The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4.19-24.
In this morning’s reading we find Jesus is in Samaria and talking with a woman from the village of Sychar who has come to draw water from Jacob’s Well. From the well, one could look up at Mount Gerizim which is where Samaritans believed that God had ordained his people’s worship of him to take place. The Jews, of course, hotly contested that. They said that the place ordained for worship was Jerusalem. Unfortunately for both, Scripture left the matter open. Through Moses, God had said: “But you shall seek the place that the LORD your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 12.5-7). But which was “the place” that God had chosen? This man in front of her seems to have the answers to everything else, thinks the woman. Perhaps he can answer this question too?
Well, yes, he can; but it is not the answer that the woman expects. Jesus tells her, in effect, that because he is now in the world a new world order has begun that makes old concepts of worship rooted in externals such as place, time, ritual, vestments, liturgy etc, irrelevant. The prophets had foreseen a day when “the earth would be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Habbakuk 2.14) and all flesh would worship him. “Well that day is coming,” says Jesus, “and now is.” The life of the age to come and the worship of the age to come may be experienced now by those who are one with Jesus and are filled with his Spirit. Indeed that worship of the age to come is now the only kind of worship that counts and has any validity.
And what marks out such worship? What characterises it? It is worship of “the Father” and it is “in spirit and truth.” It is firstly then the worship of those who have become sons and daughters of God through receiving Jesus. John has already recorded how “to all who did receive him [the Word, Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1.12-13), and here true worship is identified as coming only from such people. All true worship is Abba-worship (Romans 8.15, Galatians 4.6) as was the worship of Jesus himself (Mark 14.36).
And it is in spirit and truth. The Greek word for “truth” is aletheia and it can mean simply the opposite to what is false … that which is genuine. And that is no doubt part of the meaning here. There is nothing feigned or faked about the worship of the age to come. There is no “going through the motions” — singing praises to God and lifting hands while actually wondering what to cook for the evening meal. But the word probably carries more than that. Jesus himself is “the Truth” (John 14.6), which is to say that he is the ultimate revelation of who God is, what God is like, what God wants, what God offers. So to worship “in truth” is to worship from within all that revelation that comes to us in Jesus. Jesus brings to me “the knowledge of the glory of God” and when I worship from within that knowledge, my worship is “true”.
But how do I receive all that revelation? Through the Spirit, of course. He is the “Spirit of truth” (John 14.17) and, as Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16.13-14). So it is when I am “in the Spirit” and the Spirit is in me, revealing to me the truth of the glory of God who is Jesus, that I really, really worship.
The form that my worship takes is irrelevant. The place is irrelevant. All that matters is that the Spirit is opening my eyes to the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and that I am responding with all my heart. Then I will be a true worshipper.