“Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (John 4:21): A Reflection on the Closure of Churches in the Face of COVID-19.
This was a response I got from a friend concerning the directive to lock up church buildings, as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. The Coronavirus pandemic has obviously got a lot of people thinking about what being the body of Christ entails today in the midst of this virus crisis. This discussion was particularly initiated after governments of various nations directed the suspension of all public non-essential gatherings, including religious services, as a way to check and restrain the escalation of the virus infection. I have engaged a lot of people in conversation, who are particularly devasted by this directive to lock up church buildings and not celebrate Masses/Services publicly even on Sundays. This article addresses the question: in the absence of a building which houses the people of God and provides a comfortable and conducive atmosphere for worship, prayer, and other services, can we still pray and worship God effectively? My insights are drawn from a particular statement of Jesus to the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, and from the life of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles.
Insights from Jesus’ encounter with the Woman of Samaria in John 4
The Gospel of John 4:1–42 relates the beautiful encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. In verse 21, Jesus exhorts the woman thus: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (NRSV). The expression, “believe me” here indicates that Jesus is going to pass on something significant. It serves as an alternative to the frequent use of “amen, amen I say to you.” Usually, “the hour” in John’s narrative refers to the “Hour” of glorification of Jesus—the passion, death and resurrection. However, as Raymond Brown asserts, without the definite article (erchatai hōra—an hour is coming), or a possessive, “hour” in John is not necessarily the hour of glory. As used here, “hour” could be a reference to a time in the future, in the time beyond the crucifixion and resurrection.
This statement from Jesus is in response to the woman’s remark about the place of worship according to Jewish or Samaritan tradition. The Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was the place designated by God for worship (see Deut 11:26–30; 27:1–13; Josh 8:30–35). They once had a temple on the mountain which was near Sychar (Shechem), where this story takes place. For the Jews, the Jerusalem Temple was the place of worship. Hence Jews regularly would come to Jerusalem for worship and sacrifice (cf. Acts 2:5; cf. Luke 2:41; John 11:55). Jesus, however, had indicated that the temple of his body will replace the Temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13–25). In this encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus reiterates that contention.
Jesus’ statement to the woman clearly asserts that worship of God is not about venues, sites, or structures. Thus, he says: “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (NRSV). Worship will be in Spirit and truth (John 4:23–24). The statement does not underscore the relevance of the Temple, or any place of worship; it does, however, stress the point that such places do not make the worship more efficacious or more pleasant before God. Jesus’ statement suggests that while the designated places of worship are important, they are not the only places where God can be worshipped. In fact, the statement asserts that the hour is coming when worship will have to be outside the designated sites – “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” What these words clearly state is that the buildings or sites do not make the worship; the people do, and true worshippers worship in Spirit and in truth. Worship happens where the people are.
Insights from the early believers in the Acts of the Apostles.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the author gives us an account of how the early followers of Jesus survived through a period of physical restrictions on account of faith and how the mission expanded despite the hard conditions. The following texts are representative examples.
To begin with, after the healing of the cripple at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:1–10), Peter gives a thought-provoking sermon (vv. 11–26) which brings about five thousand people to faith in Jesus (4:4). This arouses the anger of the officials who had Peter and John put in custody. Following their release from custody, Peter and John “went to their own” (v. 23, ēlthon pros tous idious) in a particular home and together they raise their hands in prayer (Acts 4:23–31). What is fascinating about this particular assembly of the followers of Jesus is that the place of meeting is not the Temple (cf. 3:1) or a particularly designated worship centre, but a Christian home. The prayer also indicates that the believers would not give up in the face of crises. First,
they pray, neither for judgement on those who are persecuting them nor to avoid persecution but for their own strength and enablement in the midst of the persecution. Second, they pray to be able to preach the message boldly, not to cower in fear of the social and political power the leaders possess but to be faithful to God, who is the true sovereign, following Jesus’ instruction in Luke 12:4–7.
Interestingly, the private home (of one of the believers) becomes the place of prayer and praise in that circumstance.
