A Matter of Location
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 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 is seeking such people 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 (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
When the Samaritan woman asks this question she is likely doing two things: 1. deflecting the conversation off of her personal situation of having 5 husbands and currently living with someone who was not her husband, and 2. attempting to settle a long-standing theological debate, which at least indicates she has identified Jesus as a prophet and rabbi.
The debate between Jews and Samaritans regarding the proper location of worship between Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem was a long standing, and very heated dispute. The differences rested largely in the different texts each of the viewed as authoritative. The Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch (Gen-Deut) as being authoritative, while the Jews accepted the rest of the OT cannon as authoritative. In the Pentateuch, Shechem, the city the shadow of Mt. Gerizim was where Abraham first built an altar after coming into the land (Gen. 12:6-7). It is also where the blessings of the covenant were shouted to the community when they first entered the promised land (Deut. 11:29-30; 27:2-7, 12; Josh 8:33). So the Samaritans built their temple at the base of Mt. Gerizim. The Jews obviously built their temple in Jerusalem and had worshipped there for centuries at this point.
Jesus settles the debate but not as she, or anybody, would have expected. He basically says the debate is obsolete. Location of worship no longer matters. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of that statement for ancient religious cultures. All of their worship practices revolved around the temple, the location in which God’s presence dwelt. The loss of the temple in the exile was catastrophic to the faith. The significance to the location of worship in the minds of people is indicated as well by how fiercely Christians have held to this idea even after Jesus. The crusades were, at least in part, indicative of the significance Jerusalem held in the minds of Medieval Christians. Even today many Christians view the church building as a necessary location of worship (the pandemic has at least helped to dissolve that bad theology).
When Jesus says “the hour is coming” in John’s gospel, according to Carson, it always refers to the events surrounding his death, resurrection and ascension. The crucifixion of Jesus then, renders the location of worship obsolete. When Jesus says that the time is now here he means that he himself is now here (on earth) and his ministry currently in action will culminate in his death and resurrection.
Is your concept of worship too tied to a location? The church building is great, allowing us to gather together as a whole church, it is an incredibly useful space, but according to Jesus is it not necessary for worship. Apart from logistics, how would your sense of worship be changed without a church building?