Jesus explained worship
to a Samaritan woman.

Map showing Sychar

The Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim was God's chosen place for the temple, rather than Jerusalem. Sychar was a Samaritan city on the northern flank of Mount Gerizim, about 60 km north of Jerusalem and about 70 km south of Capernaum.

One day at noon, a woman of Sychar went to draw water from Jacob's well near the city. She had done this many times before, but this day would be different. She would have an amazing encounter with a Jewish stranger.

Jesus was on His way north from Judea to Galilee. John, one of His disciples, tells what happened.

“So He came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, 'Give Me a drink.' For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food” (John 4:5-8).

This woman viewed Jesus as a condescending stranger, but Jesus viewed her as a precious soul who needed something more than the water she came to draw. Jesus established rapport by asking her for help!

“Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, 'How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?' For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered and said to her, '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'” (John 4:9, 10).

As Christians, we know that Jesus was not referring to physical water. Later, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus said: “'He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:38, 39).1 From this we understand that Jesus would not give the Holy Spirit to the Samaritan woman immediately, but later if she repented and became His follower.

The Samaritan woman did not know about this gift, so she thought He was referring to physical water. In Greek, “living water” was the common designation for “flowing water”.

“The woman said to Him, 'Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?' Jesus answered and said to her, 'Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.' The woman said to Him, 'Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw'” (John 4:11-15).

The heavy burden of fetching water has traditionally fallen to women. Although she did not understand what she was asking, the prospect of not having to fetch water was attractive! What Jesus had to offer was worth much more, but a problem in her life had to be addressed first.

“Jesus said to her, 'Go, call your husband, and come here.' The woman answered and said, 'I have no husband.' Jesus said to her, 'You have well said, “I have no husband,” for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly'” (John 4:16-18).

In a masterful way, Jesus addressed her sin and demonstrated His prophetic power. He did not condemn. He just stated the facts of her life. She knew she was doing something wrong.

“The woman said to Him, 'Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.' Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 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 4:19-24).

Realizing that Jesus was a prophet, she asks about the correct place for worship, a point of contention between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus replies that the place will no longer be significant, and He explains that those who worship in spirit and truth are the true worshipers God seeks!

When Jesus spoke of living water, He knew she would not immediately understand. Now, however, he is explaining worship to her, “Woman, believe me,” so He would use language she could understand. The normal meaning of worship “in spirit and truth” would be worship “in one's spirit and with sincerity.”

Paul uses “in truth” with this meaning in Philippians 1:18. “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.”

Once, when I spoke with an elderly Catholic priest in Belgium, he said that he agreed fully with a tract on the Lord's supper I had given him. I asked, “How then can you speak the words you say when you celebrate mass?” He replied, “Well, you must understand that much of Catholic worship is play-acting.”

Jesus was correcting the common error of superficial worship that does not come from the heart.

“The LORD is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).

Only in spirit can man truly worship the Father of spirits.

In the Old Testament, worship in spirit is described as serving the Lord with all ones heart and soul. “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Which worshipers please God? “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). “For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: 'I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones'” (Isaiah 57:15).

Because Jesus referred previously to the Holy Spirit, some have suggested that worship “in spirit” refers to worship in the Holy Spirit.

The Samaritan woman, however, would not have understood “in spirit” to be referring to the Holy Spirit, and since Jesus began his explanation with, “Woman, believe me,” He would use language she could understand.

An important principle in understanding the Scriptures is to take expressions in their ordinary sense unless a less obvious meaning is evident.

“The woman said to Him, 'I know that Messiah is coming' (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 4:25, 26).

The Samaritans expected the Messiah. This woman believed in the Christ! She now hears this man, who knew the details of her life, declare that He is the Messiah! She leaves her waterpot, forgetting about physical water, and returns to the city to share her experience with others!

“The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, 'Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?' Then they went out of the city and came to Him. ... And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, 'He told me all that I ever did.' So when the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word. Then they said to the woman, 'Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.' Now after the two days He departed from there and went to Galilee” (John 4:28-30, 39- 43).

What did Jesus teach the woman at the well about worship? There would no longer be a local center of worship anywhere on earth. God who is Spirit seeks true worshipers who worship Him in spirit and truth.

Roy Davison

End Note:
1 For ‘living water’ see also Revelation 21:6; 22:17.

The Scripture quotations in this article are from The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers.

Published in The Old Paths Archive