The context of this passage is the well known story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well whilst on a long journey north to Galilee and asking her for something to drink. There then follows a conversation about water (physical and spiritual) and the revelation that the woman was rather notorious when it comes to the men in her life.
She feels convicted over the sin in her lifestyle choices and looks for forgiveness – which entails a sacrificial sin offering, but where should she go to make her peace with God? For a Jew the answer would have been Jerusalem, but for a Samaritan (for reasons we won’t go into now) it was Mount Gerizim. Jesus responds by telling her that it’s not so much where you worship that matters, as the spirit in which you worship, and then follows the passage above.
So what is this worship that God the Father seeks, that worships in spirit and truth?
Well, let’s have a look at what it is not.
The Samaritans had a bit of a pick-and-mix theology, ignoring all but the first five books of the Scriptures (and thereby missing out on the Psalms and Prophets) and indeed had re-written history to make Mount Gerizim their most sacred place (rather than Jerusalem.)
Even we Christians can be guilty of a pick-and-mix theology when it comes to worship. If it were a sweet shop then we’d be saying something like ‘I like humbugs but I don’t like liquorice so I’ll avoid popping any into my bag. I like my worship to feel comfortable, that nice warm satisfying humbug feeling - I’d rather do without the surprise and fizz of a sherbet dip please.’
In our places of worship the conflict comes over issues such as liturgy, inclusiveness, pews and church furniture, upkeep of the building, restoring the organ, modern instruments and worship songs, though the list is probably much longer! And most of the argument takes place outside of the context of the Word of God.
And our selectiveness passes inevitably from our worship to our everyday life, where we start picking and choosing what we agree or disagree about based upon our personal preferences, rather than by reference to God’s Word. In essence when it gets to that point what I’m saying is that my truth is more important than your truth, even if I might accept your right to have your own particular viewpoint.
There are lots of very devout and sincere people around who will quite happily accept certain parts of Scripture and disregard others because they don’t fit into their idea of what Christianity is about. ‘I’m sure Jesus didn’t mean that….’ or ‘Oh, Paul! Well, he was just so prejudiced…’
As an extreme you only have to cast your mind back a few years to South Africa where church leaders felt able to justify apartheid and racial segregation by pointing to certain Bible verses.
Worship can sometimes lack knowledge, and that’s a hindrance – It’s one thing to ask how much we understand our Bibles and God’s Word, but do we understand the theology behind the hymns that we sing, the creeds we might repeat week by week or even the words of the Lord’s Prayer, which in itself is so full of spiritual meaning?
In which case were we just going through the motions, saying the words but not really understanding what they meant?
If we do not understand, then we’re not growing. If we’re not growing then faith-wise we remain as spiritual children and when someone challenges just why we go to church or what being a Christian means to us then we’re stuck for words to explain our faith.
That’s not the sort of worship that God wants – he wants his people to understand about his majesty when they sing about it, to know his power and justice when they pray for it, to comprehend the length and breadth of his love and live in the wonder and mystery of that knowledge day by day.
We need to know who this God is who we
worship, because otherwise what have we to share with our neighbour?
That’s not what Jesus meant when he talked to the Samaritan woman about worship, and as one commentator says, when you grasp what Jesus meant when he said that God is spirit then it makes so much sense of what has gone before and is as relevant to us as it was to her.
If God is spirit then he can’t be confined to a building, an icon or any other ‘thing’. If God is spirit and unconfined by anything we can make then he can be worshipped anywhere and everywhere – be it the modern equivalent of Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim. The early Christian saints in this land understood that, and their worship encompassed their working day as well as their leisure and devotional life. They felt the presence of God in the ordinary places that they inhabited, and in the fields in which they laboured and among the people whom they served.
Can you relate to that? It’s quite a liberating thing to be able to take your worship outside of the confines of these walls and into your Monday to Saturday life!
If God is spirit then our response to him must be by offering not sacrifices as the Samaritan woman was planning to do, but spiritual offerings – love, devotion, obedience and service. It’s the offering of ourselves as we are, not the outward show of Sunday best clothing, not the size of our offering, but what’s underneath, and not only what’s underneath but what’s inside our hearts. That’s where God looks, inside the heart to the real you and I.
And spiritual worship overflows into everyday lives.
The prophet Amos was most clear about this, and when you read it in the modern Message translation it really makes you go ‘Ouch!’.
Listen to these words from Amos 5 "I can't
stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans
and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations
and image making.
I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.”
I like the way that the modern Message Bible translates the key verses from John’s Gospel, because that fits in nicely with Amos’ words. (23-24"It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. – The Message)
Worship is all about a relationship, about getting to know more about our heavenly Father, when our spirit, our heart and soul, that invisible and mysterious part of us that makes us who we are connect with God himself. It’s so much more than just meeting together in a certain building on a Sunday, as Jesus was so keen to point out to a Samaritan women 2000 years ago.
Because spiritual worship, rooted in the truth of God’s Word takes continues out of the chapel or church door and into the street and neighbourhood. It continues throughout the week in the way that lives are led and love is shared - because that’s the way that people connect with our God, through the lives, the example and the words of those who follow him.
As we worship in spirit and truth then we witness through our lives to the wonder, majesty and love of the God whom we serve - it's like the Living Water that Jesus talks of, it flows through our worship and overflows into our lives. That’s the worship that our heavenly Father wants!