This article first appeared in The Conservative Friend, a publication by Ohio Yearly Meeting, approximately 10 years ago.
Main Scripture and focal point
John 4:5-26, “In Samaria Jesus came to the town called Sychar, which is near the field Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus was tired from his long trip, so he sat down beside the well. It was about twelve o’clock noon. When a Samaritan woman came to the well to get some water, Jesus said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ (This happened while Jesus’ followers were in town buying some food.) The woman said, ‘I am surprised that you ask me for a drink, since you are a Jewish man and I am a Samaritan woman.’ (Jewish people are not friends with Samaritans.) Jesus said, ‘If you only knew the free gift of God and who it is that is asking you for water, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said, ‘Sir, where will you get this living water? The well is very deep, and you have nothing to get water with. Are you greater than Jacob, our father, who gave us this well and drank from it himself along with his sons and flocks?” Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty. The water I give will become a spring of water gushing up inside that person, giving eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so I will never be thirsty again and will not have to come back here to get more water.’ Jesus told her, ‘Go get your husband and come back here.’ The woman answered, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right to say you have no husband. Really you have had five husbands, and the man you live with now is not your husband. You told the truth.’ The woman said, ‘Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that Jerusalem is the place where people must worship.’ Jesus said, ‘Believe me, woman. The time is coming when neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain will you actually worship the Father. You Samaritans worship something you don’t understand. We understand what we worship because salvation comes from the Jews. The time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, and that time is here already. You see, the Father too is actively seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said, ‘I know that the Messiah is coming.’ (Messiah is the One called Christ.) ‘When the Messiah comes, he will explain everything to us.’ Then Jesus said, ‘I am he – I, the one talking to you.’” (New International Version [NIV])
Context Jesus Appears
Jesus has the above conversation with a Samaritan woman. This seems to be just an ordinary conversation yet it takes place in a pivotal time in history and is itself pivotal. At this time in Israel’s history, Israel is still following the Law and the Prophets. Jesus lives during this period. Before the above conversation, He had proclaimed in the Temple that the Law and the Prophets were at that time being fulfilled and that the Kingdom of Heaven was nigh at hand. Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant and ushers in the New Covenant. Jesus enters history, fully human yet fully divine, at a time when Israel had become steeped in her traditions - traditions based upon the Law, the Ten Commandments that Yahweh gave Moses on Mt. Sinai; traditions that over the centuries and generations had become twisted and misunderstood.
Background: Old Covenant
The Law was given so that people would know what sin is. However, the Law cannot save. No, the Law can only condemn because the Law proves to people that they can never be or do what is righteous. They can never live up to Yahweh’s standards. That leaves many feeling very empty, worthless, and dejected. We could safely conclude that this is how the Samaritan woman felt.
Even though the Samaritans were not under the Law, they knew of it and its significance. In His above conversation with a Samaritan woman, Jesus desired to quench her inner thirst. He had to reach her through the culture she had grown up in and in a way that would open her to receive that which could quench her inmost thirst. Interestingly, the people of the 21st century are a mix of having the mindset of the Israelites, while not under the Law, they continually want to follow a list of do’s and don’ts. They are as Samaritans in that they are not under the Law; they live as Gentiles. Another difference between the Israelites and the Samaritans was where they thought the correct place to worship was. The Israelites thought worship ought to be done in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans had a specific mountain they thought worship should be done upon. Let us now explore how the Israelites worshipped God.
The writer of Hebrews explains the specifications the Lord gave Israel concerning worship in chapter nine verses one through ten. “Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary… But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.” (NIV) Isaiah 29:13 describes how the Israelites had inadequately carried out the Lord’s specifications concerning worship. “These people show honor to me with words, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is worthless. The things they teach are nothing but human rules.” (NIV)
Water and Worship
There are two types of worship – worship that is aligned with Yahweh’s directives and worship that is aligned with man’s ways. Just as there are two sources that satisfy man’s inner thirst, there are also two types of water the people living in the first century A.D. in the Middle East would have known about. One, dead water, would be found in cisterns in the ground. It would be stagnant and filthy with debris and dead animals floating in it. The other, living water, would be found flowing clear and clean out of a mountain side spring and into a stream. The woman, in conversing with Jesus about her history with men, admits to drinking dead water but not quenching her thirst. Other rabbis had told her that worshipping God is how one is to drink from living water but she questions Jesus about this. The ritualistic impersonal worship of the Old Covenant had probably not quenched her thirst; therefore, she sought to quench her thirst through relationships with men. Jesus responds with a new definition of worship that cuts to her core. He describes worship that is transformative and refreshing, that offers the worshipper living water to drink. This worship stems from a personal relationship with the One who is Truth and Life. She does not see how this personal relationship with Almighty God is possible at her present time but she sees that it could be possible when the Messiah comes. Jesus then opens her eyes to the reality of that time nigh at hand. The time that ordinary people, - Israelites, Samaritans and Gentiles – are enabled to have a personal relationship with Creator God. The time that ordinary people are enabled to have their inmost thirst satisfied. The time that people are enabled to worship God in a way they were not able to prior. The time hinges on Jesus and His life and His death and His miraculous resurrection. This is the worship of the New Covenant that Jesus ushers in through His life, death, and resurrection.
Ushering in the New Covenant
Previously, we had glimpsed in Hebrews nine how worship was under the Old Covenant. The writer of Hebrews goes on to explain, in chapter nine verse fifteen, that just as directives for worship under the Old Covenant were given, so were directives given for worship under the New Covenant. “For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” You see, Jesus fulfills the Old Covenant and as He does so, ushers in the New Covenant. The connection between the two Covenants is Jesus himself. People’s relationship with Yahweh changes from a distant, impersonal, and legalistic relationship to a close, intimate, and loving relationship. Let us continue to explore worship under the New Covenant.
Worship Under the New Covenant
We have clearly seen what worship looked like under the Old Covenant but what does worship look like under the New Covenant? 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells what the new temple is under the New Covenant, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (NIV) God’s glory that dwelt in the Most Holy Place upon the ark of the covenant now dwells in people.
People will know New Covenant worship by how it changes them. Worship in the New Covenant is meant to be transformative. It is meant to quench one’s thirst. It is meant to transform people from captives to sin and the law. It has the ability to wash them whiter than snow through Jesus’ blood shed for the sins of mankind. It is meant to proclaim the loving, merciful, just, and holy God. It is intended to open people’s eyes to who God is and loose them from Satan’s shackles. It can take off the blinders Satan put on peoples’ eyes. It is meant to release people from the lies, schemes, and deceptions of the Evil One. It is intended to declare that the Lord’s redemption for sins is here! Worship is intended to drastically transform people from a life of slavery to sin to a life of freedom unto righteousness.
Let us continue to explore the components of New Covenant worship. Romans 12:1 describes the sacrifices under the New Covenant, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual [or reasonable] act of worship.” (NIV) 1 Peter 2:4-5 also explains about how worship is under the New Covenant, “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (NIV) Because our bodies are the temple of God and His Spirit dwells in us, whatever we say, do, think, and even our attitudes must be a sacrifice. Sacrifices were a key element in worship in the Old Covenant. So, too, are they in the New Covenant, just in a different way. Everything we are should be offered to God as a sacrifice. A sacrifice that is not a dead one and not unclean and desecrated and only able to be offered up once, but rather, one that is pure and holy and able to be offered up continually.
New Covenant Worship Informed by John 4
The above Scripture passages have given us a picture of what worship is like under the New Covenant. Now we explore how Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well influences and shapes that worship. Jesus tells the woman that true worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth. Truth has to do with that which is reality or factual. Truth also corresponds to that which is sincere, honest, and loyal. Finally, truth relates to that which is accurate. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that true worshipers would worship the Father in spirit and in truth. In other words, the loyal worshiper will worship the real God, not a false one. He will worship with sincerity and honesty. His way of worship will be accurately aligned with the nature of God. There is no one magical formula to combine all of these aspects in true worship. Rather, the true worshipper may experience worshipping God on increasingly higher and more intimate levels where these aspects of worship are incorporated in ever better ways.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman that the true worshippers must worship God in spirit and in truth because God is spirit. However, our spirits are not what they should be outside of Jesus. No one can come to the Father unless the Spirit draws him. Our spirits do not have what it takes to worship God and to live the life He would have for us on our own. However, the Spirit is always willing and ready to draw us into worshipping the Father and to enable us to live as He would have us. The Holy Spirit enables us to worship God and live the life He has called us. The Holy Spirit must come upon us and indwell us as Acts 1:8 describes, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (NIV) Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in John 3:5-6, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’” (NIV) The Spirit enables us to worship the Father. True worshippers who seek to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth are enabled to worship the Lord in a pleasing way and experience higher and more intimate levels of worship only when they are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Remember, our bodies are the temple of God and His spirit lives in us. How can are bodies be temples of God if He does not live or dwell in us?
Therefore, worship under the New Covenant, which is what we live under today, is a transformative and powerful worship. It is patterned after the Old Covenant but is better than and more complete than the Old Covenant. For instance, the Spirit dwelt in the temple but now dwells in man. Dead sacrifices used to be sacrificed but now we sacrifice living sacrifices. The book of Revelation gives us a picture of what final worship will look like. We have Jesus as our high priest and each believer is able to enter into the Most Holy Place with the blood of Jesus, our perfect sacrifice. Our own bodies are the temple of God and He lives in us. We offer our bodies as a living sacrifice as our act of worship. Our acts of worship are guided by the Holy Spirit and by Truth. As we seek to engage all the aspects of this new and transformative worship, we move into higher and more intimate levels of worship because we have a personal relationship with the God of the universe, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Recap of John 4
The following 21st century paraphrase helps summarize what it means to worship the Father in spirit and in truth. “’But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you're called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 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. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.’" (The Message)
*Authors note: A special thanks to Winifred Stratton, Ray Hodgson, and Cyndi Burns for helping me write this article by giving me thoughts and ideas about worship, for praying for me in this endeavor, for helping edit this article, and for their kind and wonderful support.