“But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God [is] Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 NKJV).
These profound words were uttered in the midst of one of the most momentous conversations in the whole of human history—a conversation that began with a simple request, “Give Me a drink” (John 4:7). Given that it was a hot Palestinian day and that the lone traveler, Jesus, was wearily resting beside Jacob’s well, the request seems reasonable. However, it met with an extraordinary response: “How is it that you who are a Jew ask of me for a drink, since I am a Samaritan woman?” (v. 9a author’s translation). The woman’s shock is understandable, for the religious hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans at the time was intense. As John notes, Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with one another (v. 9b). Both groups were convinced that their religion was the truth; and those who are secure in that certainty have no need to converse with others.
In fact the conflict with the Samaritans was so bad that Jews, other than large groups, when traveling between Jerusalem and Galilee tended to cross the Jordan River to avoid traversing Samaritan territory. However, divine necessity rather than considerations of safety directed Jesus’ choices (“Now he had to go through Samaria,” v. 4 NIV), and Jesus’ next words begin to clarify that necessity. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (v. 10). Other than his being a Jew, the woman had no idea who Jesus was, how could she? As a Samaritan, she probably thought she had a good idea of the nature of the gift of God, but not of course its embodiment in Jesus. Jesus himself is the gift of God in whom we receive the Holy Spirit and eternal life.[i] But she did not know, and therefore she did not ask. The woman of course naturally relates Jesus’ reference to “living water” to the only water at hand—Jacob’s well. But in the woman’s view, Jesus had some insurmountable obstacles.
“Sir” (kurie), she says, “You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.[ii]Where then do You get that living water?” (v. 11). She then continues to query Jesus’ credentials with skepticism, “You aren't greater than our father Jacob who gave us the well and from which he, his sons, and herds drank, are you?” (v. 12 author’s translation). The question expects a negative answer for in her opinion it was obvious that he was not greater than the patriarch Jacob–a figure whom she pointedly claims for her own people (“our father Jacob,” “who gave us”). The irony for the informed reader of course is the knowledge that Jesus is indeed greater than the venerated patriarch Jacob.
In an attempt to disabuse her of thinking of the water at the bottom of the well, Jesus clarified the difference between the living water he was offering and the water at the bottom of the well. The well water only temporarily quenched a person’s thirst (v. 13), but the water which Jesus gave produced a perpetual source within a person’s being, springing up unto eternal life (v. 14). The woman hardly grasped the nature of Jesus’ offer, for she thought only of the earthly benefits. If she never thirsted again, she never need to come to draw water, “so yes please,” she exclaimed, “give me this magic water” (v. 15). Frustrated by the woman’s inability to think in spiritual terms, Jesus shifts the direction of the conversation by focusing on the woman’s personal situation.
“Go, call your husband, and come here (v. 16),” Jesus disarmingly suggests. “I have no husband,” she just as innocently replied. Jesus approves of her candor and points out that she’d had five husbands and was currently in a de facto relationship. Whatever the circumstances of her multiple marriages etcetera, the author expected the reader to jump to the conclusion that the woman’s moral behavior was suspect. But Jesus makes no moral comment or judgment of the woman. The woman was dumbfounded that this Jew, a mere stranger passing through her land, knew the details of her private life. Her background provided her with a ready explanation: “Sir (kurie), I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).
Just recently on a flight from Los Angeles to Sydney I sat next to a Rabbi. “I’m very interested in Judaism,” I enthused, “perhaps we can chat.” Most of us cannot resist bringing up our favorite questions on those rare occasions when providence or chance provides us with an exclusive audience with an expert.[iii] The Jews and the Samaritans bitterly disputed the other’s legitimacy and claimed their own temple and priesthood as the true one; in simple terms, whether Mt Gerizim or Mt Zion was the holy place. She had the attention of a prophet and that was an opportunity for her to get the issue authoritatively resolved, so she popped her question: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you [Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (v. 20). “Please prophet, who is right?”
Jesus’ answer is radical. The hour is approaching where the whole idea of sacred cities, holy hills, or hallowed ground is irrelevant. Indeed the hour has arrived for the genuine worshipers to worship the Father in spirit and truth. These are the kind of worshipers that the Father seeks not those who squabble over holy mountains and sacred cities (vv. 21, 23). The woman’s question is now passé and is reminiscent of a debate that has well passed its relevance. God himself is not material but Spirit, so the true (alēthinos)worshipers of him must do so in a mode that reflects the nature of his being, that is, Spirit and truth (alētheia) (v. 24).
