Destroyer of religion. Not a title you hear associated with Jesus very often. In fact, many believe he is the founder of the religion known as Christianity. I beg to differ. Upon closer examination, it becomes quite clear that contrary to popular opinion, Jesus was more about destroying anything resembling institutional religious practice of all kinds than simply replacing one religion with another.
There are many places to look in Jesus life for his attitude and actions toward religion, however possibly the most illuminating situation was his encounter with the woman at the well in John chapter 4. First, some background information which is vital to understanding what is going on.
This occurred in Samaria in a town called Sychar which was important to the Jews since Jacob had given a plot of ground to his son Joseph near this town.
Notwithstanding the importance of this area, in Jesus day Jews never went through Samaria because they detested Samaritans for a number of reasons:
- When the nation of Israel split into two kingdoms (Israel and Judah), Samaria was declared the capital of the northern kingdom (Israel) while Jerusalem was the capital of the southern kingdom (Judah). These kingdoms were often at war with one another and clearly did not like each other.
- The northern kingdom of Israel did not worship in the temple in Jerusalem and set up their own centre for worship at Mount Gerazim. Furthermore, they only accepted the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as inspired. Both were considered heresy to the orthodox, temple based Jews in Jerusalem.
- Once the kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians, the Israelites began to intermarry with the Assyrians and became “half-breeds” through the process. Hence the derogatory term – Samaritans.
The eventual result of all of the above was a community of religious heretic half-breeds who pious Jews would not associate with and would go out of their way not to travel through Samaria because of it. Enter Jesus, who not only had no problem traveling through Samaria but regularly made Samaritans the righteous stars of his parables. In fact, our story in John 4 opens with this statement “Now he had to go through Samaria.” (John 4:4). Why?
In traveling through Samaria, Jesus was intentionally challenging the existing mindset of the dominant religion (Judaism) of his people as it related to their attitude towards Samaritans. However, he didn’t stop there. When arriving in Sychar, he was hungry and thirsty and after sending his disciples into town to buy food, he approached a well and began talking to a Samaritan woman. Not only was he traveling through Samaria, to make matters worse he was interacting with a Samaritan and even more scandalous, a woman. Everything about this interaction would be greatly offensive to the religious mind of the day. Destroyer of religion indeed.
You may have heard teaching or preaching from this passage which focuses on the woman being at the well at mid-day which likely meant she was ostracized from her own community due to her loose morals. This was not a typical time to come for water but would be a good time to go if you didn’t want to interact with your neighbours who likely came in the early morning. Other aspects of typical teaching from this passage focus on the woman becoming an evangelist after her encounter with Jesus as she runs into the town to tell everyone about him. Both are interesting takes on the encounter but not where I’d like to focus. Regardless of what we take out of this encounter, it is clear that as it progresses the subject eventually comes to the big concepts of religion. What is of particular interest along this theme is this exchange:
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (spoken by the woman)
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:20-24)
To tie this back to the background on the Samaritans, the woman was saying that her people worshiped on Mount Gerazim but the Jews claim the only legitimate place to worship is in the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus response is shocking. He essentially says that while the Samaritans may be worshiping in ignorance and that the Jews may be worshiping with the certainty of knowledge, neither are correct. The day has come when true worshipers will not worship based on place or certain religious knowledge or practice. God is spirit and true worship has nothing to do with place, rules or who is in and who is out. It was no accident that he chose to deliver this message in a community of half-breed heretics to an immoral woman in an everyday public place. This entire encounter was spiritual dynamite to religion. Ka-boom!!
The encounter ends with the woman so taken aback that she attempts to defer this revelation to sometime in the future by saying “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you–I am he.” (John 4:25-26)
Nice try. There is no deferring this radical change. Religion has been destroyed and the Messiah, the destroyer of religion, is present to do the deed. Tie this together with the veil of the temple being torn during Jesus death on the cross and his cry “It is finished”. Traditional teaching is that his work and mission were finished. Is it possible there is an even deeper meaning? Had religion also been finished by the only one who could do it – Messiah, Immanuel, God with us, the Destroyer of Religion?
For further information on our perspectives on Christianity as a cultic religion see: