In last week’s Gospel reading we heard about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5-42). It is packed with several important themes. Jesus meets the woman “where she is” and brings her to truth. Jesus does not avoid an encounter with this lost lamb, loves her, but does not accept her sinfulness. (At this point I could easily go “off the rails” about sin not being a matter of opinion or tolerance thereof not a good thing!) Through her conversion and witness, many others are brought to the truth.
If you are Catholic, your priest probably spoke of this at length in his Sunday homily. You may have read one of the many good reflections on it. I would like to briefly reflect on something Jesus said almost in passing (verse 22): “You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.”
The Samaritans (shamerim meaning “observant”) were not ungodly people. They were in fact, schismatic Jews. They followed the law of Moses (in some ways even more strictly) and accepted the Torah as dogmatic but believed their Jewish bretheren had become apostate. Yet, compared to other religions of the day, you could say Samaritans and Jews both believed the same “important stuff.”
Being separate from the Jews meant divergence. The Samaritans no longer had the true temple in Jerusalem but their own on Mount Gerazim which they were convinced was the true one. Intermarrying with pagans, they incorporated their beliefs through compromise. Truth was not unchanging.
While imperfect, this strikes me as analogous to today’s schism of Protestantism from Catholicism. We have much in common, but by schism much is lost or imperfectly understood. New beliefs evolve continuously among our separated Protestant brethren (e.g. on contraception, divorce, abortion, understanding homosexuality, roles of men and women, and much more). Having separated themselves from the “temple” of Sacred Tradition and Magisterium, a replacement was needed and found in the invention of sola scriptura (Protestant “Mount Gerazim”).
The Samaritans were not necessarily destined for damnation, only that being separated from the fullness of truth, their path was more problematic, difficult and uncertain. Missing parts of the faith handed-on by the prophets, and the introduction of error, hampered their journey. So it is with Protestantism, in all its diverse and contradictory forms.
In Jesus, we have a new and everlasting covenant. Neither the Samaritan nor Jewish temples are important as Jesus said in verse 21: “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”
God’s path until that time however was not vague, multiple paths, or even one of “similar beliefs.” While it was certainly imperfect (is that ever an understatement), none-the-less God’s path was Judaism as Jesus continued “You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews.”
Judaism is now fulfilled in Christ and His Church. It is one, visible, and the full faith handed-on by the Apostles. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus — outside the Church there is no salvation. As the Samaritans were Jews, but imperfectly – Protestants too are in Christ’s Church.
Truth matters. It does not change nor is it relative. “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” (verses 23 and 24)
So, where can we find the truth? Is it in the Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Adventist, “non-denominational” or other denomination from Catholicism? They are not the same, with core beliefs that differ significantly (such as understanding what Christ taught, how to be saved or knowing God’s will). Maybe the truth is a private matter, one you discern exclusively from reading the Bible for yourself. In that case your understanding will be personal, private, unique to yourself — and contain a lot of error. On the plus side, it will say what you want it to say. Perhaps you are one of those folks who do not need “organized religion.” You have a “personal relationship with Jesus” and that is all you need. In that case, you are half right (the first half).
Is truth really important? Jesus seems to think so (and says so over and over and over again). Maybe that is just His opinion.