WORSHIPING GOD IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH
Is 9:1-4; 1Cor 1:10-13,17; Matt 4:12-23
The Gospel today is the wonderful account of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, as recorded in the Gospel of John. It is a well-crafted story with multiple layers of meaning. Several times in this text, there are misunderstandings and double meanings from which unfold many different layers of relevance. Let us take the theme of authentic worship or worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Jesus says: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:25)
- JESUS AND THE SAMARITAN WOMAN
Chapter 4 of John’s gospel begins by telling us that Jesus left Judea (which is south of Samaria) and decided to travel to Galilee (which is north of Samaria). Most Jews would travel around Samaria. Jews and Samaritans did not get along. They had some common roots but neither had much regard for the other. The Jews saw the Samaritans as just another group of pagans. Here are three instances of such discrimination: In Luke 9:51-56, when the Samaritans refused Jesus passage through their territory his disciples James and John requested: “Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. Another instance is the case of the “Good Samaritan”, in Luke 10:30-37. There is also the case of the cleansing of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19, where the only one that returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan. If Jesus chose to go through Samaria, it was a deliberate move. It was the shortest route, but it was also an unfriendly road for any normal Jew.
Jesus takes another strange move, when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. Her reaction says it all: “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?” That was not all. It was also against the moral norms of the day for a man to engage a woman in dialogue in a public place, and especially not to Samaritan women. And yet Jesus engages this woman in the longest dialogue we have in all the four Gospels, an act which even his own disciples saw as morally questionable: Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (John 4:27)
It was about noon and Jesus came to a town by the name of Sychar and decided he needed to rest. The disciples presumably went off to get some lunch because it was noon. We are told that a woman from Sychar came to the well. This fact alone is interesting. Usually women drew water later in the day when it was cooler. So, why was she there? There is a good chance that the woman came to this well at this time because of her stained reputation. Knowing that everyone in town was talking about her in a negative way, she must have tended to avoid being in public places at busy hours. We are told that this woman had had five different husbands and was currently living with a man she was not married to. She must have been called names: loose woman, sleazy, or cheap. She may have come to the well at such an hour simply to escape the gossip of the town’s women.
Jesus approached the woman and asked for a drink. In response, she asked Jesus why He was asking her for a drink (since no one ever asked her for much of anything). Jesus, trying to build a bridge to this woman, said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). Jesus further told her that once she tasted the water he had to offer, she would never be thirsty again. Naturally, she was eager to receive such water. She hated having to carry that water back to town every day.
Jesus further pushes the conversation to a personal dimension by asking the woman to go and bring her husband. Being fully aware of her sins, the woman told Jesus the whole truth about her married life. At this stage, the woman was totally lost. She did not know how to respond to the fact that she was exposed before Christ. Intrigued by this man who was not intimidated by her stained past, the woman found herself in an awkward situation. So, she did what most people would do in an awkward moment: she changed the subject. She asked, “Where is the true place of worship? Gerizim (Samaria) or Jerusalem?” This was meant to distract Jesus. But Jesus refused to be distracted. He answers her question, “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand; we worship what we understand, because salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).
- THE MEANING OF TRUE WORSHIP
- a) True worship is open to all people: The honesty and openness of this woman, about her past life, constitutes one of the major elements of true worship. Before she could receive the water promised by the Lord, she had to acknowledge her vulnerability and sinfulness. A prerequisite for grace is an awareness of one’s sins. Before this man, Jesus, the woman stood bare and naked, with nothing to hide anymore.
One of the biggest hindrances to true worship is the fact that we believe God could never love us if the truth of our hearts, minds, and past were exposed. We feel we have to pretend with God. We play the game of worship. We gather together and pretend that we are all good people, who are worshipping a good God, in a good way. For some reason we believe this is what He wants. But, in reality, God wants the whole person. He wants the real you and the real me, with all our scars and defilements. He wants us to bring the broken pieces of our lives to Him. He wants us to recognize that worship cannot begin until we come to Him honestly, seeking and celebrating His mercy and His grace. (Thus, the need for the penitential rite at the very beginning of Mass, and throughout the Mass – LORD HAVE MERCY, I CONFESS, LAMB OF GOD, OUR FATHER, LORD, I AM NOT WORTHY…) God is not looking for our performance. Many people fail to follow God because they believe that if God knew the truth about them; if he knew their past, their thoughts, their desires, He would turn away. Jesus wanted this woman to know that He knew exactly who she was but His arms were open to her anyway. God is the One who seeks us. True worship is available for all.
- b) True worship is about substance not form: When Jesus tells the woman that “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth” (John 4:24), he is in effect, telling her that her worship was deficient because she does not have all the information (Samaritans only embraced the first five books of the Bible). However, a time of transition had come. True worship is no longer about the right place of worship; IT WAS ABOUT THE RIGHT “ATTITUDE”. The place is nothing but SUBSTANCE; the attitude is what constitutes the FORM. True worship can take place in a sanctuary, in a car, in your home, while you are standing in line in a store, or any other place where the heart is tuned to the Lord. God is spirit. God is not limited to one particular location. He is a deity without boundaries. He can be worshipped at any time and in any place. He is omnipresent. He is neither confined in Jerusalem, nor Samaria.
- c) True worship involves the spirit. When Jesus talks about worshiping in spirit he does not appear to be talking about the “Holy Spirit” as such (even though we do need the Holy Spirit to lead us to worship) but he is referring to our inner spirit or our heart. He is not as referring to the Holy Spirit but the spirit within us. Worshiping in spirit is the opposite of worshiping in merely external ways. It is the opposite of empty formalism and traditionalism. Since God is spirit, He is not looking merely at what we do externally, He sees our heart behind what we are doing. He knows our emotions. Worship is a time when we are vulnerable, open and honest before the Lord. We should be more honest with Him than with any other person (even our spouse) because we know that He knows us (through and through) and He loves us.
Consequently, true worship should involve our emotions. Such a worship will sometimes involve genuine sorrow for sin, overwhelming gratitude for grace and forgiveness, the stunned silence of awe, or the exuberant celebration of God’s greatness. The point is this: If one is unaffected in his/her worship he/she has not truly worshipped at all. Take the example of a funeral. Many people attend a funeral service. They all see the same things. They all hear the same words. They all walk past the casket. However, not everyone at that service truly grieves. One might attend a funeral for a variety of reasons. One may be there because the person who died is a relative or dear friend (and there, one truly grieves). One may be present because the person who died is related to a friend and one is there to offer support. One may be there because the person who died is a leader in the community, in a meeting group, or work place, and one wants to honour the memory of the dead. In each case, the person is at the funeral. However, the person who truly grieves is the one who acutely feels the sense of loss. Tears well up. Heaviness overshadows his/her soul. Numbness sets in as a defense mechanism. Similarly, the person who worships in spirit is not merely present in a certain location and doing certain things. He/she is fully engaged in response to God.
- d) True worship involves reason. When Jesus told us that we must worship God in spirit and in truth, He was not only telling us we must worship Him emotionally but also that we must worship the true God in a way that is consistent with His nature and desire. True worship also involves our head, our REASON. True worship comes from people who are deeply emotional and WHO LOVE DEEP AND SOUND DOCTRINE. True worship can only happen in a person who has been made new in Christ. This is the only way we can come to God. Jesus said, “No man comes to the Father except through me.” The true worshipper is eager to learn the truth about God’s character, about His will, and His instruction. As he/she comes to glimpse the true and living God, he/she is moved by His character, stunned by God’s grace, overwhelmed with His mercy and is eager to follow God’s lead in his/her life.
- THE SAMARITAN WOMAN AND TRUE WORSHIP
Quite often, one may simply be going through the motions of religion rather than entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ. From all evidence, the Samaritan woman was truly changed. She acknowledged her thirst; she admitted her sin; she testified of her faith in the Messiah that would come, and then she went and told others that she had found that Messiah. The woman of shame became a newborn child of God. True worship has to go through the same process. Our worship may be dead because we view worship as a set of things we need to do rather than as a dynamic celebration of God. We may be focusing on requirements rather than relationship. We need to look beyond the activity of worship and set our hearts on the object of worship. Like the Samaritan woman, true worship entails learning about God and being moved by God. It is not just getting a good feeling for oneself; rather, it is about offering oneself to the God of life. Our goal in worship should be to lay ourselves open before Him knowing that no One is greater than He is; no One knows us better than He does; no one loves us more than He does; and no One is more deserving of our heartfelt praise and adoration.
- SIN AND THE MERCY OF GOD
This gospel text also contains a wonderful drama of sin and forgiveness. Human society organizes itself by erecting boundaries – national, ethnic, religious, and gender. Jesus shows in today’s gospel that in order to reach out to the other and create the necessary conditions for conversion, one must be prepared to challenge these man-made boundaries and break the dividing walls of prejudice. This is exactly what Jesus does to get to this Samaritan woman from the town of Sychar. In spite of the convention of the times, blocking Jews from interacting with Samaritans, Jesus stood up again injustice..
Today, Jesus breaks the walls of prejudice built on the foundations of ethnicity and religion, that kept the Jew and Samaritans apart. He breaks these boundaries by treating this woman with respect. Jesus never tries to condemn, threaten, or intimidate her. All he tries to do is invite (v. 7), challenge (v. 10) and affirm her (v. 17), patiently trying to enlighten her doubts in no uncertain terms (vv. 24, 26). Jesus makes such a tremendous impact on the woman because for the first time in her life she meets a man who really understands her. While other men treated her as thrash, here was Jesus treating her as a princess. Christ sees in her not the evil she had done but rather the heroine she could become with His encouragement.
This approach of Jesus shows that whenever we take the initiative to encounter our opponents in a friendly way, the outcome could be fantastic. Jesus used friendliness to engage hostility. In her excitement the woman even forgets her water jar and her physical thirst (and so also does Jesus) and runs back to the village, inviting the villagers to come and see “a man who told me everything I have ever done”. Probably, this was the first man to know her so well without rejecting her. Before you know it the convert has become a missionary bringing others to Jesus and to the joyful experience of conversion. In response, her fellow Samaritans went out of the town and came to Jesus (John 4:29-30). The Samaritan town’s people said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” (4:42)
The way Jesus handles the situation is very interesting. He began with the Samaritan woman as a stranger and ended up with her as a disciple. In the end, Jesus was recognized as the Messiah and the woman became a believer. In spite of her being an ‘adulterous’ relationship with another man, that did not deter Jesus. He dealt with the woman as she is and in the process brought salvation to her life. Many Samaritans of that town came to believe in Jesus on the strength of the woman’s testimony. The Samaritan town’s people even went further to invite Jesus, A JEW for that matter, to be their guest! Here, the credibility of the woman, whose testimony was inadmissible in a Jewish court based on the Jewish law of evidence, is now restored.
The Spirit of Jesus whispers constantly to us: “If you only knew the gift of God…” (Jn 4:10). Like the Samaritan woman, we have the hope that despite our sins, God’s compassion and mercy has restored us to life with Jesus. His forgiveness is infinitely more powerful than our guilt. This disposes us, during this Lenten season, and always, for true worship, the worship of God in truth and in spirit.