Worship in Spirit and in Truth


Scripture John 4: 8-42   Jan Savory 

The gospel reading we listened to today has Jesus returning to Galilee. While traveling through Samaria, he strikes up a conversation with a local woman. She is surprised, because normally Jews do not speak to Samaritans, and especially Jewish men do not speak to Samaritan women.

Once Upon a Time

worship in Spirit and in truth
Jacob’s Well

This discussion takes place at a well. Dr. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, says that this story is a type; that means that as soon as you hear the introduction you anticipate what’s coming next. Rather like if a story in English begins with “it was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”, you know what to expect.

Wells and Weddings
You may remember that in Hebrew scriptures several marriages proposals involved a well. Abraham’s servant finds Rebecca, a wife for Isaac, at a well. Jacob meets Rachel, his beloved wife, just a generation later at another well (the same well in our story). Moses meets seven sisters at a well in the land of Midian and goes home with them. One of the sisters, Zipporah, is given to Moses as his wife.

The stories of these encounters at wells are similar in that:

  • A man, a leader or future leader of the nation (or his surrogate), travels to foreign country, encounters a woman (or women) at a well
  • The woman (or women) hurry home with news of the visitor
  • Visitor meets up with and stays with the family
  • Wedding bells!


A different proposal

When John’s readers heard that Jesus met a woman at a well, the expectation was that a marriage would follow. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman fits into this pattern, except for the wedding bells. In this case, readers will be wondering what kind of a marriage story this might be. Maybe the woman herself is wondering that; could her brief and possibly enigmatic reply, “I have no husband”, be an invitation for a marriage proposal? But Jesus offers not a wedding ring but Living Water.

In this story the bond, the joining, is not between a man and a woman. Jesus describes an incredible future bond between Jews, Samaritans and all true worshippers of the Father. Not what John’s readers would expect! Jesus says: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

The woman points out that the Messiah  will explain all this when he comes.  Jesus reveals his identity for the first time in John’s gospel – to this foreign woman: I am he, the one who is speaking to you. I am the Messiah. I am (the divine name). So, the news that the woman goes home to tell her family and neighbors is not the wedding announcement, expected by the traditional pattern of this story, but is the good news of the gospel. And Jesus stayed with the Samaritans for two days.

What do we make of this story today?

Well, firstly, the gospel reading we listened to today is the longest conversation in the gospels. So, there is a lot in it. It is a model for relationships between different races (Jews and Samaritans), for theological discussion (where and how to worship), for evangelism (she goes home to spread the word) – just to name a few of the topics covered by this encounter.
But I want to return to Jesus words, quoted above, God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

I have been thinking a lot about Worship over the past few weeks, as we have continued with All age worship. Why do we worship? What is Worship? What does it mean to worship God in spirit and in truth?

In Spirit …

To say that we must worship God “in spirit” means, among other things, that our worship must originate from within, from the heart; it must be sincere, motivated by our love for God and gratitude for all God is and has done. For some people, this will be an emotional, outward experience – if God’s Spirit moves you to lift your hands, dance, and move around, do it! Or if God’s Spirit leads you into solemn reverence, as you remain seated and contemplative, do it! Both are expressions of worship originating from the heart. For most of us, we will need both outward and inward expressions of the Spirit in our worship from time to time, although in different proportions.

… And in truth

This worship, however, must also be “in truth.” Feel good songs are not worship if they are theologically incorrect or misleading. Worship is not formed by what feels good, but by the light of what’s true. That’s why, here at St George’s, we have eliminated some old favorites from our repertoire of hymns and sometimes omit verses from songs. Our worship must be informed by who God is and what God is like.

But, focussing on the truths of God’s Word doesn’t mean being a hyper-intellectual, arrogant elitist, nor do heartwarming, emotionally uplifting celebrations of God require us to deviate from Scripture and leave out brains at the door.

Heat and Light


Genuine, Christ-exalting worship, after all, is the fruit of both heat (Spirit / emotion) and light (truthful belief). The light of truth shines into our minds and instructs us about who God is. Such light in turn ignites the fire of passion and affection and the heat of joy, love, gratitude, and deep soul-satisfaction. It’s not either or; it’s both and.


In Spirit and InTruth

Some of us will feel that there’s too much emotion in our all age services and not enough reverence and teaching, while others insist there’s too much teaching and doctrine. Some will say we’re too experiential in our worship, while others contend we’re too theological. Personally, I don’t think you can be too much of either, so long as both are embraced and God is honored. When planning worship, it’s not an easy tightrope to balance the wants and needs of everyone, but we should never forget that our reason for worshipping is to honour God, remembering that true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

So, whether we are singing Taizé chants, like Jesus remember me, as we did last week, or praise songs like All who are Thirsty in today’s service, whether we are performing the actions to a song, or listening quietly to a homily, we are honoring and worshipping God in spirit and in truth.


Let us pray:

Loving God, we come here week by week to worship you in the beauty of holiness; to bow down in reverence and to proclaim your glory. Whether we worship you with loud praises or in silent awe, may our worship always be acceptable to you; may we always worship you in Spirit and in truth.