By Rev. Tyler Heston, Minister to Youth
Many of us know the story of the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus was traveling with his followers when he paused at a well and met this woman as she came to draw water. Jesus saw not only her bucket but the other things, social burdens, she carried. This woman was unmarried and had an unconventional past. Furthermore, she was Samaritan, part of a group looked down on by their Jewish neighbors. Samaritans were thought to be misled in their religious practices and to be descendants of impure ancestry. Someone like Jesus wasn’t expected to talk to someone like this woman— it astonished Jesus’ own followers (John 4:27). But Jesus saw her for who she was: another human, beloved by God.
During their conversation, the woman asked a question about where one ought to go for proper worship. Jesus responded, “you and your people will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth” (4:21-23). The woman’s question was rooted in one understanding of how the world works. She understood there to be hierarchies of people and places and forms of worship. Jesus’ response challenged that framework; he said that God plays on an even field and that true worship is based not on form or location but “in spirit and truth.”
This year has shown us how to worship in spirit and in truth. Over the past few months, we’ve adjusted our regular rituals of worship and community and have learned to worship in new places and in new ways. Over the past two weeks, we’ve been reminded of the hierarchies imposed onto our society that go against God’s dream that the oppressed might be freed (Luke 4:18). It’s been a challenging few months and a harrowing couple of weeks, yet the Spirit has been showing us that the time is coming— and is here!— in which we worship in spirit in truth.
While a fresh pang of missing Sunday morning worship comes each week, I am grateful for the ways I’ve discovered the sacred spaces in my home— the daybed in my upstairs nook is, too, a pew; the sycamores outside my window tell holy stories along with the stained glass that colors our church sanctuary. Furthermore, we have found ways to spend time together in person through service. These moments have been the pure forms of church: making meal packets for Something to Eat, packing lunches for Cross-Lines, gardening in our front yard together, delivering candles to our church members as a sign that God’s presence is indeed with them in spirit and at home.
And last week, some of us worshipped together with others demonstrating and speaking out against racist violence and injustice in our country. On Friday night, a group of youth and young adults joined together at the Nelson-Atkins Museum to walk over to a peaceable demonstration at the Plaza. Wearing masks and keeping our distance from each other, we marched, led by a minister at Unity Southeast Church and kneeling for a few minutes in honor of George Floyd.
Afterwards, we sat at Mill Creek Park listening to an open mic of speeches and poems from Black neighbors here in Kansas City. We were told stories that showed us the difficult realities of racism in our own city; we heard motivating calls to make a real change; we listened to difficult truths and words of cathartic hope. We found solidarity with people crying out along with God’s spirit that anoints Jesus in Luke 4 to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.
After her encounter with Jesus, the woman at the well overflowed with good news of salvation fit for the whole world (John 4:42). She was filled with joy and hope and shared with others the word of this God who is spirit and of Jesus who teaches of worshipping in spirit and truth. Our lives are getting busier again as restrictions lift, and many of us are finding renewed fervor in our conversations about and work against the social injustice of racism. May we, like this woman, be filled with fresh sight of God’s spirit among us, even and especially in this moment.