It is a fascinating story which John unfolds in the fourth chapter of his Gospel. He tells us how a Samaritan woman, seeking to satisfy a natural thirst, comes face to face with Jesus the Messiah and finds in Him the water of life. Not inappropriately the two are seen beside a well or spring of patriarchal memories, revered alike by Jews and Samaritans, while in the background stands Mount Gerizim, crowned with the temple ruins of a perverted belief. How patiently He steers the conversation from a commonplace beginning into the deeper truth of her vital spiritual need, and beyond, until His final revelation is of Himself, v. 26, and the nature of true worship. Throughout this encounter, whether it be in method, manner or matter, Christ has given us a pattern which we should learn to follow in our own approach to the unsaved. To speak inadvisedly with the lips may mar the best of intentions, but how good is a word spoken in due season!, Prov. 15. 23; Ps. 106. 33.
Let us observe how the narrative progresses to its climax. Seemingly the dialogue reaches a point of crisis when the Lord Jesus startles the woman with His revelation of her sinful life. To what extent she is convicted by this is difficult to judge -except by the sequel – but her reaction is typical of human nature, for she turns the conversation abruptly into a different channel and veers from the personal to the abstract. Alas, how many today can moralise glibly about sin in the world and remain unmoved by a sense of personal guilt before God! It is hard to reduce such complacent self-righteousness to the healthy humility of heart-felt repentance (cf. Job. 40. 4; 42. 6), but, thankfully, we know that nothing is too hard for God, Jer. 32. 17, 27.
‘Here’, reasons the woman, ‘is a prophet and He should be able to resolve the long-standing dispute concerning the true place of worship. Is it Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem?’. Hence, claiming the authority of antiquity and tradition for the Samaritan shrine, she points in that direction and says, ‘Our fathers worshipped in this mountain’, v. 20. What actually did this mountain represent? Originally it was the appointed place of divine blessing, conditional, however, upon Israel’s obedience to God’s holy law, Deut. 11. 26-29. Moreover, lest that should be considered a light thing, there was the grim reminder of Mount Ebal close by to warn the people of the solemn alternative – cursing instead of blessing. Despite this warning, Israel failed, as indeed have others both before and since, for human depravity knows no national boundaries and is no respecter of persons; it is universal. That is one reason why history – ecclesiastical history included – is often a repetition of what has gone before. Initially Abel and Cain were two contrasted types (reproduced in every age) in their approach to God, the former presenting true and acceptable worship, the latter offering a spurious sacrifice of his own invention. In like manner, whether by Sanballat (of the book of Nehemiah) or a kindred spirit, a perverted ingenuity decides to make ‘this mountain’, namely Gerizim, the seat of a false cult with a counterfeit sanctuary to rival the temple at Jerusalem, all in defiance of Jehovah’s decree concerning Zion, hallowed in the act and ratified in the words, ‘My name shall be there’, 1 Kings 8. 16, 29.
We now come to the highlight of this meeting. The Lord Jesus takes up the challenge and settles once for all that vexed question of where and how worship should be offered to God. In doing this, He predicts a deep spiritual revolution that sweeps away the vestiges of Samaritan apostasy and likewise condemns a degenerate Judaism as something reprobate in its departure from the Lord. No matter how sacred it might be to those poor Samaritan worshippers, Gerizim has no part nor lot in this new order. Even Jerusalem, the centre of what should have been the true service of God in the midst of a God-fearing nation, is set aside. Rome has not better claim to sanctity than London or any other locality. Geographical, political and ecclesiastical barriers all fall before the impact of this fuller revelation of God’s purpose, while the types and shadows of the old covenant, finding their fulfilment in the new, vanish in the light and substance of eternal reality. Moreover, because this transformation is essentially spiritual, there is no provision in it for what might be called the ‘externals’, such as ritualistic practices, ornate vestments and the numerous manifestations of pomp and ceremony so dear to the world’s religions. No! The truth of God goes deeper; it claims the heart. Nevertheless, deprived of the Old Testament ceremony, one might ask, ‘What is there left to us?’. Just this: ‘God is spirit (not a Spirit): and they that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’, v. 24.
Here, then, as in every aspect of our Christian faith, ‘old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new’, 2 Cor. 5. 17. Even if we had any knowledge of Christ before conversion, we know Him no longer according to the flesh, for the flesh is enmity against God and has no share in the new creation. If, therefore, our present knowledge of Christ is spiritually acquired, revealed to our minds and fostered in our hearts by the indwelling Spirit of God, and if, moreover, God is spirit in nature and essence, then our approach to Him will surely partake of like spiritual character. Indeed, there is a divine ‘must’ linked with it, as in verse 24. It cannot be carnal. Tor we are’, as Paul declares in Philippians 3. 3, ‘the circumcision, which worship God in spirit (not in the spirit) and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh’.
The key-note of the early church meetings was simplicity. Twentieth century believers have much to learn from the Acts of the Apostles, while Hebrews 8. 5. is not without a guiding principle for today. While grace continues to operate in sovereignty unto righteousness, God is still seeking worshippers among the children of men despite their utter unworthiness, and His desire will be satisfied. Herein is an incentive to faithful stewardship on the part of His people, so that, whether it be in our private devotions or in the wider circle of collective fellowship, we may make it our business on every occasion – not once a week only – to render unto the Lord that reverence and godly fear to which He is entitled. But it must be in spirit and truth.
We are living in times of wide-spread apathy and departure from the truth, and there is many a figurative Mount Gerizim in the religious world to entice us away from our allegiance to Christ. The corruption of Christendom was clearly foretold in the parables of Matthew 13. Granted the pathway of fidelity is not easy; nevertheless, the Lord still encourages with an ancient message that never grows old: ‘them that honour me I will honour’, 1 Sam. 2. 30. Where there is a wholehearted cleaving to the Lord Jesus Christ and His Word, the Lord may yet walk, manifesting approval, in the midst of the golden lampstands of witness, Rev. 1. 13, thereby sanctifying the gatherings of His redeemed with His gracious promise, ‘My name shall be there’.