Higher and Higher: Mountains of Worship

Rev. Laura Bethany Buchleiter, Union Congregational Church, August 1st, 2021

(sermons published on this site are offered as a resource and should be appropriately cited when used on printed or public presentations.)

2 Kings 17:24-34

24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria in place of the people of Israel; they took possession of Samaria, and settled in its cities. 25 When they first settled there, they did not worship the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land; therefore he has sent lions among them; they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel; he taught them how they should worship the Lord. 29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived; 30 the people of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the people of Cuth made Nergal, the people of Hamath made Ashima; 31 the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also worshiped the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. 33 So they worshiped the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. 34 To this day they continue to practice their former customs. They do not worship the Lord and they do not follow the statutes or the ordinances or the law or the commandment that the Lord commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel. 

John 4:1-301

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4 But he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, “I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” 27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

As I travel the country and get to know people, I find that at least a portion of their personal narrative is tied to their relationship to the land. I spent my first three years of High School living between the James and York rivers in Virginia. I have pretty early memories of crossing the Missori and Mississippi rivers and visiting Niagara Falls as our family traveled. I also remember a lecture from my dad after my sister and mocked the flowing bodies of water that are called “rivers” here in the west, in which he pointed out that the significance of the those rivers were not as much in their size as in the source of life their were to the ancients who lived here and later to the early pioneers and explorers.

I also remember getting pretty defensive of my Blueridge, Smokey and Allegheny mountains whenever someone from out toward the Rockies would visit and say, in a rather condescending tone – “you call that a mountain?” Of course I also found myself questioning what the Hoosiers of Indiana allowed to pass as a “Mountain.” It will be just as interesting to see what Pastor Jenny has to say after her tour of the Holy Lands about the terrain that was the setting for many of the stories we read in the bible referring to Mountains – did the writer’s idea of a mountain compare to our own?

There is a theme that I want to revisit each week as I begin this series looking at mountains of the bible (and the wording of this may change as I continue to study): Our definition of a river depends on how thirsty we are, our perception of a mountain depends on how high we have already climbed, and our sense of awe and wonder depends on how much we have seen and experienced.

Mountains as a Place of Worship – the first hill we are going to climb together in this series will focus on a question posed to Jesus: are we supposed to worship in a city temple or up on a mountain? This is one of my all time favorite stories of the Bible and is also a great example of how understanding the narrative of a community can help us better understand the stories flowing from that community. Many of these ideas came from one of my favorite classes in seminary about the Gospel of John and from a book by our professor, Dr. Jamie Clark-Soles. And if you would like to explore this more, I would be happy to point you to some of these resources.

