What Do You Hold Sacred? Christ and the Woman at the Well

woman-at-the-well

Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, May 10, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

In this beautiful story appointed to be read on the Fifth Sunday of Pascha, the conversion of the Samaritan Woman by the Lord Jesus—who is later known to the Church as St. Photini—the conversation that she has with Christ covers several topics. They discuss her history with multiple marriages, how the Lord wished to give her “living water,” and that He was the promised Messiah.

But among the topics they discussed was the question of worship. The Lord tells her that the Father is seeking “true worshipers” who will worship Him “in spirit and truth.” It is this topic I would like us to meditate on today for a few moments.

It first comes up when Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and that the man she was currently with was not her husband. She responds to this, “Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet.” She is amazed at His ability to know things that He should not be able to know. And then she says this curious thing: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and Thou sayest that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

To understand what she is saying, we have to have some background. The Samaritans were considered outcasts by the Jews, a heretical tribe who believed and practiced some of the same things the Jews did, yet not exactly the same. And because they were not part of the Jewish community and religion, they did not worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, they had their own center of worship, which was the mountain where the Samaritan Woman was speaking with Jesus.

In our own day, we take it somewhat for granted that the worship of God can be conducted anywhere. But at the time, worshipers had specific places set apart for worship, for the offering up of the sacrifice. We have such places, too, but theirs were not just anywhere, while ours can be anywhere. If you were a Jew, for instance, and you wanted to celebrate Passover in its fullness, you had to go to Jerusalem. To this day, when Jews outside of Jerusalem celebrate the Passover, they say to one another, “Next year, in Jerusalem.”

But even outside of those great festivals, if you wanted to offer up a sacrifice, you had to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. You could not offer up a sacrifice somewhere else. This sometimes meant great travel was required if you did not live in or near Jerusalem.

So this is the context for what Photini is saying to Jesus: You Jews have your sacred place for sacrifices, but we have our own. And of course the Jews did not recognize the Samaritans’ sacred place as the right place to offer up sacrifices to the one true God.

In our time, we have lost much of this sense of the sacred. We have lost much of this sense that certain places are set aside for particular purposes and that nothing else should happen there. We have lost the sense that certain times are set aside for certain purposes and that nothing else should happen at that time.

Or have we?

Human societies have always acknowledged sacred spaces and times. And they also have tended to create a sort of hierarchy for those sacred spaces and times. This event is something I would never miss unless I were sick or there were an emergency, but this other event is something that I would prefer not to miss but could reasonably be supplanted by something else.

To give an example, you drop everything and go to the funeral of a close family member. A wedding is probably slightly less sacred, and a baptism is a little less than that. You make every effort to be there, but if there were, for instance, some major professional opportunity, you might skip it and take the professional option.

But we may not realize that we also hold other things sacred, and indeed, there are two areas which we as Americans tend to hold as more sacred than almost anything else—work and school.

How do we know this? You can always tell what people find sacred, because it’s what they will show up on time for, what they won’t miss, and what they’ll spend their money on.

Consider the effort people put forward to be on time for work and never miss. If someone is late or misses work without an emergency excuse, we look down on him. His boss might even fire him if he does it enough. Consider how much people say, “I can’t. I have to work.”

Much of this is driven, of course, by the fact that we need to work to make a living, to be able to eat and have shelter and clothing. But how much of the sacredness of our employment is related to actual necessity?

School may be even more sacred, because there are legal consequences for not showing up to school. We get the police involved if people don’t go to school. And school activities trump almost everything else in a child’s life. His parents will skip almost anything to take him to this place or that for something school-related. And even if something is expensive, they will sacrifice for it.

Some people feel the same way about sports. They will move heaven and earth to get that kid to practice, to games, to training, to booster events, etc. They will spend what they must spend. This is all very sacred.

So what does all this mean when we read the Lord Jesus saying that His Father is seeking worshipers who will worship “in spirit and truth”? He of course expands the sacred ground to include anywhere that altars will be set up. It won’t just be on the Samaritans’ mountain or in the Temple in Jerusalem—it will be everywhere.

But He doesn’t throw out the idea of the sacred. And He doesn’t reorder the sacredness of worship to be below the sacredness of everything else.

When we set up our calendars, we’re not just scheduling “events.” We’re actually declaring what we consider sacred. What is it that you or your children cannot miss, that thing that everything else has to move aside for? That is what you hold most sacred.

Now, you may think of extraordinary, occasional events like a funeral, saying, “Yes, we would never miss the funeral of my mother,” etc. But what I’m most interested in here is our routines, the rhythms of our daily lives. What is the most sacred thing for you? What is it that you would never skip for anything?

If you are a Christian, the answer really should be obvious.

And if you are a Christian, and that obvious answer is not what your life actually looks like, it’s time to ask yourself why. The things that we never miss for anything—especially the things that we never miss, always show up on time for, and are glad to invest our money in—these are what we actually hold sacred. And those are the things we are teaching our children to hold sacred. And we are also telling the world that that is what we hold sacred, and by implication, what they also should hold sacred.

In your daily, weekly, monthly, yearly life, what do you actually hold sacred? What do you never skip? What do you always show up on time for? What do you put your money into above everything else? If you can answer that question, you will know the name of what you worship.

The Father is seeking out true worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and truth. Is that me? What does what I hold sacred say about what I truly worship?

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!

2 comments:

  1. Fr Damick, I’m always a bit apprehensive reading your blog here because you usually start out very gently and gradually lead up to a crescendo of basically in your face truth conclusions. But I guess that’s part of your calling from God. I hope the good people in your parish remind you how important you are to them Often

  2. Fr. Damick, absolutely we place importance to those things that take our time and our money. And if we value God then we will give him of our time and money. So simple but so difficult to do because we get so easily distracted with other things and activities. I love your posts and look forward to reading them. Thank you.

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