But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
A preacher who I have enjoyed listening to these past few months preached from the passage above this Sunday. For many of us, Jesus’ words here can seem unclear and ambiguous, but the preacher gave a helpful quote from William Temple, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s:
Worship is the submission of our entire nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of the will to his purpose…worship in spirit and truth is the way to the solution of the perplexity and to the liberation from sin.
Whereas the picture of worship for so many people consists in singing pleasant songs that provide inspiration and comfort, Temple’s definition invites us to probe deeper into the change brought about in the worshipper through their relationship to God. Worship engages the entirety of who we are in our moral thinking, our imagination about life, and the nature of our motivations and purposes.
When we look at Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman, we can note that spirit and truth can be connected to previous parts of the conversation with her.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus’ words to her invite her to imagine a source of life in water that will never run out. Spoken to a woman who was at the bottom of the social hierarchy, given her status as a Samaritan, a female, and having multiple husbands and living with a man who is not her husband, Jesus’ words were a gift of reversal of fortunes for her life from derision and ostracism to hope and well-being.
While the Gospel of John does not provide commentary here on the meaning of living water, we do get this in John 7.37-39:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. Ask the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ ” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Here, we get an interpretation of Jesus’ words by the Gospel, taking it to refer to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. However, from the point of time of Jesus’ words, the Spirit as living water was yet to be given. But as Jesus tells his disciples in John 14.17, there seems to be two different “experiences” of the Spirit: one where the Spirit is with a person that the disciples are experiencing and one where the Spirit is in the person, which the disciples were to experience at Pentecost onward.
So, when we return to the conversation with the Samaritan woman, we can make a connection between the living water and worship in the Spirit. This connection is strengthened by the idea that the Scripture Jesus alludes to in John 7.38 is, according to Craig Kenner, a combination of the vision of God’s returning as king in Zechariah 14.8-9 that would be connected together with Ezekiel 47.1-10.1
On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter. And the LORD will become king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be one and his name one.
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me around on the outside to the outer gate that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
Going on eastward with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed. He said to me, “Mortal, have you seen this?”
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I came back, I saw on the bank of the river a great many trees on the one side and on the other. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.
If these passages are connected and in the background for Jesus’ words about living water, then Jesus’ own presence represents when these living waters are flowing, after he is glorified as King, and with it comes a renewal of the waters of God’s temple. This image of living water casts an image of fertility and well-being. With this in mind, the living waters Jesus speaks of to the Samaritan woman are a promise in the future that she can be brought into the life that comes from the renewal of the temple. Jesus’ words about worshiping in Spirit fit right within His promise to her that she can have waters gushing to eternal life. The emerging reversal of the Samaritan woman’s well-being that comes from the Spirit is an integral part of this worship.
Yet, the connection of water and Spirit in John 7.38 and thus also in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman also recalls back to John 3.5, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born of water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. As this birth from above gives people a perception to see God’s kingdom (John 3.3) and to recognize one’s relationship to God, worshipping in Spirit is to perceive the emergence of God’s kingdom in the present world, the act of new creation that brings about the vision of Ezekiel 37.
Yet, Jesus’ conversation with her presses further in John 4.16-19:
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.
This passage is often read with a judgmental eye towards the woman, thinking her to be an immoral person. However, the truth is probably the reverse: she has been the recipient of mistreatment by her past husbands, being abandoned multiple times. Such a deep sense of social shame for her past would have made her deemed unworthy of marriage. However, for a woman to survive in that day, she would have to be attached to a male in some manner, so she now resorts to living with a man she is not married to. Yet, such a status would have made her deemed to be the equivalent of a concubine or prostitute,2 Caught into a double-bind, she would be considered a lowly sinner, unworthy of love and commitment. She has both been discarded and in her desperation, she has deviated from the path of righteousness.
In her desperation, her response to Jesus about not having a husband could be interpreted as a form of expression of marital availability.3 Jesus’ words to her about her status cuts to the point: her words express a truth about her status in life. In so doing, Jesus redirects the conversation from a potential courtship to the truth about her life and who she is. We have here the beginning of what it means to worship in truth. To worship in truth is to come in the recognition of where we are in life. Throughout the Scriptures, the prophets remind Israel of their false self-knowledge. Obadiah 1.3 calls out the self-deception of pride. Isaiah 44.20 speaks of the self-delusion of the idolater. God’s word through the prophets call the people to rightly see themselves, especially in relation to God’s covenant and word. With Jesus acting as the prophet, the woman is called to see her life truthfully.
However, there is not an expression of judgment in Jesus’ words though, as He has already offered her living water. God’s grace and mercy allows us to come to Him in worship so far as we are open to recognizing ourselves for where we are, both in our brokenness and our sin. One thing God does not tolerate in worship is a person who refuses to recognize the truth of their own weaknesses and moral failures. The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18.9-14 expresses the justified status of the morally reprehensible tax collector in God’s eyes because he seeks for God’s mercy for his sins, whereas the Pharisees focuses on his superiority to others, including in his own giving and self-discipline in fasting. To worship God in truth, then, is implicitly an act of grace and mercy: God receives those who come to him humble about their own status.
However, coming to truth is not something one simply gets by learning doctrine, but with the way Jesus means truth, it comes through continuing in Jesus’ word that brings a freedom from sin (John 8.31ff), while Jesus’ words are also Spirit and life (John 6.63). To that end, Spirit and truth are tightly intertwined, as two sides of a coin. Where truth is personally brought forward about the person, they are also invited and ushered into a new life by the Spirit that points forward to the abundant life, to be partially realized in the present time but to be ultimately realized in the eschaton.
So, to worship God in spirit and truth is come before God with a new vision for life, to exchange the rags that we recognize of our lives, both in our brokenness and in our sin, for the expectation of His riches and glory and the way of life that comes with that, by recognizing both the truth about ourselves and a growing vision and emergence of God’s will through us and for us. To that end, Temple’s description of worship fits right in with a heart that is leaves everything behind for the goodness and glory of God.