“Is the Lord among us or not?”
John 4, Exodus 17
by Isaac S. Villegas
March 23, 2014
“Sir, I see that you are a prophet,” the Samaritan woman says to Jesus. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says as she points to Mount Gerizim, the place where God commanded Joshua to build an altar, “but you say,” she says to Jesus — and here the Greek here is plural, so not “you, Jesus,” but “you all,” “you Jews.” “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you all, you and you’re your people, say that the true place worship is in Jerusalem.” (Jn 4:19-20)
The Samaritans and the Jews were people at odds with one another. The Jews thought the Samaritans were a mongrel people, the result of mixed marriages, unholy relationships between Jews and gentiles. This story in John’s Gospel is about the relationship between two peoples, not just a woman and a man beside a well. Each person brings their people with them in the encounter — their cultural histories, their racial identities, their genealogies. And their people are not on friendly terms with one another. They are enemies.
150 years before this conversation by the well between Jesus and the Samaritan women — 150 years earlier Jesus’ people, the Jews, led by the High Priest in Jerusalem, burned down the Samaritan temple in Gerizim. So, when the woman points to the mountain, she points to a history of violence; she reminds Jesus of their difference: that he and his people are the enemies of her people.
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” the Samaritan says to her Jewish enemy, “but you all say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel-Palestine, I was there during the week of the 20th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in Al-Khalil, the city that Israel calls Hebron. I was in Al-Khalil, in Hebron, that week. The Ibrahimi Mosque is a holy site for Muslims and Jews, because it is built on the graves of the Patriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah — the only one missing is Rachel, Jacob’s other wife, who according to tradition is buried near Bethlehem.
On February 24, 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a Jew from Brooklyn who was serving as an Israeli military physician, walked into the mosque during early morning prayers. For the Muslims, it was Ramadan; for the Jews, it was Purim, a day to remember the deliverance of the Jews from the Persian Empire, the story we read about in the book of Esther.
Hundreds of Muslims were gathered in the mosque, bowed down in prayer, when Goldstein opened fire. He killed 29 people and wounded another 120. Israeli soldiers were outside the mosque, and they killed another 24 Muslims as they ran, trying to escape.
Goldstein was killed in the mosque, by men who managed to dodge his bullets, and he was buried in a Jewish settlement nearby, called Kiryat Arba. His grave quickly became a shrine, a destination site for pilgrimages, where Jewish settlers go to pay homage to the memory of Goldstein, because some Jews honor him as a martyr. Next to the grave, next to the shrine, a plaque was placed: it says, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel.” The Israeli government bulldozed the shine in 1999, but Jewish settlers still make pilgrimages to the gravesite, where the gravestone still remembers Goldstein as, it says, “a martyr with clean hands and a pure heart.”
Last week, during the Purim festivals in Hebron and Jerusalem, some Jews, let’s call them extremists, for the sake of the many Jews who believe in peace — last week during Purim, in Hebron, in Jerusalem, these extremists were still singing praises to the memory of Dr. Goldstein, as they marched through the neighborhoods of their Muslim neighbors.
How would it feel to worship on the ground where your family, your friends, your neighbors where killed? — like Muslims do week after week, month after month, year after year, in the Ibrahimi Mosque? How would it feel to be so committed to a building, to a piece of land, that you would return, again and again, to pray in that place, to press your forehead into that ground, because that’s where God has shown up in the past, even though everything about that place reminds you of what happened during Ramadan in 1994, and those memories swirl through the air, as flashbacks.
There’s an aura to Palestine, to Israel — a thick atmosphere that you can’t help but breath, as you walk through the field Abraham purchased as his burial site, for him and his family, for the patriarchs, laying claim to the Promised Land; there’s an aura, all around, as you see the land Joshua saw when he led Israel into Canaanite territory; as you look from David’s Tower, from the rooftop where he saw Bathsheba; as you press your palm into the rock where the cross of Jesus stood.
