Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman at a well about her life, about God, about the Messiah, and about worship. He told her, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). I’ve thrown this verse around a lot and I’ve heard it thrown around a lot, but rarely is it dealt with in context. Let’s take a closer look at this verse as a part of our re-examined series.
How It Is Often Used
Now that I’ve really considered the context and have a better understanding of what I think Jesus was saying to the woman, I feel ashamed of how I’ve often quoted this verse. I have always assumed Jesus was saying “worship in spirit” meant to worship with the right heart and the right attitude; and “worship in truth” meant to worship in the right way, according to the rules God established for how to worship him.
I took Jesus’ words to mean, both your attitude and actions had to be pure in order for your worship to be acceptable to God. But can you see the monumental assumptions being made about what Jesus meant by “spirit” and what he meant by “truth”? Is there evidence to suggest that’s what Jesus meant? Let’s take a look.
When Jesus sat down with the Samaritan woman, he asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (John 4:9). Jesus’ response is pivotal for understanding the rest of the conversation. He said, “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.” Jesus wanted the woman to know two things. Do you see it? Jesus wanted the woman to know:
- The gift of God
- Jesus’ identity
The rest of the conversation revolves around these two things. Once you see that, the passage’s meaning begins to become clear. So take just a moment and read the whole story. Pay attention to how many times Jesus made reference to those two issues: the gift of God and his own identity.
What is the Gift of God?
Jesus said the gift of God was “living water.” In verse 14, Jesus said about the gift of God, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
You could read all of John 4 and still wonder, “What exactly did Jesus mean by living water?” But if you keep reading John’s gospel account, it will quickly become clear. In John 7, Jesus was in Jerusalem and many people began to speculate about him being the Messiah. In John 7:37-38 Jesus cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”
Again Jesus ties together his own identity with the idea of receiving “living water.” But what does that mean? John helps us understand what Jesus meant. John wrote in verse 39, “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
The living water is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus would give to those who believed in him, once he was glorified. The Spirit is the living water. The Spirit is the gift of God. And John 4 says a lot about “Spirit,” doesn’t it? Jesus told the woman, “God is spirit” and true worshipers would worship “in spirit.”
So this discussion, including the part about the “living water” is all about the Spirit being given and worshiping God in the same Spirit.
Who is Jesus?
The book of John is all about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of God, the “the Savior of the world” (John 4:41). John said the purpose of his book was, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
This is the great “truth” of the book of John, Jesus is the Son of God. This is the truth which sets people free (John 8:32) and brings life (John 14:6). Over and over again, we read that this is the “truth” people need to believe, Jesus is the Son of God.
When Jesus stood on trial, he said to Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). And Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
That is precisely the question John intends to answer, “What is truth?” The answer is simple: Jesus. He is the truth.
What Does it Mean to Worship in Spirit and Truth?
Hopefully, the answer is clear by now. The Spirit in whom we worship is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus has given to those who believe in him. And the truth in which we worship is the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. Those are the two issues around which the entire conversation – and the book of John – revolve.
On the Day of Pentecost, like living water, the Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ apostles and on those who were baptized in his name (see Acts 2). Soon after, the truth of Jesus was spread throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the remotest parts of the world. With this truth, came the Spirit of God. Now the Father has a multitude of worshipers – both Jew and Gentile – who do not worship in Jerusalem or Samaria, but worship in full acceptance of the truth and in the Spirit of God, who lives within us.
As Paul wrote, “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:3).
Does This Mean it Doesn’t Matter How We Worship?
I must say a brief word to those who will ask if this means it doesn’t matter how we pray or sing. No, of course, that’s not what this means. It doesn’t mean that, because that isn’t the conversation Jesus was having with this woman. He was having a conversation about the gift of God (Spirit) and who it was who was asking her for a drink (Truth).
I love you and God loves you,