17 min. to read.
Jesus’ conversation with the outsider woman at the well in Samaria, starts to go personal. At that moment the woman brings up a long-standing theological debate. “Where are we supposed to worship?” This question is about more than geography. It’s a question about truth. Who has it? Jesus’ answer is surprising.
He talks about worshiping in Spirit & Truth. What does this mean? How does this answer her question, “Who has the truth?”
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Have you noticed how frequently we identify ourselves with team banners?
We do it with trivial things, like which fictional characters ought to get together in movies. Do you remember the Team Edward/Team Jacob controversy? Or maybe the Team Peeta/Team Gale controversy? If you don’t, don’t worry. It just means you don’t watch movies made for teenagers. We do it with celebrities. We do it with brands. As we get closer to the next election, you can see this Team behavior coming out on political issues.
I wave my flag. That’s a little bit of who I am. You wave your flag. That’s a bit of who you are.
We identify with a group, we band together with others of the same group. It gives us a sense of identity and belonging. It gives us a common cause.
It also gives us a way to feel good about ourselves compared to the sad, unfortunate people on the other team. Especially when we feel like our team has the real scoop on something. When we have “the truth.”
When my team “has the truth,” there’s this human thing that often happens. I can start to feel proud that I’m on the right team. I can start looking at you differently. Maybe you’re just not as as smart as me. Poor you.
If the truth my team has is a religious one, I can start thinking that maybe God’s shared something special with me, and not you—it’s easy to feel like that means to God I’m special, not you. If that truth is really important, and you disagree with me, it’s not too far of a jump to start thinking that not only are you disagreeing with me, but you’re disagreeing with God.
Now, if I’m not careful, I can start imagining that we’re not just in a disagreement, but that we’re in a war. That you and I are enemies, maybe you’re even God’s enemy. Because, you aren’t on my team. You don’t have the truth that I have!
Team Samaritan vs. Team Israel.
That’s one of the things that happened between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day. They had different understandings of scripture. They had different religious practices. They each thought the other was wrong. Not just wrong, but deceived. They weren’t just disagreeing, they had become antagonistic. They didn’t want to talk to each other. They didn’t want to do business with each other. They hated each other.
When Jesus sat down at the well in Sychar and had this conversation with the woman there, this is all in the background. She’s on Team Samaritan. She thought he was on Team Israel. Between them lay a huge divide. It was partly about ethnicity. We talked about that 2 weeks ago. It was partly about gender. We talked about that last week. But it was also about religion—and that’s a divide that can get antagonistic fast.
Let’s jump back into scripture. Open your Bibles and Bible-reading devices to John 4. We’ll pick up the conversation in verse 19.
“Sir,” the woman replied, “I see that You are a prophet. John 4:19
Jesus had just pressed the conversation into things that were a little too close to home, so the woman shifts gear.
When Jesus knew about her personal life—her previous 5 husbands and her current boyfriend—she thought that maybe he had some kind of insider divine knowledge. So, she brings up one of the long-standing team controversies.
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, yet you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” John 4:19
Almost 600 years before this, the first temple, the one but by King Solomon, was torn down by foreign invaders and the leaders and their families were were all taken captive to Babylon.
During the generations of exile, those Jews in Babylon worked hard to protect their culture and faith. In fact, the Old Testament, as we know it today, was largely assembled by the exile community.
About 70 years later the exile community was released and came back to Israel to rebuild. That’s when the division between the Samaritans and Israel really took off.
When the exiles returned, they were met by people who, over the generations had met the neighbors, intermarried, gotten lax in their religious practices. The returning Jews (who had worked so hard to protect their culture and faith) saw the Samaritans as mixed-race heretics.
The final blow was when the exiles started to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans, excited that their long lost cousins were home, wanted to pitch in and help. But the exiles wouldn’t let them participate. Unable to worship at the new temple in Jerusalem, eventually, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerazim.
This is the controversy the woman brings up. Where do we worship? Mt. Gerazim? Jerusalem? Which temple is the temple that honors God?
A question we should be asking.
This is not a trivial question. When she asks which temple to worship at, she is not just asking about worship. She is asking about religious authority. Which scripture, which interpretation, is correct? Who has the truth?
That’s exactly the kind of question that someone asks, who really wants to honor and obey God. “God, which path would you have me take?” “God, I’ve read the scripture. I’ve heard this interpretation. I’ve heard that interpretation. Which one is right? Which one honors You?” That’s a question you and I ought to be asking God regularly.
