoing dispute between these two nations. So she asks Jesus, “Who’s right? The Samaritans or the Jews. You’re a prophet. You can settle this once for all.”
What’s interesting to me is that Jesus lets her change the subject—he lets her avoid talking about her sin. He knows what she’s doing. He knows she’s trying to avoid this uncomfortable truth—by talking instead about the proper way to worship God. Why does he let her get away with it?
It’s because Jesus knows that if she can learn to worship properly—as he says, “in spirit and truth”—then that will also solve her problem with sin. Sin and worship are closely related.
I have a friend, Chuck, who collects comic books. And many years ago—it’s been 20 years now—he and his wife were visiting Lisa and me at our house. They were newlyweds, and we were meeting his wife for the first time. And Chuck mentioned that he had recently purchased a rare and valuable comic book—it was the first issue of the “Silver Age” Flash, from 1956. And he mentioned how much he paid for it—and I don’t remember the exact price, but I remember it was four figures. And his wife’s jaw dropped. She had no idea he spent that much. She stared daggers at him. And she said, with this icy tone of voice, “Were you planning on telling me about this?” And for the rest of the visit, it was really awkward and uncomfortable—because this heated argument was just below the surface. I’m like, “Do you want us to step outside so you guys can fight it out, and we’ll come back later?”
I’m not saying that what Chuck did was right or wrong. But for him, spending this money was worth it. This comic book had a value to him that far exceeded the price that he paid for it. But what he clearly failed to do was to convince his wife of this comic book’s value.
It was worth a great deal to Chuck. I mention this because “worth” is at the root of the word “worship.” It literally means worth-ship: when we worship God, we are literally showing God what he is worth to us. If we worship properly, “in spirit and truth,” then that means that God is worth worth everything to us—that God is more valuable to us than anything else, including our very lives! I can’t help but think of Stephen in Acts chapter 7. Remember, he was one of the first deacons in the church, and he was a great evangelist. And he spoke the unvarnished truth about Jesus to a group of religious leaders who accused him of blasphemy, who picked up stones and stoned him to death. And as he was dying he looked up to heaven, and saw Jesus, and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And I don’t know how old he was… Probably early twenties. He was young. And from an outsider’s perspective, someone could say, “Why did he throw away his life like this? He had so much to live for.” But if you asked him, he would surely say he had nothing greater to live for than to live for Jesus, even when Jesus asked him to literally give up everything! Because Jesus is worth everything to him! That’s what it means to worship in spirit and truth!
And when we sin, we are proving through our thoughts, words, and deeds that something or someone else is worth more to us than Jesus!
Was this woman’s sin proving to Jesus that she placed a greater value on these relationships than she did on God? You bet!
In my first job out of college, before I got an engineering degree, I worked in sales for AT&T and later Lucent Technologies. We sold very large telephone systems to companies. My mentor when I was hired on was a man named Alec, and Alec was a very professional, very successful salesman, and he took me under his wing. And he told me one time that he wasn’t motivated by money—that even though he made a lot of it, that wasn’t what drove him to succeed. What drove him, he said, was recognition. He loved winning sales awards—and being recognized by the senior executives of the company. Being flown to exotic places on the company’s dime. That’s what motivated him. Not money.
And I was thinking, “Well, if you feel that way, how about giving me your commission checks because I’m motivated by money?”
My point is, I thought he was crazy at the time. Motivated by recognition! Whoever heard of such a thing?
And then, the very next year, the general manager posted a chart on the wall—which ranked all of us salespeople—there were a couple of dozen of us—in terms of the percentage of our annual sales quota that we had met year-to-date. It had bar graphs going across. And that chart became very important to me. I became obsessed with this chart. After all, anyone in this large office of employees—hundreds of people—could walk down this hall, and look at this chart, and see what my ranking was; to see how I measured up to others; they could see how valuable I was—or not valuable. If I’m down near the bottom of the chart, I’m worthless. If I’m up near the top, I’m special and worth a lot.
It became clear that like my friend Alec, I, too, was motivated by recognition, by what other people thought of me. This became clear the next year. Because the next year, I blew out my quota. I did great. I was at or near the top of the chart… Or at least I would have been, except the general manager had decided to take the chart down. So no one else could see how well I was doing. No one could see how valuable I was. And I was crushed.
So I’m not so different from this Samaritan woman: just as she was trying to find deep and lasting happiness, not from God, but from her relationships, so I try to find deep and lasting happiness, not from God, but from praise and recognition and awards. I’m constantly tempted to rank myself—even against other pastors, my colleagues, my friends. Where do I stand in relation to this guy? How do I measure up to that person? And this sinful kind of pride is at the root of the worst sins I’ve committed in my life.
So last week, Lisa got me a Fitbit. And it’s wonderful. It helps me keep track of my diet and exercise. Lets me monitor how I’m doing. And oh my goodness, it even buzzes on my wrist to let me know when I’ve attained certain goals: Congratulations! you’ve taken 15,000 steps today; you’ve climbed this many floors; you’ve run this many miles; you’ve exceeded this goal; you’re better than 68 percent of the population. And I feel it buzzing on my wrist, and I’m like, “Tell me, Fitbit, how valuable I am. Tell me how important I am. Tell me how worthy I am. Tell me how much better I am than other people.”
My problem, ultimately, is worship. I have too often assigned greater worth, a greater value, on recognition, on what other people think of me, than I assign to God and what he thinks of me. And when I do that, it makes me miserable. And God doesn’t want me or anyone else to be miserable—he wants us to be happy—with a deep and lasting kind of happiness. But he knows that that only comes from placing our ultimate worth on him.
And we do that when we worship. One of the best things I’ve done over the past couple of years is to use the Lord’s Prayer as a template for my own prayers. So the very first thing in the Lord’s Prayer is “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” So the very first part of the prayer is praise and worship. We praise our Father, we “hallow his name,” because of all the amazing things he’s done for us. So the first thing I do when I get on my knees to pray is to praise God for some of the good things he’s done for me. Even when I don’t feel like praising, I try to think of five things for which I can be grateful at that moment. And it has a way of softening my heart—reminding me that, oh yeah, God is in control. Everything’s going to be O.K. Worshiping has a way of keeping things in perspective.
I remember how good and faithful my Father has been to me in the past, how good and faithful he’s being to me in the present, and it reassures me that he will be good and faithful to me in the future. No matter what I’m facing. No matter what I’m going through. No matter what difficult circumstances I’m facing.
It’s not up to me! I’m not like Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. In fact, I’m not doing much of anything apart from God who is working through me.
Speaking of which, let me share these words, which I got from a book called Law and Gospel, from Mockingbird Ministries:
Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”
Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!
The most important way that we worship “in spirit and truth” is to praise God for what he’s done for us helpless sinners—what he’s done to rescue us, to save us from our sins, to make us his beloved children through life, death, and resurrection. That’s the kind of gratitude that changes our lives. Amen?
 William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 73.