Recently, a large wealthy church decided to break up with my denomination. I’m not 100 percent sure I know why. But the no-regrets explanation they wrote implied that religious differences between us were too severe for them to stay committed to our relationship.
Religion has a way of making people do extraordinary things to create peace and unity. It also, as we know well, has a destructive capacity to turn people against one another. It can make us grip our convictions so tightly that we choke out their life. We chase others away, then say “Good riddance” to soothe the pain of the separation. Even more alarming, too many religious people insist on isolating themselves and limiting their imagination about where and how God can be known.
All these realities take on a sad irony when we read about God promising to be outside the walls, present with different people in different places. What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place?
Jesus’ Encounter with a Samaritan Woman
The unnamed Samaritan woman who meets Jesus in John 4:5-42 knows something about isolation. Her problem isn’t faith communities who cut and run; it’s husbands who do. Five times she has been either widowed or abandoned. Likely she was infertile, or perhaps too uppity — the passage does not tell us. But neither does it say, even though many interpreters have smugly delighted to assume so, that she was a tramp.
She engages in coy conversation with Jesus; the passage contains more symbolism and play than I can cover in a single post. But notice a couple of topics Jesus raises after he declares he can provide “living” (or fresh, unpolluted) water, water that quenches thirst forever and leads to “eternal life.”
First, he shows his knowledge of the woman’s former husbands and the man now in her life. In doing so, Jesus makes no attempt to shame or judge her. Rather, he expresses intimate knowledge of her pain — the rejection, loss, vulnerability, and impermanence she has had to endure. He sees her, all of her, and he knows her. As a result, she recognizes something special about him.
But he’s not a Samaritan, like she is. His temple resides in Jerusalem; her sacred site is on Mount Gerizim. Their people read different scriptures. Their rival religious traditions make competing claims about who belongs to God and how God can be known. The divisions between her and Jesus appear insurmountable, according to the terms of their contemporaries’ religious debates.
Once she raises the tangled and divisive issue about the parameters of true and false forms of worship, Jesus cuts the knot. Authentic worship happens, he says, not in a specific, designated place but in specific relationships. Authentic encounters with God occur “in spirit and truth.” They occur with Jesus, where he chooses to be, freely roaming among Jews, Samaritans, and the rest of the world.
Jesus’ disclosure about where and how we meet God reframes the whole issue. It’s a change so disruptive, it sounds like the kind of thing the Messiah might bring to pass. The woman senses this.
“I’m glad you mentioned the Messiah,” Jesus seems to say in response. But the words he uses to introduce himself as such are simpler and more stunning: He tells her, “I am.”
Numerous English translations render Jesus’ line as “I am he,” but there is no “he” in the Gospel’s original Greek text. As far as the Gospel of John is concerned, Jesus essentially utters the name of God: “I am.” It’s a name first revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14. Jesus’ point is this: “If you want to know how and where God can be authentically known ... well, I’m right here. Not limited to a temple, but here, dwelling with you, beside this well.”
God Is Out There
In cutting through the debate between Jews and Samaritans about where to worship, Jesus punctures traditions and expectations about the right way to be religious. In Jesus, God shows a commitment to know and to dwell among people. Not only is God present outside the walls; God promises also to be found there.
This scene asserts that God is not confined to churches — neither to architectural structures topped with steeples, to set-apart “sacred” sites, nor to communities of Christians. Therefore, not only is God served or honored by our activity “out in the world,” God is encountered there, in our interactions with friends and strangers.
People of faith ought to leave their churches every now and then — not to abandon their communities or religious institutions, but to venture out in expectation that God will appear in a different setting. This passage in John 4 gives no support to views that say a person must come inside a church’s walls and traditions to meet God. It speaks against any community that shields itself from the mysteries of a God who operates freely in all sorts of places, not exclusively on this particular mountain or in that specific temple.
When a pastor takes up residence in a tent city, dwelling with people to share fully in their needs, he provides a tangible expression of God’s presence. He makes a bold statement that God can be found in person-to-person interactions. He meets God there. The ground he and the other residents occupy is no less sacred than the interior of a church sanctuary. In fact, it could be even more so.
Rev. Steve Brigham founded “Tent City,” a community of people who lost their homes during the recession.
If God is not confined to churches, or to gatherings of like-minded individuals, then we may need to reassesswho God is and what a life of faith looks like. A God encountered outside the walls, encountered “in spirit and truth,” must be a God who dwells among flesh and blood. No grumpy old man in the sky who refuses to take us and our disappointments seriously, no dispassionate supercomputer-like mind that cannot be affected by love and rejection or progress and loss — this is a God we risk losing sight of if we cut ourselves off from our neighbors and if we define too tightly the terms of what it means to belong to “God’s people.”
Jesus insists that God has come to be with us. All of us. And this God will stay.
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible's potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the free site EnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book is The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.