This woman gets a sense that Jesus has insider divine knowledge. Maybe he’s a prophet. So she asks him to answer this centuries old religious controversy. Jesus—as is so often the case—doesn’t answer directly. At least not in the way she was hoping. Verse 20.
“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, yet you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem.” John 4:20
Jesus’ answer? Neither one! He goes on:
Jesus told her, “Believe Me, woman, an hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans[h] worship what you do not know. We worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews. John 4:21-22
Now, Jesus had just said that a time was coming when we would worship neither in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerazim. Sort of leveling the field. Neither the Jews nor the Samaritans have the truth on this question. But then it sounds like he’s honoring the Jews and putting down the Samaritans.
The Jews did have access to more scriptural knowledge than the Samaritans. The Jews did have the prophets. The Jews did have the temple in Jerusalem, which really was the place that God had chosen. So, the Jews really did know more about God’s plans, right?
Knowing more truth?
But knowing more truth isn’t where salvation comes from. Salvation didn’t come from the Jews religious knowledge, or their religious practice, or their temple in Jerusalem. Salvation came from the Jews, because that is the family God choose to use to bring the Messiah. Jesus—sitting right in front of this woman—was Jewish.
But Jesus wasn’t telling this woman to become Jewish. He wasn’t telling her that the Jewish answer to the temple controversy was right.
But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23
Spirit & Truth?
Where are we supposed to worship, Jesus? Neither temple, Jesus says. We’re going to worship in a whole new way. Jesus says that we are going to worship “in Spirit and truth.”
This is one of those scripture gems. Aha! “True worship is worship in Spirit and Truth.” It feels like Jesus is giving us the key to something really important. But what exactly does he mean? Jesus doesn’t give us much of a definition here in these verses.
So, then we like to try and fill in the meaning for ourselves. We reach out to other parts of the Bible to make sense of the words, and we reach out to our own tradition and what we’ve been taught, to fill in the meaning.
So we say, “Worshipping in Spirit,” maybe that’s charismatic worship. Hands raised. An emotional connection. Maybe speaking in tongues. And “Worshipping in Truth,” well… the Bible is God’s truth, so maybe that means that we worship according to what the Bible says. So, worshipping “in Spirit & in truth” means that we’re led by the Spirit, and guided by the Bible.
Well, there may be something to that, but that’s not where we should start. Because those things are not in this passage. Those ideas have to be read back into the passage from other places.
The first step to an honest reading of scripture is always to read it in context. I’ll go one step further. If you aren’t reading the Bible in context, you run the risk of making up your own story.
So, what does the passage have to say for itself? Let’s look back at the passage. Verse 21.
Jesus told her, “Believe Me, woman, an hour 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, because salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:21-23
God is spirit. That’s in the passage. God being spirit means a lot of things. That’s a whole sermon in itself. But here, the context is this woman’s conversation with Jesus. Her question is about a temple. Where should we go to worship?
Well, one part of God being spirit, is that God is not limited to a certain location. If God is spirit, then God’s not locked up in a temple somewhere. If God’s not locked up in a temple somewhere, then God’s not being managed by certain special religious gatekeepers. If God’s not being managed by religious gatekeepers, that means God’s not limited by one particular interpretation of scripture.
When Jesus says that God is spirit, and we are to worship in spirit, at the very least Jesus is telling us that where we worship is beside the point.
Jesus also says that we are to worship “in truth.” The greek there could mean “to worship authentically.” Free from pretense, posturing, trying to appear to be something. So, that would mean not to worship through rituals, or forms, or habits. It might mean to worship from an authentic desire to give worth and honor to God.
The woman’s question about where to worship is also a question about form. What’s the right kind of worship practice? What does it look like? Those questions are really sticky, because once you know “the right way to worship” it’s easy for your worship to become a dry ritual, something you do out of obligation.
Or it can become another way to make yourself right. You know the “right way to worship,” so that shows you’re on God’s team, you’re the one with the truth. And then your worship becomes a form of self-righteousness.
Something completely new!
She wants to know: Where’s the right place to worship? Who has the truth on this? But Jesus isn’t going to give her doctrinal truth, or the right form of worship, or even tell her which temple is the right one. Why? Because something completely new is happening.
They have this conversation about the controversy. Jesus answers about spirit & truth. And then the woman’s response is interesting to me. It’s seems like she puts Jesus off. Like the whole thing is feeling too complicated, and she’s not sure what to make of it. So, she pushes it off to the future. She says, verse 25:
“I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” John 4:25
Partly, she seems to be saying, “I’m not sure what to make of this, but one day the Messiah will explain it.” Partly, this is a statement of faith. Even though she only has part of the scripture, even though her heritage is full of mixed, imperfect religion, even though she’s been excluded by the good people, she still has a little bit of faith.
