This scripture guide is adapted from the Summer Settings sermon guide Mountains II. For more Summer Settings sermon guides, click below.

Summary of the Text

Summary and Themes for Preaching:

Like the Old Testament, the New Testament has plenty of references to mountains.  There’s the Sermon on the Mount, obviously.  Jesus often went onto hills or mountains to pray.  We have Golgotha and the Mount of Transfiguration.  John sets the feeding of the 5,000 on a mountain, as does Matthew with the 4,000.  These feedings pair well with last week’s Elijah passage for at least three major reasons.  First, the crowds around Elijah were hoping for rain so that food could grow, whereas Jesus directly made much food out of little (and had 12 and seven baskets left over, respectively).  Second, Elijah sacrificed a bull after asking God to let Himself be made known, but Jesus simply gave thanks (John) or gave thanks and broke bread (Matthew).  Third, God demonstrated His power to Elijah and others through the dangerous natural processes expected by their pagan neighbors, whereas Jesus demonstrated power subtly and safely through himself.

Still, for this series and its theme, we look at a passage that we might not initially associate with mountains, but which can relate to our world’s common attitudes about worship and about God.  Most pastors have heard the “I find God in nature/the mountains/the seashore/the lake/the journey/etc.” trope from strangers or from their own parishioners (see the Lillian Daniel’s article referenced below), and the woman at the well gives Jesus a first century equivalent of that comment.  After their initial conversation about Jews and Samaritans, living water, and the woman’s romantic exploits (a sly nod to the Samaritans’ history of subjection to conquest, cultural assimilation, and mixed religious practices), the woman posits, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

She had already put her ancestral flag in the ground by pointing out that the well was Jacob’s, and by extension that the land around Sychar was the plot that Jacob gave to Joseph. Now she appeals to antiquity again with the nearby mountain, which presumably predates Jerusalem and the Temple as a place of worship. She may be a loner at the well during the heat of the day (most women went together in the morning) and possibly a bit promiscuous, but she is schooled in Samaritan apologetics. Today she might be at intro-level deconstruction, citing some mix of Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, and Rachel Held Evans while citing the pagan origins of the date of Christmas.

If Pharisees had talked to Samaritans (or women, for that matter) in this kind of way, a typical pharisaical response might have been apologetics in the other direction. God had chosen His own dwelling place, had spoken against high places, had centered worship on Himself, had called the faithful to Himself and returned them even after slavery and then exile, had honored the more consistently faithful (albeit marginally) kings and people of Judah, etc.  This would have been correct, but probably not effective.  She had already pointed out the Jews’ biases and could have pointed out their failures at each step of that process, seizing the ground of a “flawed religion vs. flawed religion” argument. 

Jesus, however, turned the conversation to himself, the present, and the future.  He acknowledges common ancestry in faith (v. 21), includes the rabbinical apologetic point (v. 22), extends an invitation (v. 23), and presents a God-oriented imperative (v. 24).  He leaves room for her hopeful anticipation of a shared savior—she’s still leaving the door open and taking a learner’s posture—and then confirms that he is the one for whom she has been hoping (v. 25-26). 

So, what about mountains?  Well, we go to mountains for their beauty, for the weather, for recreation, or for an invigorating experience.  We may go to get away, or because we do indeed feel a spiritual connection there.  As the preacher in Ecclesiastes would say, “there is nothing new under the sun” about that.  There are a lot of reasons for us to go to the mountains—even worship—but what comes from the mountains?  For Elijah and others in the Old Testament, it was rain and “the thundering of the cataracts” (Ps. 42:7).  For Moses and the Israelites, it was the law and God’s glory under a veil.  With Jesus, it was food, restoration for ministry, and unveiled glory (Transfiguration and 2 Cor. 3). 

Simply from a natural perspective, streams of water should also come down from a mountain…but the woman was at a well.  She may have put a lot of stock in going up that mountain to worship, but she wasn’t getting anything coming back down.  Many of the Jews were the same.  They may have gone to Jerusalem for the festivals, but they would go back home unchanged, right back to their idols or their burden of law-based righteousness and ritual sacrifice.  Even those who had been fed by Jesus may have been hungry by the time they got back home. 

But instead of mountains and what they represented, Jesus offers us Spirit and truth.  They can be with us anywhere—even within us—but they are not simply subjective.  Jesus’s Spirit and truth are his own, so we must go to him for them.  When we return, however, we have bread of life and living water.  We may indeed meet him in the mountains—or at least be more open to meeting him in the mountains—but he’s with us every time we seek what we may think only the mountains can provide.  Recalling Psalm 121 from last week, we may lift up our eyes to the hills, but our help comes from the Lord who walks with us and sits at life’s wells with us.

Going a few years after Jesus and few years before Jacob and Joseph, Paul’s reference to Hagar and Sarah as mountains in Galatians can add some depth to this theme.  It is a complicated passage, but the point is the difference between following flesh and following promise, seeking self and seeking God, trusting law and trusting grace.  Even if it’s too much to add to this sermon, it broadens the context and sharpens the focus.     

Allen Thompson

Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina.  Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.)  His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.

Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music.  He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now.  As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.  

Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).

Sermon Resources

Key Quote

The aforementioned Lillian Daniel article, from the Huffington Post, includes the following gem:

These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Key Illustration

We all Worship Something

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

David Foster Wallace, 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Speech: This is Water.

Additional Sermon Resources