“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Last week, we met Nicodemus. That is, he came one night and met Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and apparently a successful businessman. This week, we read that Jesus met an unnamed woman of Samaria, of the village of Sychar. She was drawing water in the middle of the day, at a time when encounters with other women of the village would be least likely. A person from a more opposite situation in life than that of Nicodemus could probably not be found. But Jesus found her. And she met Jesus.
God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and truth. Her journey was quite different from that of Nicodemus. Her starting point grew from a totally different world. She was well-versed in matters of faith from the perspective she shared with others of Samaria. Still, God sought her and found her and invited her to faith through one of the deepest, most extended theological discussions in Scripture.
We believe Jesus and give our lives to God as we worship Him in spirit and truth. The story of the woman at the well shapes our faith in ways the story of Nicodemus does not. We often get entangled in various challenges to worship. These things short-circuit our worship of God in spirit and truth. This story clarifies at least five challenges to worship in spirit and truth.
Lord, lead us to worship in spirit and truth. Amen.
What are some challenges to our worship in spirit and truth?
Water of Unity
Jesus had asked this woman for some water. She protested. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. Didn’t He know how inappropriate this was? Samaritans and Jews do not deal with one another. The first matter is this life-giving water which washes away our prejudice. Divisive thinking and acting short-circuits worship.
Muslims and Christians, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, our binary distinctions keep us comfortably separate and clearly decided on who is who. The truth that one God created all of us often fails to change our minds. Too often, the spirit of grace fails to persuade us to share that same spirit of grace with others.
God challenges our divisiveness through group-expanding metaphors such as water from the well. The request for water from Jacob’s well, Jesus turned into an offer for a gusher of spiritual water renewing and giving life to the soul. This water washes away the distinction between Jew and Samaritan. This water satisfies our deepest thirst. The currents of this water carry us into an everlasting age of life without the pains of exclusion.
Husbands and Others
The woman asked for some of this spiritual water and to be cleansed by its truth. Jesus countered with the request that she go get her husband. This brings up the matter of relationship. Broken relationships short-circuit worship.
She admitted that she “currently” had no husband. Jesus clarified that indeed, she had had five husbands and that she was not married to her current companion.
She presumed He must be a prophet to have knowledge of all this truth. How could He know, otherwise? More perplexing is the lack of condemnation from Jesus. He simply declared the reality of her broken relationships with a spirit of grace. Jesus offered no particular blame. Nor did He suggest she get married now, or reconcile to the first one, or whatever.
While it might be important that the woman recognize Jesus as a prophet, I doubt that that was even the point. God challenges our brokenness by leading us to deal with failing and failed relationships. When we face the truths of our lives God opens a spirit of grace which convicts and consoles and challenges.
To the challenge, she abruptly shifted the conversation. But she was brought face to face with perhaps her greatest need, fulfilling her desire to be in relationship with someone to love and by whom to be loved.
My Mountain of Sacrifice
By calling out her need, Jesus moved the conversation to the next level. When you start touching upon a person’s deepest needs and desires they begin to think about ultimate matters such as who God is and how you worship Him. Is He the God whose anger must be soothed or the God whose grace can be received? Thinking of God as retributive rather than restorative short-circuits our worship in spirit and truth.
God challenges our worship by calling us away from worship based on our particular place and practice of punitive sacrifice. First, she focused on place. “Our mountain, in Samaria, is the only right place to worship.” So many substitutes for the mountain come to mind: our church, our denomination, our doctrine, our color, our … you fill in the blank. Most importantly, the mountain signified a place of sacrificial ritual, the spilling of blood.
Jesus did not take the bait. She framed her argument in opposition to the position of the Jews who approved only Jerusalem as the place of worship. Jesus spoke an immediate and comprehensive answer filled with the spirit of love and profound truth. Jesus said, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Beyond the exclusionary constraints of place or any of its substitutes or the spilling of blood, God bids us worship Him in spirit and truth. Whether Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, we maintain our mountains as places to sacrifice. We develop and maintain places to shed blood in hopes of keeping the peace. The invitation to worship God in spirit and truth erases our presumed need for continued blood offering. Rather now, as Paul said in Romans 12, we present our bodies as living sacrifices!
The spirit is one of openness; it’s not my mountain or your mountain—neither is the point. The truth invites the immediate and living response of our lives in praise and adoration. The truth refuses to embrace bloody scapegoating and retribution and wrath and fear.
Waterpots, Carry-out, and Witness
The story then pivots on the moment when Jesus admitted to being the Messiah, the Christ. The woman claimed that she knew the Messiah was coming and would help us understand everything. In response, “Jesus said, to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (John 4:26). Jesus revealed this truth because He was already busy doing the will of the Father who sent Him. He was bringing to harvest a dear lady with troubled relationships. He was revealing how God was working in and through Him.
About this time the disciples returned from their mission to find food. Interrupted by the disciples, the woman left her water-pot and headed into town. The truth she took back into the village was far more important than a pot of water. She proclaimed the possibility that the Christ was nearby.
Meanwhile, Jesus refused to eat the carry-out. Rather, Jesus schooled the disciples on how ripe for harvest the souls of the people were. The value and readiness of souls changes the spirit of our work.
We witness of so many things. We get excited about our ball teams, and we should. March even goes into a madness over playoffs. We have “spirit.” In a spirit of excited witness we may point to our church, our pastor, our doctrines, our politics. Here is the challenge. The woman did none of this. She pointed to Jesus. He claimed to be the Christ.
Our misguided witness to our pet projects and ideologies short-circuits worship. It is as harmful as failing to witness at all. Both hurt worship. God challenges us to witness that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, the One anointed to save the world. We have no other message to offer. This singular focus enables and guides our worship.
Then, the Samaritans offer a final shaping of our worship in spirit and truth. A measure of the effectiveness of worship is the extent to which others begin to hear and respond to that word of grace which moved us. Walking through faith in another person’s steps short-circuits worship. With Jesus, each of us can walk on his or her own. Indeed, it is incumbent on us to so walk.
As exciting as it is for the pastor to lead someone to Christ or to prompt a spiritual breakthrough in someone’s life, it excites the pastor beyond measure to see disciples begin to hear God for themselves and to grow in faith without being spoon-fed. The Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and because they began hearing from Christ, Himself.
Perhaps we’ve read this verse as a put down to the woman. Now I see it as the ultimate goal of any Christian leader. “[A]nd they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42, emphasis added).
We worship in spirit and truth as God convinces us of His great truth through the power of His Spirit. Then we begin to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world. Will you join in listening and hearing and sharing and worshiping in spirit and truth? Amen.