God is Spirit
John 4:24 "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
Down through the centuries our world has seen many disputes that have involved religious ideas and teachings.
Some have blamed the whole idea of religion itself and concluded that the world would be better off without religion at all. Others, while not wanting to go that far have instead suggested that religion should be regarded as a purely personal matter. Conflicts would end if people were to recognise that their religious views should be seen as individual and personal and so were the views of everyone else. In short each person was entitled to hold his own opinion and what’s more each opinion is equally valid because it is personal and individual.
Both these approaches to religion have one thing in common – they both deny that religion can have anything to do with absolute, objective truth; both deny that there is such a thing as religious right and wrong. Those who want to get rid of religion entirely will tend to patronise those who do hold to their beliefs as weak immature people who need to grow up. Those who see religion as a purely personal matter will tend to patronise in a slightly different way and will say things like: "I’m glad it works for you" but will avoid any attempt to have it for themselves!
When we think about that encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well we find that Jesus viewed the whole matter of religion very differently. For Jesus some things were non-
It all began simply enough. Jesus was tired. His disciples had gone off to get some food and Jesus was on his own. The woman came to draw water from the well and Jesus asked for a drink.
That’s how it all began but soon the conversation moved on. Jesus started to introduce some spiritual ideas but the woman failed to understand what he was talking about. She was intrigued however and expressed a desire for more.
At this point Jesus pricked her conscience by referring to her current lifestyle. The woman tried to shut that down but Jesus made it clear that he knew what her life was like. She began to realise that the man she has met by the well is no ordinary person. How could he possibly know the details of her private life? The conclusion she came to was that he must be a prophet.
It is at that point that the conversation takes another abrupt turn:
Perhaps she was simply trying to change the subject after all it was uncomfortable to have her failures in life exposed in this way
Perhaps she seized the opportunity of talking to a genuine prophet who might be able to help her with a problem that had long troubled her
Whatever her motivation the Samaritan woman raised the important and significant matter of worship. She makes a statement behind which lay a question that Jesus was quite prepared to answer.
What was the issue?
v.20 "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship."
The implied question was:
"Who is right?"
She wants to know what Jesus, as a prophet, has to say.
Now whatever her motivation was in making this statement, Jesus treated it seriously. In answering her Jesus was going to give some profound theological teaching to her. In doing so he will shine light into her life as she begins to suspect that he might be the Messiah himself. When she expresses to him the thoughts that are beginning to sprout in her mind he simply and clearly confirms that she is entirely right.
I suppose one thing we could say at this point is that we should not be afraid of theology! We should not be afraid to think deeply about God – who he is, what he is like and how he desires to be approached. Deep thinking about God will stretch our minds but will do us the world of good as it will help us to appreciate something of his greatness and at the same time it will enable us to better appreciate what Jesus has done for us!
Jesus Speaks about the true Worship of God
The woman had spoken to him about her awareness of the fact that her people and the Jews held different opinions concerning the worship of God. Specifically she referred to the geographical location as to where such worship was to be offered.
Now before we consider Jesus reply it is important for us to notice that he shared the assumption that underlay what she said to him. She assumed that men and women ought to worship God and Jesus fully shared this conviction. There is one true and Living God and it didn’t (and doesn’t) matter what a person’s background is, what their culture, what their ethnic origin is or what nation they belong to, all are made in the image and likeness of this God. All benefit from his goodness as well – ‘he sends rain on the just and the unjust’ (Mt.5:45). Paul, preaching later in Athens, would declare about God that:
The truth is a simple one – a human being is created to be a worshipper. Are you then living as you ought in this regard? God is looking for such people.
Again, before we consider what Jesus actually said we should notice what he didn’t say. The woman had spoken to him about two alternative opinions concerning worship about which she was aware. If religion was a private or individual matter that didn’t relate to matters or truth or matters of right and wrong he had just been given a marvellous platform to say so. But he did nothing of the sort. Far from saying that each was to do what was right in his own sight he declared that there was such a thing as truth:
The Samaritan woman was not only in danger of doing the wrong thing – worshipping a "god" she didn’t know – she was also in danger in thinking in categories that were even then becoming outmoded and outdated. It is true that in time gone by the true worship of God was centred upon Jerusalem but Jesus was even then inaugurating a new age in which people would not have to travel to a physical temple in one city to worship but would be able to worship God in every place.
The important elements of true Biblical worship do not focus upon secondary, outward factors such as geographical location as though being in the right place or doing the right thing is the sum total of worship.
Jesus made it clear in his reply to this lady that worship that was acceptable to God (true worship) was the worship of spirit and truth. Mind and attitude are crucial. Mindless worship is a contradiction in terms. Biblical worship involves knowing whom we worship, being in relationship with him, knowing and understanding the truth about him and responding in a spiritual manner towards him.
Paul explained to the Romans what this looks like:
Rom.12:1 "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."
The words translated there as "spiritual worship" are rendered in some translations as "reasonable service" and emphasises the fact that the mind, understanding and will are all involved. The more we know, the more we understand and the more we respond the more we are becoming the type of worshippers that God wants us to be.
God is Spirit
I’ve already said that Jesus gave this woman some profound theological truth upon which to reflect. It is time for us to turn to what he said. It is important for us to remember that he did not suddenly turn from practical advice on real everyday issues to abstract theological reflection. He introduced theology as the very heart of that practical advice.
God is spirit, he said
But what does that mean?
Well it means, at the very least, that God:
is not made of any physical matter
does not have a material body
does have a more wonderful kind of existence
he is everywhere present (hence worship is not confined to one place as if God were in any way confined)
is not perceived by the bodily senses
is so powerful that he brought the universe into existence
is not to be represented by idols "in the form of anything" and that includes not only pictures or statues but also mental pictures where a person says "I like to think of God as..."
The Westminster Shorter Catechism helps us summarise what the Bible teaches us about this One True Living God. In answer to the question "What is God?" it tells us:
"God is a spirit, Whose being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable."
This doesn’t mean that God belongs to the category of spirits as though that is how we might classify him and relate him to others. The little word "a" makes the sentence read well in English but we must never imagine that God is anything other than one of a kind – he is utterly unique. He is Spirit.
The more we think and reflect on the wonder of this God the more we will be led into true worship. We will not be satisfied with going through a few outward movements, of performing a few religious rites, we will want the whole of our life and being to respond to this God. This is no leap in the dark, no wishful thinking, no shutting down of our rational capacities but the result of the fullest employment of those faculties. We will not be content until our response is wholehearted – hence the plea of the psalmist:
Ps 86:11 "Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name."
The Woman’s Reaction, and Ours?
As Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman her memory stirred within her. She’d been taught in the past that one day God’s specially anointed one would come, the Messiah, and he would lead people into the truth. This man talking to her was making things so clear to her on such important matters, could he be the one, was he the Messiah?
She told Jesus what he was thinking and he confirmed her thoughts. He was indeed the Messiah.
She shortly afterwards went away and talked about her experience with anyone who would listen in her home village. Jesus had made such an impression upon her that they couldn’t fail but to notice the difference. They in their turn came out to him and they too were convinced by him and believed.
Serious thinking about deep spiritual matters and it led her to faith in Jesus. Serious thinking about deep spiritual matters will not only lead you to faith in him it will lead you into deeper, stronger, more robust faith in him and it will issue in more appropriate, more spiritual worship.
Let us marvel that God has spoken to us and let us hear his voice.