Jesus was in conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The conversation got off to a wonderful start about the life-giving water Jesus has to offer (John 4.7-15). The woman was deeply attracted to Jesus – not in a sexual way, but because she clearly is desperate to find meaning and fulfilment in her life.
However, the conversation became a little embarrassing as Jesus revealed that he knew all about her failed relationships with men (John 4.16-18). So she tried to change the subject and began to talk about worship.
Sir, I see you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped God on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship God is in Jerusalem” (John 4.19,20)
The “mountain” in question was Mount Gerizim, visible from Sychar, on which the Samaritan temple had been built around 388 BC. In effect she asked Jesus: where is the best place to worship God? Is it on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans worshipped God, or on Mount Zion, where the Jews worshipped God? In our terms, perhaps, is it in one of the great traditional cathedrals with all its wonderful liturgy, or is it in one of the newer churches with all the life and energy of so-called contemporary worship?
Jesus in his reply stated that where we worship God is irrelevant. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (4.21). True worship is not about where we worship, but who we worship. It is not about a particular place, it is about the expression of a relationship. What counts are “true worshippers”, who “will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks” (4.23).
Twice Jesus spoke about the need to “worship God in spirit and in truth” (4.23, 24). However, nowhere did he define what such worship is. What, for instance, does it mean to worship God “in spirit”? Interestingly, in the NRSV the “spirit” is not capitalised, nor is the definite article present: whereas in the GNB the “Spirit” is spelt with a capital ‘S’ and is a reference to God the Spirit. “God is Spirit and only by the power of the Spirit can people worship him” (4.23, 24GNB).
The key to true worship is surely that it is offered “in the Spirit”: i.e. that it arises from our hearts, which have been touched by the Spirit of God. “God is Spirit”, said Jesus, and the Spirit is above all the life-giver. At the very beginning of creation God through his Spirit swept through and gave form and substance to our world (Gen 1.2). In the new creation God through his Spirit causes us to be born again (John 3.5,8). The Spirit is the life-giver – and he it is who gives life to our worship.
But worship is also offered “in spirit”. “God is spirit” in the sense that he is not visible or tangible – he is not restricted to a particular form. Neither is he restricted to a particular form of worship. Spiritual worship is worship of the heart and will. Inevitably such spiritual worship is invisible and intangible, like God himself. Onlookers cannot determine whether worship is truly spiritual. Admittedly a sign of spiritual worship may well be that it touches the emotions. And yet emotions can sometimes be misleading and can be an expression of superficial emotionalism, as was the case of the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.26-28). What counts is not how we express our worship, nor where we worship, but rather from where our worship comes. It needs to come from the innermost parts of our being.
True worship needs also to be characterised by “truth”. As John stated in his prologue: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17). The “truth” in question is the truth about God. So John went on: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1.18). Jesus is the truth, in the sense that he alone reveals the truth about God. In this respect it is significant that immediately after Jesus has talked about the need to worship God “in spirit and in truth”, the Samaritan woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming….When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4.25). Unwittingly she hit the nail on the head. Jesus has proclaimed “all things to us” – or at least, everything we need to know about God. To worship God “in truth” is therefore to worship the God who has made himself known in Jesus.
In particular true worship focuses on the God who had made himself known in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. We see this in the way in which Jesus introduced the theme of true worship: “The hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (4.23). This term, “the hour”, appears a number of times in John’s Gospel, and is always associated with the death of Jesus and his subsequent exaltation. For example, when Greeks came looking for him after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus said, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12.23). Later as John begins his account of the Last Supper, we read, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father” (John 13.1). In other words, it is in the darkness of the Cross as also in the light of Easter Day that we begin to see the truth of God as it was in Jesus – and only then “can people worship him as he really is” (John 4.24 GNB).
So in the light of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well, let’s reflect on what it means to worship God in a way that pleases him. For many people today worship is about pleasing self. We choose a church because it has a worship style which pleases us. Yet the essence of true worship is that we should be seeking to please God. True worship must have God at the centre. That is the meaning of the English word ‘worship’. Derived from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘weorthscipe’, worship is an abbreviation for ‘worthship’. In worship we acknowledge the worth of God. In worship we celebrate who God is and what he has done for us. Worship is all about putting God at the centre.
There is no one right way to worship God. God doesn’t care two hoots whether we worship him with a Bach chorale or a modern song – dare I say it, God is tone-deaf. What he wants is our worship.
What’s more, he wants worship which arises from the Spirit. The Spirit can be at work in worship that is carefully prepared and thought-through. After all, we speak of the Scriptures being ‘Spirit-inspired’, but much of Scripture has gone through a long process of careful construction. What is true of Scripture, should also be true of sermons. The fact is that neither liturgical nor free worship is necessarily more spiritual than the other. They are but different forms of worship. The key to worship is that it arises from our hearts, hearts which have been touched by the Spirit of God.
Finally, true worship responds to the truth in Jesus. For Jesus is the truth (John 14.6), in the sense that he alone reveals the truth about God, and therefore he is the only true and living way to the Father. True worship is always Christo-centric. It centres on the God who has above all made himself known in Jesus who died for us on the Cross and who rose for us on the third day. It is when we begin to see what God has done for us in Jesus, that we in turn want to respond by giving our all to him in worship. There is therefore no more fitting a place for worship, than around the Table of the Lord.