Spirit and Truth

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” — John 4:16–26 ESV

Here in John, we find Jesus is alone at a well in Sychar. It seems that Jews who were taught from childhood to avoid interaction with Samaritans, still found a way to purchase food when they were hungry, so the disciples wandered off into town. The disciples would learn that if you wanted a day off, you couldn’t safely leave Jesus alone. They get back with food and find him having a conversation with a woman.

Life for the disciples must have felt like one continuous cultural confrontation after another. There were so many things wrong with the situation that the disciples were initially dumbfounded. First, he’s needlessly talking to a Samaritan. Bad enough by itself but it’s a woman. And not only that, the woman is there to draw water at noon. Women who go to the village well in the heat of the day do so to avoid other women who come in the morning. There’s never a good reason for that. The woman, in this context, would have presumed Jesus’ motives to be sexual. A proper woman would have scurried off back home.

Jesus had asked the woman for water, which it seems he never gets, because the two engage in a series of questions and answers which seem to have left the woman baffled. Nevertheless, she does understand that Jesus knows the correct number of lovers she’s been with. Inexplicably, this Jesus seems to know her, who she is, and how she’s lived her life.

Now the Jews from Jerusalem felt they held exclusive rights to places of worship. After all, Herod the Great had gone to a great deal of trouble and expense to build a spanking new temple. They just couldn’t have folks worship any old place. Besides, there was this ethnicity issue with Samaritans that wasn’t going to be fixed, no matter where they worshiped. On a scale of who you’d want your daughter to marry, Samaritans ranked just below pigs and dogs. Jews decided long ago it was best to just snub them altogether as a stern warning to others that they should avoid not being Jews from Judea. The truth that there was probably no ethnic difference between them would have been a hard sell to either group.

The woman, having met what might be a genuine prophet, brings up the spiritual question of the region. Namely, are we wasting our time trying to talk to God up on the top of our local mountain? Does God really only listen to Jews in the temple? Now, what constituted worship on top of that mountain isn’t precisely known but it was probably an odd mixture of animistic and Jewish traditions. It’s likely Samaritans were loosely monotheistic, but there’s little doubt that a Pharisee would tear his clothes if he had to watch.

Jesus, tactfully tells her that, in terms of worship, Samaritans don’t know what their doing. He says that Jews, like himself, do know what they’re doing, and that salvation is from the Jews. That response would have been expected by the woman and probably approved by the Pharisees. Samaritans had been hearing that sort of thing for generations. It’s what he says next that is surprising. Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” This is new. He’s saying that something is different and not just someday, like your usual prophetic proclamation, things are different here and now.

This particular excursion was early in Jesus’ ministry. There may have been only five disciples at this time. This encounter is one of the earliest times when Jesus directly discloses that he is, in fact, the Messiah, which is something he avoided in Judea. It seems that the closer Jesus was to that temple where the Jews worshiped, the more discrete he needed to be about his identity. Yet here in the land of the despised, and to a woman even shunned by them, Jesus plainly announces that he is the long awaited Messiah. Of course, this kind of announcement would be, and ultimately was, a death sentence in Judea. What prophets and angels of the ages longed to see but could not, Jesus openly proclaims to this woman in Samaria.

Jesus is doing what Israel would not. He is taking good news to the gentiles. God’s desire was always to bless Israel so they, in turn, could be a blessing. But the opposite happened. They shunned and despised everyone who wasn’t them. This idea was so entrenched in their world view that the disciples themselves struggled long after Jesus was gone to think of gentiles as worthy of their gospel.

I think the woman’s response makes her one of the most spiritually astute people Jesus will encounter. She leaves her jar and immediately goes back into town to invite others to come and meet this prophet. She does this knowing what the people in this village think of her. None of that matters now. This may actually be the Messiah! Everyone needs to know! Who she is and what she is isn’t relevant. She has somehow stumbled across a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price. She has chosen to share it. Even with those who may despise her.

But Jesus is saying that God himself is seeking her. He has left Jerusalem and come to her, at this well, to find her at this very hour. God wants to give her his living water which will spring up in her as eternal life. God desires to be worshiped by this woman in spirit and in truth. I think that even today we fail sometimes to see the significance. One of the first persons God chooses to share his good news is to a despised woman living in sin among a shunned people. Yet this is precisely who God is seeking.

This woman understands little of what Jesus says to her. She does understand that Jesus has crossed cultural and moral barriers to tell her that God is seeking to be worshiped by the likes of her. Why would God do that? She is the least likely person, in the least likely place, to be sought out by God.

But maybe… just maybe… If God is seeking this woman then maybe he’s seeking me? Someone like her who understands little of what Jesus is saying to me. Someone who fears that a God who could know my sin and my shame could ever be seeking to be worshiped by likes of me. He wants to give me his living water which will spring up in me as eternal life. I want this water. I didn’t understand the depths of my thirst until, like the woman, I heard Jesus ask, “Please give me a drink.”

The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” — John 4:9–10 NLT

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