The people and languages, the land and rocks, speak of religion and politics, of conquest and colonialism and God’s faithfulness — the land echoes with memories, with stories, flashing in your imagination as you eat and sleep, as you pray and talk, as you march, during Purim, during Ramadan, as you protest and worship. In Israel, in Palestine, you can’t help but remember ancestors and martyrs. The dead are never dead.
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” the Samaritan says to Jesus, “but you all say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
In my mind, in my body, I’m at a loss to feel the longing to worship in a specific place, the place of the ancestors. My worship doesn’t draw me to one piece of land — to a hill, to a cave, to a field — that would make me feel like I’m closer to God. I tried to get into a spiritual state of mind when I was at the Wailing Wall or the Ibrahimi Mosque or the Church of the Nativity — don’t get me wrong, all of those places were amazing, fascinating, the air was think with religious meaning, and incense, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but none of it made me feel like I was any closer to God than when I am here, with you, in this plain building, with a stained carpet and a crumbling ceiling, and that light that flickers off and on, depending on its mood. I’m much more sentimental about these things, here, than the huge stone in middle of the sanctuary of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth where church tradition says that Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would give birth to the Messiah.
When it comes to worship space, I’m such a Mennonite, with all of our simplicity — or, I guess I could say, I’m such a Protestant, with the way we buck hundreds of years of church tradition; or, worse, I’m such an American, with no concept of history, because all the important stuff started in 1776.
But I also want to say that I get it from Jesus, who told the Samaritan that the altars on Gerizim and Jerusalem don’t matter anymore, because God is found everyone: every land is holy land, all the earth is shot through with God’s presence, with God’s grace — and that’s the good news for Jews and Gentiles, for Samaritans and for us:
“Believe me,” Jesus says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
Location doesn’t determine our closeness to God, Jesus says, because God moves like the wind, because God is found in the breath we breathe, the breath we share — ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, the word means spirit, it means breath.
The good news is that God goes with us, wherever we go, as we move, as we live in truth, as people of truth, as we breath God’s life into the world, God’s spirit, speaking life to one another, affirming life, working for life, for ourselves and for our neighbors, for people in North Carolina, or in Honduras where Monica just visited, or in Palestine, or wherever God call us to worship and work.
God always goes with us. God goes with us as we prepare to move our worship space from this building to the Presbyterian church down the road. There is no place where God is not, which is the worry we hear in our passage from Exodus 17, where the people of are dying of thirst. God led them into the wilderness, but they have no water, so they ask: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Yes, God is with them, and God provides water for them. And they remember the name of the place where it happened, and when they remember the place, they remember God, they remember the faithfulness of God, that God showed up when they need God, when they needed a miracle, when they needed hope, when they needed life.
Perhaps that’s what we lose when we lose sight of the altars that remember God’s acts of faithfulness, the holy sites, the rocks and relics that reverberate with God’s presence to ancestors — places that become our memory, reminding us of all the others who have believed in God before us, who lived in worlds like ours, worlds that seemed hopeless, as if God had abandoned them, as if God wasn’t still breathing life, the spirit, into the world, as if God wasn’t redeeming us, saving our lives, setting us free from slavery.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” That has always been the question for the people of God. And it’s nice to find an answer by pointing to where the glory of God showed up in a brilliant cloud, on this or that mountain, in this or that temple.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” Well of course God is here, just look at the Dome of the Rock, just touch the stones in the Wailing Wall, just follow the path of Jesus on the via dolorosa, as he was taken to the cross.
But, for us, what do we have? What do we have here? We don’t have places that have sustained the faithful, the children of Abraham, generation after generation, century after century.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” Why do you say, yes? What are our reasons? What do we point to, when we can’t point to the mount of Gerizim or Jerusalem on the horizon?
“God is spirit,” Jesus says. How do we point to the spirit, as we keep on believing in God?