[This message based on Nehemiah 8:5-8-10 and John 4:19-26 was delivered on 7/4/21 at Perinton Presbyterian Church. It can be watched and heard on the church Facebook page or webpage.]
“No new normal!” When I drive here, I pass a house with a sign on the lawn that says “No new normal!” I’m pretty sure that has to do with the pandemic. Over the last 15 months, people have spoken of a new normal coming. The thought of a new normal can be disturbing. Some want to hold on to how we have always done things and any change is frightening. But then, most of us have adjusted to traveling in motorized vehicles, like cars, busses, trains, and planes. In the span of human history, those are very new. In a week like the last one, I don’t think any of want to go back to the old normal before we had air conditioning.
Churches are wondering very much about post-pandemic life. Will people come back? Or have they found that they like staying home on Sunday mornings? When we have learned to worship with our congregation from home through technology, will we want to continue to worship in that way? I have to make a confession now. I am an extrovert (maybe you’ve noticed) and I draw energy from being with lots of people. Add to that that I am a pastor and a preacher, and you won’t be surprised to know that I love to worship with other people in crowded rooms.
But not everyone is an extrovert. Probably about half of you worshiping with me right now are introverts and crowded rooms drain your energy. Some of you have found some benefits in worshiping in virtual ways. I respect that. I am convinced that any church that is paying attention is straddling this line: we are eager to return to worship as we have long known it and we want to continue to worship with people in virtual ways.
I am in favor of our continuing to make our worship services available on the internet every Sunday. For people with weakened health systems, worshiping from home is a wonderful gift. For people that can’t get out readily or don’t drive, worshiping from home serves well. For people in a tough place in life, worshiping from home can be a lifeline. For people on vacation or work trips, worshiping while away from home is a wonderful gift. I am for it. But I add a caution. If people are choosing to worship from home merely because of convenience, perhaps we need to think that through. There is more to worship than convenience.
Nehemiah 8 takes us to a place of inconvenience. It was a virtual post-pandemic setting. The people of Israel had been taken captive to Babylon over a generation earlier. Jerusalem, the center of their religious and cultural life, had been destroyed. There was rubble everywhere. Homes and neighborhoods were destroyed. The city walls were torn down. And perhaps the most bitter pill, the Temple, the central symbol of their worship was ransacked and leveled. Picture southern Manhattan on September 12, 2001. Picture the base of Champlain Tower South in Surfside FL this morning. What do the returned exiles do? They gather outdoors and have a big festive worship service right there surrounded by ruins. The word of the Lord is read and explained (we call that a sermon), the people respond, and they are sent out in the joy of the Lord. It is the very pattern we use in our worship today: gathering, hearing the reading and proclaiming of the word of God, responding to God’s grace, and going forth to serve.
Throughout his earthly days, Jesus went to synagogue on the sabbath to worship God. He sometimes got in trouble for the good deeds he did in gathered sabbath day worship, because some people, mainly religious types, wanted everything done in the old normal ways. Jesus brought a new normal. Jesus is always bringing the new. Jesus is making all things new.
Now he is traveling through Samaria, a dangerous place for a Jew. He stops at a well at midday to draw some water. A Samaritan woman arrives at the well about the same time. Jesus breaks social custom and speaks to her. She responds and that begins the longest conversation we have of Jesus with another person in the Gospels. And it with a woman who is a Samaritan. Those are two social barriers that Jesus bursts through. At one point the conversation turns to religious stuff. And Jesus, as usual, is full of surprises. A new normal is coming.
The woman misunderstands the nature of true worship, which most people then held and a lot do today. In her mind worship is linked to where you worship. For Samaritans, the central place to worship is Mt. Gerizim in central Palestine. For Jews, the central place is Jerusalem, which is on a hill in the south. Jesus reframes the matter: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The key is not where we worship, but how we worship; not the GPS location, but the engagement of the worshiper with the one worshiped. Not which mountain, but what kind of heart we bring.
There are four words translated worship in the New Testament. Each brings a different aspect, from reverence, to duty and service, to order. But one of the four is dominant. It occurs more than the others put together. It is the most physical of the four. It literally means to fall down in the presence of the one worshiped. To prostrate oneself. To fall reverently in the presence of the other. It is the word used for the Magi when they reached the child Jesus in Bethlehem: they fall down before him, worshiping him and giving him lavish gifts. This word occurs over 50 times in the New Testament. And it occurs ten times in this little passage of five verses. This is the greatest concentration in the New Testament.
Jesus is opening this Samaritan woman to a new normal, both in worship and in life. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” In spirit and in truth. Spirit suggests our emotional involvement; truth suggests our intellectual involvement. This is not an either/or, but a both/and. We don’t worship in spirit or in truth, but in both spirit and truth. Presbyterians call this ardor and order. Worship with ardor is spirited; it is enthusiastic; it welcomes and evokes emotion. Worship with truth is thoughtful and orderly. (Which side do you think Presbyterians tend to emphasize: ardor or order?) This spirit and truth worship honors both passion and protocol. In music, it honors both old hymns and new songs. It welcomes contributions from 20 centuries of worship and more. It is lively and lovely. It is not arrogant and snobbish. Without spirit, worship is flat. Without truth, worship is empty.
God is not interested in staid and self-serving worship. Worship in spirit and truth never seeks to impress God or people. Rather, it seeks to honor God with our whole selves and give worth and praise to God. Through the prophet Amos, God warns against performance worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24) True worship links justice and righteousness. It engages our whole beings and sends us out to live in new ways. New normal ways, pursuing justice and righteousness.
In this season of spiritual care, we keep worship central, both in person and streaming. There is much that the church does today that will end someday. A time is coming when we will no longer need Christian education, evangelism, budgets and pledge campaigns, building and grounds teams, board and committee meetings, and even technology teams. But worship will never cease. What we are doing here this morning, whether in this room or scattered elsewhere, is eternal. We are touching eternity when we gather to worship God in spirit and truth.