Worship in Spirit
Conversation at a Samaritan Well, Part 2


True worshipers worship in spirit and in truth, Jesus proclaims to the woman at the Samaritan well. Much has been written about the meaning of these words from John 4, which holds Jesus’ only recorded words about the nature of worship. I’ll look at them here through the lens of the unfolding conversation, for its progression offers important clues to Jesus’ intent. (This article focuses on what it means to worship in spirit; the next in this series on the call to worship in truth.)

There's a theme which threads its way through this conversation from beginning to end, and that is identity. It is the Samaritan woman who keeps the issue front and centre. She's subtle at first with this identity concern, so let's not miss it. First, in light of Jews’ and Samaritans’ disdain for one another, she is startled that Jesus even addresses her. Then when he begins to reveal his identity as the giver of living water, she suggests that he could hardly be greater than ‘our father’ Jacob. That may be an allusion to their common ancestry, or it may be a subtle assertion that the Samaritans deserve some honour since they also trace their lineage back to the great patriarch at whose well they now stand.

But what was subtle in the woman's approach comes wide out into the open when she issues Jesus a challenge. “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say it’s necessary to worship in Jerusalem.” Some suggest her question is an act of avoidance, an attempt to skirt around the truth about her personal shame which Jesus has just brought into the open (v.16-18). But Jesus honours her question and there may be more here than what seems apparent at first glance. Perhaps this has been a lingering question for this woman and, recognizing she is in the presence of a holy man, she seizes this opportunity to get it answered. “We worship here, you worship there, who's right anyway?” Differences. Controversy. Somebody's got to have it right. "As a prophet, what do you have to say, sir?" Well Jesus has a lot to say. Let's listen in....

Worship in Spirit

As the conversation at the well unfolds, Jesus' words reveal
four characteristics of worship.

Its location is in the heart
“Believe me, an hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem
you will worship the Father.” (v.21)

Worship is not a matter of place. Nor is it a matter of where you live or what group you belong to. True worship supersedes these minor matters and locates the place of worship in the heart. There is significance too in Jesus’ reference to the Father, which contrasts the woman's preoccupation with ‘our fathers’. While she seems concerned with the differences between the two of them, Jesus looks beyond these differences. His focus is on the One Father, and when our focus is set on him also, traditions, prejudices and differences of all kinds fade into the background.
God's identity, not our own, becomes the important thing.

It unites
“You worship what you do not know; we worship that which we know,
because salvation is from the Jews.” (v.22)

A key word in this statement is ‘from’. It acknowledges that the Jews have been entrusted with knowledge of God, and recalls that they are to use their knowledge to be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3). Jesus shakes up the woman's perspective of exclusivity. He is inclusive and wants her to know that what he offers is also for her, even as a Samaritan ‘outsider’.

It involves the whole person
“The hour is coming, and now is here, when
true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.
These are the kind of worshipers the Father is seeking.” (v.23b)

The Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and in truth. The meaning of these familiar words often eludes us. How often do we go through the motions of worship, thinking we have fulfilled our duty by attending a service or reading a Bible passage or offering up a few prayers on the behalf of others, all without really engaging with God?

God is Spirit and, having been made in his image, we are most fully human, most fully alive, when our spirits are connecting with his. True worship involves engaging spirit with Spirit in loving relationship, and in frequent conversation. To worship in spirit goes beyond singing in church and involves adopting a lifestyle of habitually drawing close, spirit to Spirit, to the One who has made us for himself.

It affirms the centrality of Jesus
“I know that when Messiah comes, he will tell all things to us.”
”I AM, the one who is speaking to you is he.” (v.25-26)

With Jesus’ words swimming around in her head, the woman expresses her hope that Messiah will explain everything when he comes. Jesus declares to her that he is the Messiah. It is very significant that he tells her this, for Jesus rarely asserted this claim openly. Yet to this woman, and to this community of outsiders, he makes his identity known. In a conversation laden with questions of identity, it is fitting that it is here where Jesus first discloses his true identity. He is Messiah, the One who knows who he is, who dares to associate himself with Yahweh, the Ultimate I AM. To worship in spirit, it follows, involves keeping Christ and his identity as the Son of God front and centre.



Part 1
Grace Poured Out
Part 3
Worship in Truth
Spiritual refreshment page

* Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p.38.

Author's note: I wrote this series of meditations following my a course of study in NT Greek. I drew extensively from the English Standard Version which prioritizes a literal rendering of the original language. I also tried to bring across nuances which are often lost in translation because they make for poor English.


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