She believes that God is going to send the Messiah, and she banks on that future promise. The Messiah is going to come and clear all of this up.
It’s the faintest sort of profession of faith. But for Jesus, it seems to be enough. Because Jesus does something he hasn’t done yet in John’s gospel. He directly identifies himself as the Messiah.
“I am he,” Jesus told her, “The One speaking to you.” John 4:26
Revelation. God shows up. In the most unexpected place. The town well. Middle of the day. Not a church service. To a woman on the outside, as outside as you could get. To a woman who didn’t have a good reputation. In a quiet personal conversation, God shows up. “I am he.”
And all of a sudden, Jesus’ ambiguous answer, moments ago takes on a whole new meaning. Look back with me.
Verse 20. She asks, where are we supposed to worship? Who has the truth on this? Verse 21. Jesus says, Oh, a time is coming when you’ll worship, but it won’t be on Mt. Gerazim, or even in Jerusalem. Verse 23. Jesus says,
“A time is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” Did you catch it? A time is coming, and is now here.
Is now here.
But what is Jesus talking about? Jesus hasn’t gone to the cross yet. Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead yet. The church hasn’t yet been established. The Holy Spirit hasn’t yet been poured out. A time is coming, and is now here. Is now here.
What’s happening? Right now? What’s going on in the “is not here” moment?
Jesus is sitting on a well In Sychar. He’s talking to this woman. She’s asking bout the right way to worship God. And Jesus says, a time is coming and IS NOW HERE, when you will worship in spirit and in truth. What’s happening right now is that this woman is having a face-to-face encounter with Jesus.
This woman. She’s not in a temple. She’s not in the right temple. She’s not in the middle of prayer. She’s not making a sacrifice. She’s having a face-to-face encounter with Jesus. Right now.
Encounter Right Now.
Where do we worship, she asks? You don’t go any temple, because Jesus replaces all the temples. Who has truth, she asks? You don’t need to get involved in debates about who has the truth, because Jesus is the truth.
How do we worship, she asks? You don’t worship in certain place. You don’t worship with dry rituals. You don’t worship following the letter of the law. You worship in spirit and in truth — which (for whatever else it means) means that we worship through an encounter with Jesus. Jesus is the truth. (John 14:6).
I think Jesus was inviting this woman into a new kind of relationship with God. Not one based on her ethnicity. Not one limited by her gender. Not one confined by the religious traditions. Not one built around a temple system.
She was having an encounter with Jesus, and is the model of how we worship, and how we find truth.
Jesus was present to her. She told Jesus her truth. He told her the truth. She was overawed it. She was moved to run and tell the people she knew.
Well, When you are overawed by God, and moved to act — that’s worship. That might happen in a church service, it might happen in your relationships or in your workplace, and when it happens it’s an authentic encounter with God through the Holy Spirit. That’s the new model. That’s what Jesus was setting up.
Nicodemus could have had this conversation with Jesus, but he didn’t. He had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, and all his religious knowledge and tradition and good behavior got in the way. As far as we know, he wasn’t moved.
This outcast woman she had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, and it moved her. She responded. It Changed her. It caused her to act, to tell her friends. That was a moment of authentic worship.
But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Is now here. John 4:23
Jesus revealed himself to her. She was moved. She responded. That’s worshipping in Spirit and in Truth.
What does this mean for us?
We can easily get caught up in doctrinal debate. Whose interpretation is right? Which team are we on? Who has the truth? Churches have spent a lot of time arguing about worship. What’s the right way to worship? We spend too much time worrying about the state of other people’s lives. Whose in? Whose out? Who does God approve of?
The more energy we sink into those things, the further away we move from an encounter with Jesus. And regardless of the outcome of our debates about theology, the only time we really worship in spirit and truth, is when we are having an encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
A time is coming when you won’t worship in this temple or in that one, Jesus says.
Why? Because Jesus is our new temple. Jesus is our access point to God. Jesus is our truth. And Jesus is available to us, right now, through the Holy Spirit – the means of our our current, present, internal, relational connection to God.
Instead of getting lost in theological debate, instead of getting hung up on the forms of worship that we use, let’s press in for an encounter with Jesus. There, in that place, in an encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, where you see something true about God and your heart is moved, that is worshipping in spirit and truth.
That is the new relationship Jesus was inviting this woman into. That is new relationship Jesus is inviting us into.