Leaving the Church to Find God

 John 4:5-26

What are some specific places or activities that cause you to feel the presence of G-d?

Where or when is God especially absent from you?

 

Where do we think that God or the Divine or the Great Spirit or the Eternal Consciousness is?

Here?
[Sikh Gurdwara]
gurdwara

 Or here? [Hindu deities]
twindeities

Or here? [Mosque]
mosqueprayer

Or here? [Buddhist meditation]
WonFullMeditationCircle

 Or here? [La Sagrada Familia, Spain]
sagradaoutside

Or here? [nature]
NICA2 toucan CR1

Or here? Where you currently are…

Where and when we think that the Divine is present matters. Usually, it is in a building, a structure, a religious site supposedly constructed for the purpose of experiencing the Divine—whatever we call it—G-d, Jehova, Elohim, Allah, Brahma, the Eternal Consciousness, the Great Spirit…

What I learned last week as I visited seven different religious communities is that the Divine is definitely contained and limited by us.

Religion certainly can inspire and organize people to do amazing things that bring about peace and unity and justice. But religion, because of its limitations of the Divine, can also be so destructive that it turns people against one another—even leading to violence and killing and war.

Religion, in its extreme form, can limit our views and cause us to hold on to many prejudices and convictions that separate us from others.
It can isolate people and limit their imagination and creativity.
Religion can lead people to claim that they know where G-d is and where G-d is not.

But somehow this Divine Being or Eternal Consciousness we call G-d claims to live outside of walls, outside of religions, a G-d completely present with all kinds of people in many different places. G-d says no to restrictions.

Philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote: God is inescapable. God is God only because God is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God.

G-d is inescapable, not limited to buildings or even religions.

And this idea is promoted in the Gospel of John: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Talk about an encounter with someone outside of your comfort zone—this was it. Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was not a Samaritan. Jesus’ “people” and her “people” did not like each other and thought each other’s religions were false. Jesus’ religious temple was in Jerusalem and her religious site was on Mount Gerizim. They both read different scriptures. Their two religious traditions both made competing truth claims about G-d. The divisions seemed to be too much to overcome, right?

But unlike John’s story about Nicodemus, another character who encountered Jesus, the Samaritan woman meets with Jesus during the day—not at night. And unlike Nicodemus, a prominent Sanhedrin member [religious elite], the Greek rendering of Samaritan woman is like a double negative. She was powerless in society.

She doesn’t even get a name in the story.

What she gets instead is living water.

What is that? In her case, a new identity in life. No person [much less a Rabbi], had ever made her feel that she was fully human. In John’s Gospel, the word salvation is not about saying some words and “getting saved” by joining some religion. In this Gospel, salvation is being delivered from something that holds you back.
In her case, she was delivered from the limitations placed on her life.

But…

As I mentioned before, our religions [and our G-d-buildings] often prevent us from experiencing the Divine at all. Our religious limitations also lead us to prejudice, misunderstanding, and misconceptions. So it still was for the woman.

She was still caught up in the where of G-d’s presence. Wasn’t the Divine limited to a certain mountain? Jesus’ response is liberating, I think:

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know…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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

All well and good, Jesus. But her religious traditions were so strong that she still was convinced that the Divine presence was limited to the future coming of a messiah.

Jesus responds, but he doesn’t say I am he.
He says simply:
I AM.

G-d is here. In this moment. You don’t have to wait for some messiah, you don’t have to run to some mountain or some temple—the Divine is here with you. The Divine is not limited to a certain space or even a certain time.

The Divine just is.

I don’t know what names you give to the Divine. I’m not sure where you think G-d resides. Truthfully, all of us around the world give different answers.

That’s okay, actually.
What we cannot do, though, is to insist that the Divine is surely in our churches or in our temples. What we cannot do is to claim that our religious buildings and traditions have more G-d in them than others. All the symbols, buildings, icons, and traditions that we create are simply meant to be reminders that the Divine is with us. That’s all. But they don’t contain or limit the experience of the Divine.

That’s why sometimes you will have to leave the church to find G-d. I am serious about this.

You will benefit from walking away from stained glass and pews and crosses and all that is familiar and religious to you. The Divine can be found and experienced all around you—sometimes in other people’s temples and places of prayer; other times outside amongst trees and birds and flowing water; or when you sit down with strangers or friends and share good food; or when life is heavy and sad and someone shows you compassion; or in a breath, a sunrise, a smile, a merciful act.

Let’s stop limiting the Divine to only what we know or think we know.
Recognize that religion is something that we humans come up with in order to give some cultural form to faith in a G-d we cannot see.

But if the Divine is a presence we believe to be merciful, loving, and universal—then the Divine cannot be limited to our spaces, times, and cultures.

May this impact how you live.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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