Lent 3a – John 4:5-26 Worship in Spirit and Truth Pastor Charles Schulz
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers 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 4:23-24
God is seeking such people to worship Him. Is God seeking you? Imagine that. We come here today with all kinds of reasons of our own. We might be looking for some inspiration to encourage us in the week to come. We might come here looking for some respite, some healing of our wounds from the week passed. We might just come here looking for the fellowship of friends in Christ, as we find joy in singing together, praying together and catching up after the service. But at this worship service, God is looking for something too. He has His eye on St. Thomas to see if He will again find people who would worship Him in Spirit and truth.
That’s the sort of worship our services are designed for, after all. As we read through this passage from John 4, we can see how Jesus led the Samaritan woman into true, spiritual worship, and we find specific parallels with what we do together every Sunday morning in the Divine Liturgy. If you understand it, the worship of Spirit and truth is no further than your pew.
When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, the first thing He does is ask for a drink of water. She’s surprised. She didn’t think someone like Jesus—a Jew and Jewish man at that— would have anything to do with her, a Samaritan and a woman. Here He strikes up a conversation by asking her for a favor. He surprises her more with the proposal: “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.” He challenges her to figure out who He is. He prompts her to ask what He has to offer. Over the course of the conversation she will eventually do both these things. When she hears that He has living water to give away, water that forever quenches thirst, water that springs up to eternal life, she says she wants some of that. Of course, she might at first be thinking of flowing water – like that of a brook or a stream rather than the stagnant water of the well. But in the end, Jesus gets through to her with His offer and she realizes that He has more than just natural gifts to give.
When we come to worship, we come with our needs. That’s what we have to offer God; our needs are also what preoccupy our minds and burden our hearts. The woman at the well needed water and Jesus spoke to her in those terms. He connects with her where she’s at. Expect the Lord to speak to you here, in your need. He will talk to you about what troubles you and burdens you. It is the work of the Spirit of God to speak to people in a language which they understand, in words which truly communicate to them and strike them at the center of their hearts.
Expect Him, though, to change the topic, too. See how Jesus did that with the Samaritan woman. He starts innocently: “Go, call your husband and come back” but she has to explain that she has no husband. A single woman? Hardly. Jesus reveals that he knows all her most intimate affairs – she has had 5 husbands and is with a man now who isn’t her husband. Jesus is doing the work of the law in her life – showing her her own sins that she might turn from them in repentance. Here’s the beginning of worship in the truth – the truth about herself and her own need for a Savior.
Our worship too has this truth. We hardly begin our worship and we are confessing the truth of our own sinfulness in the words of the general confession. The words of our prayers acknowledge our own weakness and failings. Even our Lord taught us to pray in the prayer we still say every service, “Forgive us our trespasses,” because we do have sins and we do need forgiveness. Worship in Spirit and truth will not always be comfortable. We will have to face unpleasant facts about our own faithlessness and faults. Jesus says that the Spirit comes to convict the world and the first conviction that He inflicts upon us is the conviction of our own sinfulness.
That’s the way it was with the Samaritan woman – so she quickly tried to change the topic. She knew that Jews and Samaritans had their own worship wars. They argued heatedly about where God wanted to be worshipped, whether it was to be on Mount Gerizim in Samaria or Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Each nation claimed to have the only true and authentic sanctuary for the Most High God. For the Samaritan woman, this was an evasion technique. She’d bring up the hot topic and take the heat off of her own sinful life. She’d rather have a long and endless discussion about religion, rituals and revelation.
But the Lord takes her diversion and diverts her again. Jesus doesn’t take the bait in order to debate the old revelation given through Moses or the revisions found in the Samaritan Pentateuch. He’s not going to argue about old Bible passages. By the Spirit of God, He gives her a new revelation and a new Word of God. He tells 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” (John 4:21-22). There are two things the Spirit is saying here through our Lord and they are two things we find our worship as well. There is indeed the affirmation of the Old Testament — salvation is from the Jews. The Old Testament is to be read, for it reveals God’s way of saving the world and it points us to Christ. But it is not read alone. It is read in the light of the fact that the hour has come when something new has happened. The ritual laws of the Old Testament – like the need to worship on Mount Zion – have passed away. The Christ has come and a new kind of relationship with God is now open to us. Now we may called Him Father. Now, by the Spirit of God, we become His children by faith in Christ. Whether we are Jews or Samaritans or Gentiles, it doesn’t matter. We become the children of God by faith and we worship God in the Spirit and truth. So in our services we’ll read the Old Testament, but we’ll read the New Testament, too, the Gospels and the Epistles, and we’ll have the full revelation of Christ taught to us, just as Jesus was teaching it to the Samaritan woman.
You see how the Lord takes this word of revelation and makes it personal for her. He takes the old Bible passages and from them He draws her to Himself, even to the final revelation when he tells her, “I am the Messiah.” That’s what the sermon does in our divine service. Jesus is conversing with the woman, yes, but in a sense he’s preaching to her, too. He’s leading her along His way of truth so she can personally grasp the fullness of the truth for herself. He is taking the old words of God spoken way back when to people long ago and He is explaining how the Word yet speaks to her and invites her, personally, now to receive the gift of God and to respond by worshiping the Father. That’s why we have preaching, too – to take the Word which is read and to show how it is personal, how it speaks to you, how it bestows God’s gifts to you now and how it calls you to respond. Sermons, too, are to be Spirit and truth: Spirit-led and truth-filled. The Spirit testifies to Jesus, so every Christian sermon is to be a witness to Jesus Christ. Every sermon is to reveal something of who He is and what He has done and what His gifts mean for our lives today. Every sermon is the Spirit imparting and bestowing His gifts in the here and now.