Forty-eight times the Fourth Gospel uses the adjectives (true) and the noun (truth) compared with only ten times in the other three Gospels combined. This is a Johannine theme. God is true (3:33; 8:26); his word is true (17:17), the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26; 16:13), Jesus’ testimony is true (18:37), and he is himself the truth (1:14; 14:6). For John it is clear that the truth concerns God and his revelation through Jesus whom he sent. Believing in Jesus is to believe the truth about God. The woman is disappointed; the prophet had not answered her question, he had spoken in riddles. She still awaited a definitive answer. “I know that Messiah [Taheb]is coming” (who is called Christ). “When He comes, He will tell us all things” (v. 25).
She may not have grasped it, but the reader has; the hour of the Messiah’s coming had now arrived. Jesus’ reply is unequivocal even though it takes the matter beyond the question about holy mountains. He is the Messiah she awaited. “I am he,” (egō eimi), Jesus declared, “the man who is speaking to you” (v. 26, cf. Isa 52:6 LXX). Jesus confesses his messianic identity plainly to the Samaritan woman, but it was not easy for her to accept his claim. The Samaritan Taheb was not a messianic figure in the royal line of David, but a restorer in the image of the promised prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15).[iv] She would have heard Jesus’ claim to his identity in these terms; but whatever the differences in the nature of the hoped-for-Messiah (Taheb) in the two traditions, it is certain that the Samaritans did not expect him to be a Jew. The woman’s initial recognition of Jesus as a Jew now stands as a barrier to belief.
Nevertheless, the impact of Jesus’ words upon her was profound. Leaving her water jar behind at the well she returned to her township and told her people, “Come, see a man who told me everything as ever I have done. He’s not the Messiah, is he?” (v. 29 author’s translation).[v] The question expects a negative response. Her hesitancy might relate to the impossible thought for her that the Samaritan Taheb (Messiah) was a hated Jew. More probably she feared a negative response from her fellow villagers. She wisely avoided mentioning his nationality and kept with the vague “a man” (v. 29).
Jesus had invited her to call her husband; the woman in the end calls the whole village. The fact that John mentions the apparently minor detail of leaving her water jar (hudria) behind is significant. The only other example of this noun in the NT is the reference to the water urns used in Jewish purification rituals (2:6, 7). That fact provides a key to understanding the text. By leaving the water jar at the well, the Samaritan woman leaves behind the material--the religion of mountains, temples, and washings--and moves towards the worship that is in Spirit and truth. At the practical level, the jar by the well silently confirms that she intends to return.
The increasing recognition of Jesus’ identity is dramatic in its effect:
A Jew (v. 9)
Sir (kurie, vv. 11, 15, 19)[vi]
Prophet (v. 19)
Messiah (v. 29)
Savior of the world (v. 42).
So what does it mean to worship God in Spirit and truth? True worship is to worship God in Christ in whom the Father has made himself known (1:18). True worship in Christ knows no privileged people; there is no Jew or Samaritan. True worship in Christ has no place for gender inequality. The Samaritan woman bore witness to Jesus in the field that was ripe for the harvest, while the male disciples bickered over what food Jesus had eaten. True worship in Christ has no Mecca and no Jerusalem, no Washington or Rome. True worship in Christ invites whosoever to worship God wherever. The presence of God is not confined to buildings made with hands, and although I detest poor church architecture, I know that God is as much present in a tin shed as he is in the beautiful masonry of a King’s College chapel.
True worship in Christ cannot be confined to any single institutional structure. The Spirit is free like the wind (3:8). Yet true worship in Christ is not without moral bite. Those who are true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds are done in God (3:21). “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17:3). “The hour has now come when the only acceptable act of worship [must worship] is the total orientation of one’s life and action toward the Father, sharing already in the gift of the Father [in Spirit], a gift that is all that it claims to be [and truth].”[vii]
[i] Teresa Okure, The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual Study of John 4:1-42 (WUNT 2nd series, 31; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1988) 97-8.
[ii] It was over 100 feet (30 meters) deep.
[iii] As the flight path on the screen indicated we were about to cross the international date line and skip a day, I asked the Rabbi how this affected Judaism’s calculation of the Sabbath.
[iv] John also relates Deut 18:15 to Jesus, see Paul N Anderson, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel (3rd Printing with a new introduction; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010) 176-9.
[v] Her imperatives (“Come and see”) are reminiscent of Jesus’ response to Andrew and another disciple, Philip’s invitation to Nathanael, and Mary and the Jews’ request to Jesus (1:39, 46; 11:34).
[vii] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John [Sacra Pagina; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1998], 129. I have translated his Greek.