  1. Don’t believe everything you hear about Mountains
    1. This may come as a shock to you, but people who tell stories about their homeland can sometimes exaggerate – or at the very least the oral traditions can inadvertently bend the facts over time. I have heard several stories about all that Butch Cassidy and his gang did in this region that are neither confirmed or denied in any of the “official” histories I have read. As for this woman that Christ encountered at the well, we have heard many theories passed off as facts about her that may have little grounding in actual history. It was around the 3rd or 4th century that the idea began to circulate that she, and other women associated with Christ, were prostitutes or adulterers – this is reinforced if we take the language of Christ about her alleged 5 husbands literally. Many of us may have been fed a narrative that she was at the well later in the morning because she carried too much shame in the community to be there when all the other women would have been – and perhaps this narrative is helpful. But its not the only way to interpret this story.
    2. These interpretations tend to ignore three significant parts of the story: 1) that she was educated enough to go toe to toe with jesus about the history of her people and their relationship to the Jewish temple 2) She recognized Jesus as a prophet – someone who spoke religious and spiritual truth in metaphor and not just a seer (someone who could discern truths that had not been implicitly revealed) and 3) when she went back to the town in the middle of the day and told people about Jesus, she had enough respect from the people in the town that they actually listened to her.
    3. Our old Testament reading could shed some light on the larger narrative and help us better understand this interaction on the mountain in Samaria.
      1. First, the people of Samaria embodied a blend of religious culture and tradition. While women had a specific place in the temple and synagogue of Jewish culture at the time, it wasn’t indicative of all religious traditions in the region and era of this encounter. It’s conceivable that she was a respected religious leader if not perhaps even a priestess or in some similar post. V. 32 of the 2 Kings reading tells us that “they also worshiped the Lord and appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests of the high places.” Her not having a husband may actually be a function of her role in the community more than any moral failure.
      2. It was Jesus’ response to her declaring that she has no husband that caused her to recognize him as a prophet. It is possible that she knew at that point that there were not talking about men in her life, but the plurality of religious traditions. Again going back to 2 Kings, we see that there were 5 tribes or cultures and religions that came together to influence the Samaritans – Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. And while her current practices might have favored the God of the Jews – one she was now with – they were not really in a covenant relationship or marriage to God – God was not her husband. 
      3. If we allow for the idea that this encounter at the well was no accident on the part of Jesus – he know full well who he wanted to meet and when she would be there – even sending his jewish disciples away so they he could have more open conversation with someone who they might have even recognized as a leader of a sect for who they had no small amount of disdain – it changes the rest of the narrative just slightly. Jesus isn’t revealing the personal sins of a woman who is living her life in shame, he is talking to a gatekeeper of a people who have – for centuries – been on the outside of the central faith of the region – AND inviting them to the inside of what was about to emerge. Part of my growing love for this story is that, as a spiritual leader sitting on the outside of the religious majority, I relate to this woman.
  2. Be careful with the “either or” – so here are two spiritual leaders having a conversation and she poses a question that has been the source of much of the angst between her people and the Jewish establishment: are we supposed to worship here on the mountain or down there in the temple? The biggest take away I have from this part of the conversation is that we need to be very cautious when we present Jesus/God/Creator/Divine with an “either/or” scenario. If we lay out day vs night, God gives us dusk and dawn, if we lay out land and sea animals God answers with frogs and salamanders, if we double down on male and female, God gives us bodies like mine that were created with some of both. She asks if they are to worship on the mountain or in the temple and Jesus says, “Wait for it…you’re thinking too small. It’s not a physical place I desire to meet you but a state of being – one that is not of bricks or rocks but of Spirit – not of traditions or cultures – but of truth. Her question was about to become invalid because the whole paradigm was about to change. 

I’ve often wondered if many of the questions posed by the early church in the book of Acts and the letters of the new testament wouldn’t have been met with the same response: the questions aren’t valid because the paradigm has changed. I think that’s where Peter landed on the notion of eating meat with gentiles and where Paul landed when he said there were no longer slaves or free, jew or gentile, male or female – there was no longer temple or mountain because, through the restoring work of Christ’s death and resurrection, the divinity of God had taken its intended place in the hearts and souls of those created in God’s image. Moving forward worship was a matter of Spirit and Truth.

  1. Let the mountain engage your spirit – finally I would like to leave you with this suggestion: instead of letting your experiences or your relationship to the land define what is or is not a mountain or a river, let your spirit engage the world around you and lead you to what needs to be climbed or crossed. I can only imagine that for so many of individuals Christ encountered who were considered “unclean” by the religious system of the day, the steps of the temple were a formidable peak, for the outcast that found acceptance through baptism, the shallow waters of the Jordan river were as powerful as the wide Missouri or the mighty Mississippi. 

Remember:  Our definition of a river depends on how thirsty we are, our perception of a mountain depends on how high we have already climbed, and our sense of awe and wonder depends on how much we have seen and experienced.

I pray that we can find new depths to our rivers, new heights to our mountains, and new, unexpected experiences of awe and wonder as we continue to grow, as individuals and as a community, into both greater knowledge and the beautiful mystery of God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll Up