And with the sermon, either before or after, comes our confession of faith. We say the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed or sometimes something else from the confession of the Church, like part of Luther’s Catechism or the Athanasian Creed. We confess our faith, just as the Samaritan woman did that day. She said to Jesus what she knew and believed: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). Later, after she had finished talking with the Lord and come to know who He was, she told her fellow villagers of her new-found faith in Jesus. The work of the Spirit aims to bring the Word of Christ home to our hearts. Once it is planted there, He grows it so it overflows from our mouths so that our lips can share the faith and publicly attest that it is our own. It is worship in Spirit and truth to confess the Creed together. The words are a summary of God’s truth and they are only confessed as we are taught to know and believe them by the Spirit of God.
Then in our service comes the offering and prayer. Can we see these, too, in the woman’s schooling in worship in Spirit and truth? We might presume that in our course of the conversation the woman indeed gave the Lord what she had – the drink of water from the well which He asked for at the start of the whole conversation. When she departs, she leaves behind her water jar – the very water she had come to get doesn’t mean anything to her now because she has gotten the better water, the spiritual water, from the Lord. So, she left that physical gift. You might say she gave that jar to the Lord who had asked for it. But next, she gave even more. She ran to the town and gave witness to her faith, making her life a testimony to His truth so that many others came to believe in Him too. Isn’t this the true nature of the offering that we give? If we only put money into the plate as it passes by, that’s really nothing to please God. God doesn’t need our money for Himself. But if, with the money, we lay before God our glad submission to His Word and our eager desire to hallow His Name in our lives, then that money becomes a proper representation and token of what God truly cares about – that He wants our hearts and He wants our whole lives to be lived by His Spirit and in His truth. Our worship does not end with the final hymn but it extends into our daily doings to the glory of God. And for the prayers – we hear the woman stumble through her prayers as she asks the Lord for the living water He offers her. Like many of our prayers, she does not quite know what she’s saying. She thinks He’ll just supply her so she won’t have to come to the well any more. But He is good and gracious and He is giving her His best gifts anyway – He is giving her Himself and He is giving her His Spirit.
Worship in Spirit and truth, it’s what the Father desires. It’s what happens among us every Sunday by those who are led by the Spirit through the words and actions of our service. The Lord invited the Samaritan woman to such worship – and in that conversation He was leading her to take her very first steps along that new way of worship. It was worship in truth – with a true confession of sins and true acknowledgement of Jesus as the Savior from sin. It was worship in the Spirit – with the Word of God and the gifts of God making her heart their home. And by that same Spirit more and more people were gathered to that truth of Jesus – for that’s what the Spirit does, too. He drew the townspeople to the Lord so that they too quickly came to confess: He is the Savior of the world. And there was suddenly a little community, a first church of Samaria in the town of Sychar.
But I have one more question about our worship and the passage before us today. Does this representation of worship in Spirit and truth have any echo, any trace of the Lord’s gift of His Holy Supper? Is there anything here that suggests that He comes to us in His body and blood in bread and wine for us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins? I’ll give you two possibilities where we might see that in this chapter. First we have the very fact that the incarnate Lord, the Son of God who is greater than Jacob, found Himself in Samaria among these religious outcasts, sitting on their well in flesh and blood. See how far He had come to be right there with the woman and to be fully there – in all His glorious deity but veiled in His perfect humanity. That’s not unlike the Lord coming to us, all the way to us, to sit on our altar, as God and man. He comes so intimately among us to reveal and give the full gifts of His salvation right to us.
But we might see another reference to the Supper, too. After the woman leaves, the Lord is alone with His disciples. Privately to them He says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (John 4:32-38)
Obviously, the Lord here is talking first about the satisfaction and fulfillment He has doing the will of His father. His “food is to do His will,” He says. And then He is talking about the task given to the disciples to enter into their Kingdom work and to reap the harvest that has been prepared for them to take. But in all this, the Lord uses images of food and eating and white harvest fields of grain, ready to make bread and fruit of eternal life which one receives without having worked for it. These same images and ideas would point to the Holy Supper. It is food which the disciples did not yet know about, but it is food which the Lord prepared by accomplishing the Father’s work. He received the wages – forgiveness for the world and eternal life – but He gives us this fruit of eternal life together with a share in His joy. We take that bread, for which we did not work, and it becomes our own by His gift to us. Maybe you’ll call it a stretch, but if we should want to see every part of our worship in Spirit and truth in this passage, then here, I believe, is where you’ll find the Holy Supper hinted at. It lies here as if in a riddle to be deciphered by those who already know the reality, the reality of how He comes among us in the bread and the wine. When we think about how John’s first readers read this passage, it is very possible they would have seen here how the Holy Supper, celebrated weekly in their services, was part of worshiping God in Spirit and truth.
So be mystified no longer by these words of our Lord when He says that the Father seeks those who will worship Him in Spirit and truth. Recognize that this is the very worship which happens here, among us, with the Word of God echoing among us and the Spirit of God moving among us. The Father seeks you – and here He finds you just as He wants you, hearing His Word, receiving His gifts given you in Jesus; He finds you offering His praises and confessing His name. Thanks be to God who makes our worship pleasing to Him through Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and our Savior too.