“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
What do Mount Olympus, Mount Sinai, and Mount Fuji have in common? They are considered by many different people to be sacred places of worship. The same is true for sanctuaries, temples and cathedrals: there is something special about ‘sacred’ places which seem to make it easier or more conducive for people to ‘worship’.
The popularity and prevalence of sacred mountains and temples was also true when Jesus was on earth. The Bible records a conversation he had with a woman from Samaria. She said:
“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 4:20)
The Samaritan lady said that her people regarded the mountain as the best place for worship. (She was probably pointing to either Mount Ebal or Gerizim which were, and are, located on either side of Samaria.) Jews, on the other hand, regarded the Temple in Jerusalem to be the more sacred place for worship.
Jesus offered her (and us) a larger understanding of worship. “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” (John 4:21)
Jesus does not want us to think of worship as best done only in ‘sacred’ places. He envisages a day when true worship is not linked to some ‘sacred’ location or getaway. Jesus invites us to think of how true worship can (and should) be offered in ‘secular’ or more mundane locations in life. In bedrooms and boardrooms, in schools and offices, in buses and trains, on highways and streets. Everywhere and anywhere.
But what kind of worship can this be?
It must be a kind of worship that is not dependent on lighting candles or singing with organ accompaniment. There is nothing necessarily wrong with those. But Jesus speaks of a worship that does not need these special or sacred surroundings. It is worship in the spirit, and from our hearts and spirits, for “God is Spirit” (John 4:24). It is worship that, to borrow John Wesley’s phrase in his sermon entitled ‘Spiritual Worship’, is “the happy and holy communion which the faithful have with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.
Let’s learn to enjoy this “happy and holy communion” as we talk and pray (in other words, commune) with God, not just in sacred spaces, but anywhere and everywhere, all of the day and every day.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
The Rev Dr Gordon Wong was elected President of Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) in 2012 for the quadrennium. He has been a Methodist pastor for 28 years, and was a lecturer at Trinity Theological College since 1995.