In Spirit and Truth

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 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.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” – John 4:16-26 ESV

The woman wanted what Jesus had to offer. The thought of a source of freely flowing water that would eliminate her constant need to draw water from the well of Jacob was more than appealing to her. But, like Nicodemus, she was missing the point of Jesus’ words. She had come to the well to meet a physical need. Her mission had been to draw water from the well for use in drinking, bathing, and cleaning. Water was a daily necessity that made living in that arid region possible. Without it, life would be impossible.

But even water has its limitations. It can be consumed to quench thirst, but in time, the thirst will return. Water can be used to wash away the dirt and grime of life, but it can’t prevent one from becoming filthy again. That’s why the woman was forced to return to the well on a daily basis. Her need for water was insatiable.

Yet Jesus had piqued the woman’s interest with His mention of  “living water.” But don’t miss how He had opened His conversation with her.

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” – John 4:10 ESV

The woman was clueless as to Jesus’ identity. When she had arrived at the well, she was surprised to find an unknown Jewish man waiting there. And her surprise turned to shock when this stranger dared to speak to her – “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9 ESV). Yet Jesus assured her that, had she known who He was and the nature of the gift He had to offer, she would have been the first to speak that day.

Jesus, in need of water to satisfy His thirst, had stopped at the well. But as the woman pointed out, He had “nothing to draw water with” (John 4:11 ESV). So He had asked her for help because she was the only one who had the means by which to satisfy His need. Yet, the inference behind the story is that the woman had a need for something far greater than water. And if she had only known the true identity of the stranger at the well and what He was capable of offering her, she would have been begging Him for the gift of God. 

It is easy to overlook the fact that both Nicodemus and this woman were worshipers of Yahweh. He was an orthodox member of the sect of the Pharisees. She was a Samaritan. He worshiped the God of Abraham at the temple in Jerusalem. Her people chose to worship Him at Mount Gerizim. Nicodemus prided Himself on his identity as a purebred Jew and a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. The Samaritan woman, though viewed as a half-breed by the Jews, believed that her people were worshiping Yahweh in the manner prescribed by Moses. But what both failed to take into account was their need for a Savior. While the Jews and the Samaritans believed in the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, they were clueless as to His real mission. 

The primary message found in chapters 3 and 4 is that of need, and Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman had the same need in common. The need for eternal life. But in order to have eternal life, they would have to experience cleansing from their sin. Jesus had described it to Nicodemus as birth from above. He described it to the woman at the well as living water. Both of these individuals, despite their obvious differences, would be denied access into God’s kingdom for the very same reason: Sin.

Nicodemus, while outwardly righteous in appearance, was guilty of hypocrisy, just like the rest of his fellow members of the Pharisees. Jesus would have some harsh words of indictment against these well-respected members of Israel’s religious elite.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” – Matthew 23:27 NLT

But the woman at the well had her own set of issues. Not only was she a Samaritan and, therefore, guilty of practicing idolatry, but she was also guilty of violating the law of God. As Jesus was about to point out, she was an adulteress. When he asked her to go get her husband, she confessed that she was unmarried. But Jesus knew more about her than she could have ever imagined, and He revealed to her the true nature of her need.

“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.” – John 4:17-18 ESV

Suddenly, Jesus shifted the topic of conversation away from water to sin. He made it painfully personal. And while the woman’s statement had been anything but a confession, Jesus declared that what she had said was more true than she realized. She had no husband because she was in an adulterous relationship. She was guilty of sin.

But in a somewhat awkward attempt to change the subject, the woman declared, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19 ESV). She desperately wanted to talk about something other than her five failed marriages and her current live-in relationship. So, sensing that Jesus had some kind of prophetic powers, she decided to ask Him about an important point of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” – John 4:20 ESV

By refocusing the topic of conversation, she was hoping to divert attention away from her own personal problems. But Jesus was not going to allow that to happen. He addressed her question, but in a way that brought the focus right back on her. In essence, Jesus let her know that the issue had less to do about where God should be worshiped, but the motive behind the worship. The Jews and Samaritans were busy debating about location, but Jesus was far more interested in motivation. Why were they worshiping God?

And Jesus dropped a bombshell on her that must have left her reeling.

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. – John 4:21 ESV

The worship of God wasn’t about a temple in Jerusalem or a shrine on Mount Gerizim. It was a matter of the heart. While the Jews had a more accurate understanding of God, they were guilty of worshiping Him falsely. Jesus would later declare of the Jews, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God” (Matthew 15:8-9 NLT).

And He told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22 ESV). The Samaritans practiced a form of syncretism that blended the worship of Yahweh with that of false gods. Their doctrine was polluted and filled with pagan ideas that rendered Yahweh virtually unrecognizable.

Jesus fast-forwarded the conversation to the future, revealing that a day would come when “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23 ESV). Worship will no longer be about location and the ritual observation of rules and regulations. It will be about a relationship with God based on spirit and truth. And Jesus informed the woman that the future hour to which He referred was actually “now here.” It had arrived. And He had been the one to usher it in.

But what did He mean by “spirit and truth?” And how had His arrival changed the nature of man’s worship of God? The two terms “spirit and truth” are actually meant to convey one idea. Jesus is attempting to define worship that which is “truly spiritual.” In other words, it is not some physical activity practiced in a particular place and according to some man-made set of governing rules. It is a matter of the heart, not the head. It is spiritual in nature and not physical. Going through the religious motions either in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim was not going to cut it. Both the Jews and the Samaritans had been guilty of worshiping the one true God falsely and unfaithfully.

But Jesus had come to make the true worship of God possible, by restoring sinful men and women to a right relationship with Him. To do so, they would have to be born of the Spirit, just as He had told Nicodemus. They would have to have their spiritual thirst quenched by the living water Jesus would provide. And just a few chapters later, John will describe Jesus standing in the temple courtyard, shouting:

Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’”(When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.).” – John 7:38-39 NLT

The true worship of God would be made possible by the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. And to receive the Spirit, one would have to accept the gracious gift of salvation made possible through the sacrifice of God’s own Son.

These words left the woman in a state of confusion. She was having a difficult time following what Jesus had to say. But she proclaimed her belief in the coming of the Messiah and her hope that He would clear up all the confusion regarding where to worship God. And that’s when Jesus boldly proclaimed to her, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26 ESV). The not-yet had become the now. The long-awaited Messiah had shown up and He was talking to her. The answer to her question regarding the true worship of God was standing right in front of her.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson