17 The woman answered, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You said well, ‘I have no husband,’ 18 for you have had five husbands; and he whom you now have is not your husband. This you have said truly.”
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father. 22 You worship that which you don’t know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
This is a brief article on the phrase spirit and truth from the English text. There are two perspectives in John’s account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The first is of the woman’s life experience. The second is of her familiarity with the Samaritan worship experience. These experiences offer clues and insights on life and worship. It is hoped believers may obtain an appreciation and understanding of the words spirit and truth spoken by Jesus.
A life without spirit and truth
Jesus met a Samaritan woman at the water well in the above passage from the gospel according to John chapter 4. The meeting is a picture-story of the power of truth to make one free. Jesus listened and discerned the woman’s life as one without direction and without God. She may not have understood what Jesus revealed to her about the inseparable closeness of life and worship, but she understood his point on her personal history and Samaritan history. Life and worship are as inseparably close as a husband and wife. They are as inseparably and closely related as, Jesus said, in how God must be worshiped in spirit and truth.
When Jesus broke bread with the Samaritan woman in John 4 it was a feast on the words of life. The disciples who had gone into the nearby village to buy food missed it. They were not as bold as the woman to speak out what was on their hearts when they returned and found Jesus talking with the woman. They missed, like many of us today, the manner in which Jesus listened, discerned and captivated her attention in order to set her free.
What Jesus saw in the woman was not unique. She was a woman, a human being. She had tried in vain to enjoy, rejoice and live life without spirit and truth. Her life was not unlike others who seek happiness, fulfillment or escape through self abuse, good deeds or in relationships as did she with one husband after another. How do the words spoken by Jesus about worshiping God in spirit and truth reveal the absence of spirit and truth in the Samaritan woman’s life and those lost in sin in this world? The clues to this answer are in the context of the passage.
The words that are spirit are truth
The first clue is that her question to Jesus reveals her knowledge of worship was based on what people said, not the divine, higher authority of scriptures. Jesus, on the other hand, alluded to the ancient, established, written fact of what the Jews knew. They knew God. They knew how God was to be worshiped. They knew this by the spirit, that is, the revelation from God to Moses and the prophets. This revelation is that written as the Spirit gave instruction for all Israel to know, serve and worship the Lord. The worship the Samaritan woman knew from the perspective of the fathers was merely of what they said, not necessarily what was written.
Jesus expressed this fundamental message of spirit to his disciples: “The words that I speak to you are spirit.”
The second clue is that Jesus was well aware of the worship of the fathers beginning with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. They worshiped God long before God ever gave his will in written form for them to know and to follow. The worship of God by the fathers was part of Israel’s perspective. Their past and present worship from the time of Abraham to Moses up to the time of Jesus was what they had known. Israel had the perspective of worship from Abraham before it was written, from Moses who received the written instruction, and now in their midst and despite their unbelief, from Jesus; the manifestation of Spirit and Truth. Without the knowledge of truth the woman lacked confidence. She did not possess the perspective to assert her convictions of worship in spirit.
Too often the determination is to seize, not handle rightly, the phrase spirit and truth as a proof-text and sound bite for all-things right. Truth is applied similarly on what is a lie and deception, but also of those things we do not understand and cannot teach with conviction. Like the Samaritan woman the response is to cite ancient and modern writers for their thoughts. Whether or not these thoughts are right or wrong is not nearly as vast a travesty as a disciple who lays claim to know the spirit and truth, but cannot articulate it in his/her own words.
What the Samaritan woman did not understand about her own life without direction was matched by what she did not know about what she worshiped. Some may wonder what she could possibly know or care about worship. However, Jesus was unfazed by her evasive talk to turn away his piercing discernment of her personal life. He drew out of her not her personal life but the thirst in her parched, fear-filled heart. It was not a thirst which could be satisfied by yet another commitment to another man. It was a thirst which could be satisfied by God only. It was from the hurtful and distorted perspective of past, present and future which marked her life that she wondered aloud:
Where ought one to worship God?
The truth which makes one free
What do these perspectives about the Samaritan woman’s life experience and her worship of God have in common with us today? How does Jesus relate these perspectives to set the woman free?
First, perspective is the relationship of one point (or part) to another point. For example, the perspective from the end of your extended arm to your nose to your other extended arm represents three different points. Yet, all three points (or body parts) are related to the same body. The right hand the nose and the left hand are the same regardless from where these are viewed. Their distance from each other remains the same regardless of the point of view. They do not change. Another example involving an immoral sin which was judged to be a murder in the past, remains a murder in the present and will remain as a murder in the future. It does not change whether it is viewed through sources such as newspaper and personal account in the past or present day accounts. What may change, though not necessarily, is how it is viewed by people. Those who were directly affected by the murder may or may not forgive and move on with their lives. Others may not and continue in living in bitterness.
The way in which the perspectives of life experience and worship of God are in common with us today is that both involve past, present and, and implicitly, the future.
The Samaritan woman had a husband in the past, she had a husband in the present and she would likely have the same or another husband in her future. The past and present worship with which she was familiar was what she had heard from the fathers and would likely be the same she would continue to follow in her future.
Second, Jesus stated numerous times He came from the Father, He was here to do the will of the Father and He would return to the Father. This was Jesus’ simple way of revealing a great truth in terms we humans could appreciate even if we are slow to understand his words.
Third, this great truth is what made the woman free and what makes us free. Jesus said,
“You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
What is the truth that we are to know which makes us free from a life of sin and without direction to serve and worship the living God? It is being able to look at our past from this present moment and understand and appreciate that God was always near and present even while we suffered or reveled in our sinful lives and understanding this we can rejoice in his saving grace in our obedience and commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior now and in the future.
Jesus knew and proclaimed with confidence 1) He came from the Father (origin, the past), 2) He was here to do the will of the Father (purpose, the present) and 3) He would return to the Father (destination, the future)
Those who know the truth and are made free are those who understand they 1) came from the Father (origin, the past) 2) to know and glorify God, and 3) will return to the Father (destination, the future). Whatever and all sins, past, present and future, are forgiven of those who put their trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior and live their lives in obedience to Him. This is truth.
Those who are in the Spirit and in the Truth rejoice with great joy. Their lives are in fellowship with the saints in Christ. They worship God in spirit and truth.