Furthermore, Luke writes that while Peter was being held in prison (Acts 12:6–17), the body of believers met in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, to pray. That particular home becomes the building that housed the believers, the body of Christ, at that particular moment. As Bock indicates, the early believers “recognize that their rejection was something to be anticipated, and they accept it with praise.” Hence, in the midst of the persecution, nothing changes in the activity and attitude of the early believers. Rather, as Acts 5:42 points out, whether they were in the Temple or they were at home, they used the same opportunity to proclaim the name of Jesus (cf. Acts 5:28–29, also 40). As a matter of fact, the place is “insignificant in light of the community’s relationship to God and the enablement God can give to them.” What matters is the Spirit within. Wherever they were (in the Temple, at home, in the home of a fellow believer, or on the streets), they remained the body of Christ, the church.
Similarly, in Acts 16:16–40, Paul and Silas are reported as being physically locked up under chains in prison. For these believers, though physically restricted, spiritually, they are comfortable. As Tertullian says: “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” So while still under severe lock and check, Paul and Silas lift up their hands in praise to worship God (v. 25). Though far away from the encouraging presence of their fellow believers, they still acknowledge the fact that they are members of the body of Christ. They did not allow their confinement to deprive them of their service to God; so, they turn the prison walls, and particularly their cells, into the “church building” where they freely worship and praise God.
The evidence above shows that the early Christians understood Jesus’ words and so when the Temple was no longer available to them, they responded by forming communities and fellowship among themselves straightaway: families praying together (Acts 10:24; 16:15, 31–34); congregating and praying in homes of members (Acts 4:23–31; 20:7–17); and they celebrated the Lord’s Supper in private homes (1 Cor 11:1–34), what biblical scholars call house churches. The absence of the Temple was not a source of worry; believers in Jesus were now the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). Thus, the church (the body of the followers of Jesus) began not in a grand building or a fanciful auditorium, but in the simplicity and intimacy of private homes, fulfilling the words of Jesus that the moment was coming when they had to worship God not on the mountain nor in Jerusalem but in sincerity of hearts, wherever they were at any given moment.
We see the freedom to gather anywhere again in Acts 16:11–15 when Paul and his companions ministered to some women by the river. As Luke narrates it, Paul and his companions went outside the city gate of Philippi by the river, on a Sabbath day, hoping to find a place of prayer. They ended up sitting down by the river and preaching to the women who had gathered there. The meeting bore fruits: Lydia and her household were baptised and became believers. This is another example which indicates that it is not about sites and buildings; true worship in Spirit and truth can happen wherever you are. In this context, the riverside became the place of prayer for which Paul and his companions were searching.
In Light of the Above
With the closure of church buildings/auditoriums today and believers being asked to study the Scriptures, worship God, and pray from their homes (for the time being), can we hear the echo of the words of the Lord to the woman of Samaria?—“believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” Could this be one of those hours? Like the early believers, are we being called upon to seize every opportunity wherever we are to proclaim the name of Jesus (Acts 5:42)? What this implies is that even if we are unable to go to our church building for Service or for Mass right now, in the privacy of our homes, the Lord awaits our worship.
As we learned, worship was closely linked to a sacred place, hence the Samaritan woman’s reference to the temple built on Mount Gerizim to rival the Temple at Jerusalem. Even after the destruction of the temple on Mount Gerizim, the Samaritans continued to worship on the mountain. Hinging on the woman’s remarks, Jesus makes a profound statement—he turned the emphasis from the place of worship to the object of worship. And so, whenever and wherever two or three of us come together, Jesus is with us (Matt 18:20). God is giving us a great opportunity to take our church experiences to our homes; for God is with us in our home churches. No human agent, condition, situation, or creature can cut us off from Christ, or lock Christ out of our lives and make him inaccessible to us (Rom 8:35-39); nor can anyone or circumstance make us disconnected from each other (cf. 1 Cor 5:3). Let us rejoice that this pandemic has helped us to have a taste of the experience of the early followers of Jesus when they had to worship from their homes. It is, in fact, a privilege to share in this experience and a return to our gospel roots. As we enter into our inner rooms, into the depth of our hearts, and pray to God as families (cf. Matt 6:5–6), may this help to revive, renew, and deepen our personal intimacy with Jesus.
