The woman of Sychar belonged to a people with a cobbled together heritage. The poorest, least useful of the Israelite people were left in the war ravaged land to fend for themselves and eke out what existence they could along with floods of foreigners displaced from their rightful homes by their mutual conquerors. Never faithful to the Sinai covenant in independence, in captivity these castaways blended what little they remembered and treasured with bits and pieces of the many religions brought to the region by foreigners. Mt. Gerizim, where Jacob’s Well had been dug, became the center of their corrupted but unfailing worship to a God they never knew due to a faded memory of blessings pronounced there and a crumbling altar built by Moses.
The Jews in the Roman region of Palestine were a people of enduring heritage, a nation that had lost their way more often than not but that had retained overall allegiance to the letter of the Sinai covenant. They were a people divided into sects that squabbled over legalities, followed religious rites to the smallest detail, but treated the neediest of their people like scum and used God’s house as a marketplace for the sake of personal convenience. They abhorred and ostracized the corrupted remnants of Israel in the center of the region because that remnant had impure blood and rejected the temple, rather than seeking to redeem them.
When the woman of Sychar met Jesus at Jacob’s Well and questioned Him about the appropriate place of worship, she expected Him to say Jerusalem and harangue her as any “good” Jew would have done. Jesus had a far different answer. Instead, He told her that the time would come when none of the earthly trappings of religion would matter any longer. No longer would there be legally prescribed rituals, God-blessed temples, historical altars, ordained priesthoods, or blood sacrifice. Instead, those who KNEW God and gave their whole hearts over to Him would spend their lives in soul-sourced worship to Him alone. In other words, they would worship in spirit and in truth.
The woman, as ignorant as she was of God, recognized the fulfillment of prophecy when she saw it, and immediately accepted the Messiah and His words. Immediately she sought to know Him and bring others to know Him, and her focus on physical traditions and religious laws vanished. Unfortunately, it was a conversation Jesus, and the apostles and teachers after Him, would have to repeat many times.
Despite having two thousand years to sit with their message and reflect on it, we seem to have stopped short of the transformation seen in the woman of Sychar. Those who claim the name of Christ divide into sects based solely upon legalities in a system no longer defined by laws. Despite abundant scripture and evidence that God created everything about humanity for the express purpose of glorifying Him, each sect insists with great force that worship can only happen in specific places using specific rituals led by specific types of people. Perhaps one group requires great temples, special robes, and prescribed prayers. Perhaps another insists that only the human voice can be used to worship, that worship can only happen in an assigned building but that said building has to be as plain as possible, and that proper reverence excludes any expression of human emotion or any physical comfort. Both approaches, and any approach that seeks to set boxes around worship, reject the words of Jesus Himself.
Like both the corrupted remnant of Israel and the Jewish people, we do not know God. We have replaced Him with our own ideas and preferences and selfishly called those by His name. We cannot truly worship someone that we do not know, no matter how sincerely we may try. If we focus on physical trappings of religion our spirit, our heart, is excluded. Neither the Jews who revered themselves nor the corrupted remnant who lacked information had it right. Neither were prepared for the heart and truth that Jesus revealed through his human life, brutal death, and impossible resurrection. We have had two thousand years of reflection upon their failures. It’s time to accept the truth of freedom in Christ and pour our whole hearts into a life of unending, unselfish worship to our Lord.