Back to the beginning. We are called to gather together as a worshipping community to praise and worship God (Matt 18:20; Acts 1:14; 2:41–42), as one people (John 17). This is the ideal form of community worship. But when this coming together in our church buildings or worship centres proves really difficult or impossible, like the situation we are in at the moment, we are not discouraged; for we remember Jesus’ exhortation that this is bound to happen and that we can still worship God from the privacy of our homes, like the early Christians did in the first Christian churches. We know that the source of our strength as a church is the gathering where we express our identity in word and sacrament in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But, presently, let us draw strength from God who, in Jesus, is Emmanuel (Matt 1:23; cf. 28:20—"I am with you always, to the end of the age,” NRSV). Let us draw strength from God who, in the Spirit of truth, abides with you and is in you (John 14:17). Let us draw strength from the Word of God which is alive and active (Heb 4:12). Let us draw strength from one another (even though remotely), for iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). Let us also borrow strength from the future when we will gather again—a bit like those imprisoned for their faith. Let us harbour what we have, treasure our gift of faith and long for that day when we can, again, celebrate freely.
As someone remarked, we are the church and no human being can close or lock up that church except ourselves. In praying in the silence of our homes, with our loved ones, and/or connecting with others via online media chats or video/audio calls, and not allowing the situation to dampen our spirit, the church will have triumphed over COVID-19. This whole exercise reminds us all to be church not only on Sundays but being church in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Against such worshipers, there can be no locked churches.
Rev Dr Francis
Innocent Otobo is a
lecturer in New Testament at Yarra Theological Union, a member College of the
University of Divinity, Melbourne. He is also the Parish Priest of St Michael’s
Church, Traralgon, Victoria.
 This article draws attention only to Jesus’ words in v 21.
 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to John, 2nd Edition (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1978), 236. For the expression “amen, amen I say to you …,” see John 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19; 6:32, 47, for example.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, I—XII, AB (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 172. Brown however indicates that it may refer also to the hour of glory here. According to D. Moody Smith, “John,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, ed. James L. May (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1988), 964, the expression “the hour is coming and now is” probably means that “the hour is future from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry and present to the Johannine church and readers of the Gospel,” cf. John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1 for instance, for “hour” with definite article or possessive case.
 Barrett, The Gospel According to John, 236. Cf. also John 5:28; 16:2, 4, 25, where “hour” is used with the present tense of erchomai.
 They continued to use this mountain in northern Palestine for worship even after the destruction of their temple by Hyrcanus (c. 128 BCE). See Barrett, The Gospel According to John, 236.
 Peter F. Ellis, The Genius of John (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1984), 71.
 Here, the focus shifts from the place of worship to the manner of worship. The Spirit is the Spirit of God, whom verse 24 clearly describes as Spirit. As Brown shows, one could almost regard “Spirit and truth” as equivalent to “Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). See Brown, The Gospel According to John, 180.
 Of course, Jews also congregated in the synagogues for the reading of the Law and the Prophets. This practice continued after the destruction of the Temple. Some Christians, for example Paul, also attended the synagogues (Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1-2), but to preach the Christian message.
 D. J. William, Acts (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 79, argues that the total number of the followers of Jesus at this time is five thousand, and not that there were five thousand people converted on this day. Darrell Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 188, however, points out that this is possible, but less likely. That is, according to Bock’s suggestion, the number five thousand could be a reference to the number converted on that day. In my opinion, Johnson’s suggestion captures the point: that what is important here is not the actual number, but the evidence of substantial growth among the believers in Jesus. See Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 76.
 Bock, Acts, 202.
 Bock, Acts, 202.
 Bock, Acts, 202.
 As cited in Bock, Acts, 540.
 Luke typically shows the disciples turning to prayers in times of crises, in imitation of Jesus (see Luke 3:22; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 10:21-22; 11:1; 18:1-8; 22:31, 41-46; 23:46; Acts 1:14; 2:42, 47; 4:23-31; 6:4; 7:60; 9:11; 10:2, 9; 12:12; 13:2-3). See Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 300.
 Donald Guthrie, “John,” in New Bible Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson et al., (Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 1994), 1034.