April 8, 1984
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
God Seeks People to Worship Him in Spirit and Truth
(John 4:16-26 ESV)
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.”
If people are spiritually asleep you have to shock them, startle them, scandalize
them, if you want them to hear what you say. Jesus was especially good at this.
When he wants to teach us something about worship he uses a whore. "Go call
your husband!" "I don't have a husband." "That's right. But you've had five, and the
man you sleep with now is not your husband." She was shocked. We're shocked.
But Jesus simply sits there on the edge of the well with his hands folded, looking at
the woman with razors in his eyes ready to teach us about worship.
The first thing we learn is that worship has to do with real life.
It is not a mythical interlude in a week of reality. Worship has to do with adultery
and hunger and racial conflict. Jesus is bone-weary from the journey, hot, sweaty,
thirsty -- and he decides: "Yes, even now, just now I will seek someone to worship
God -- a harlot, a Samaritan adulteress. I will show my disciples the worship that
my Father seeks and how he seeks it in the midst of real life from the least worthy.
She is a Samaritan. She is a woman. She is a harlot. Yes, I will even show them a
thing or two about how to make true worshipers out of the white harvest of harlots in
Let's go back to the beginning, John 4:4-6. "Jesus had to pass through Samaria on
his way to Galilee. So he came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field
that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there and so Jesus, wearied as
he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about noon." Before we
meet this woman who comes to the well, recall who Samaritans were. They were
the remnant of the northern Jewish Kingdom who had intermarried with foreigners
after the chiefs and nobles had been carried into exile in 729 B.C. They had once
built a separate worship place on their own Mt. Gerizim and they rejected all of the
Old Testament except their version of the first five books of Moses. The animosity
toward Jews was centuries old.
Jesus walks right into this hostility, sits down and asks for a drink (v.7). The woman
at the well is amazed that Jesus would speak to her. "How is it that you, a Jew, ask
a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" Instead of answering her directly, Jesus shifts
the focus of her amazement up a level. He says (in v. 10), "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." Jesus says that the really amazing thing
is she is not asking him for water. He calls it living water and he calls it the "gift of
But the woman doesn't rise very high. Her background has not made her a prime
candidate for spiritual insight. She was more like the three guys behind Karsten and
Benjamin and me at the Twins game on Thursday who kept saying how full of beer
they were and arguing endlessly like five year olds about whether Eisenreich should
have tagged up on third base. She was simply enslaved to the flesh. Her spirit was
dead. She simply says (vv. 11-12), "How can you give me water when you don't have
a bucket? And if you want me to drink water that doesn't come from Jacob's well,
then you must think you're greater than Jacob. Well, if this water was good enough
for Jacob, it's good enough for me." She's not on Jesus' wavelength yet at all.
So Jesus again lifts the level of amazement (vv. 13-14): "Everyone who drinks of this
water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never
thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up
to eternal life." The amazing thing is not just that I can give you water without a
bucket, but that the water I give takes away thirst forever and, even better than that,
it will turn you into a spring that brings eternal life to yourself and others.
What did Jesus mean? Proverbs 13:14 says, "The teaching of the wise is a fountain
of life." Perhaps then Jesus meant that the wisdom he gives satisfies the soul and
turns a person into a fountain of life. Perhaps the water is his teaching. But the
closest parallel to verse 14 is John 7:37-39, "Jesus stood up and proclaimed, 'If
anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the
Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.' Now this he said
about the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive." Just like John
4:14 this passage speaks of a drinking in and a flowing out. But here John makes
plain that Jesus is speaking about the Holy Spirit. It's the presence of God's Spirit in
your life that takes away your frustrated soul-thirst for ever and turns you into a
person who overflows with life for others instead of sucking up other people's life like
But probably both these answers are true -- that Jesus' teaching satisfies your thirst
and makes you a fountain of life, and that the Holy Spirit satisfies your thirst and
makes you a fountain of life. Jesus kept the word and Spirit together. For example,
in John 14:26 he says, "The Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, he will
teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said." The work of
the Spirit of Christ is to make the word of Christ clear and satisfying to the soul.
When we come to Christ to drink, what we drink is truth -- but not dead, powerless
facts. The Spirit and the Word unite to slake our thirst and make us a fountain of
life. (See 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:13.) The word of promise and the power of the Spirit are
the living water offered to the Samaritan harlot.
I hope this encourages you as much as it does me.
Sometimes I feel so dead and so sinful that I don't see how I can be of any use to
the church any more. But up 'till now God has always come to me at those times
and graciously shown me something like this -- the hope that a worldly, sensually-
minded, unspiritual harlot from Samaria can become -- not just saved (which would
be wonderful enough) -- but a fountain of life. She can be used to give life. And I take
heart that if I just turn from my sin and keep drinking at the well of Jesus' words, I
may still be of some use to this congregation. And so can you if you just drink deep
at the right well.
I think that's what Jesus wanted her to see. But harlots and beer-bellied baseball
fans have hardened their spiritual senses so deeply they can't taste what Jesus
means. So she says (in v. 15), "Sir, give me this water that I may not thirst, nor
come here to draw." Beware of giving up on people too soon. This woman seems
hopelessly carnal. She can't see beyond her physical senses. But Jesus aims to
make her a worshiper of God in spirit and truth.
So now he touches the most sensitive, vulnerable spot in her life -- "Go call your
husband." The quickest way to the heart is through a wound.
Why does Jesus strip open this woman's inner life like this? Because he had said in
John 3:20, "Everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light
lest his deeds should be exposed." Concealed sin keeps us from seeing the light of
Christ. Sin is like spiritual leprosy. It deadens your senses so you rip your soul to
shreds and don't even feel it. But Christ has set his sights on this woman's
conversion. So he lays bare her spiritual leprosy. "You've had five husbands and the
man you're sleeping with now is not your husband."
Now watch the universal reflex of a person trying to avoid conviction. She has to
admit in v. 19 that Jesus has extraordinary insight ("You're a prophet!"), but instead
of dealing with her guilt she tries to suck Jesus into an academic controversy: "O,
so you're a prophet, well, where do you stand on the issue of where people ought to
worship?" Verse 20: "Our fathers worshipped on this mountain; and you [Jews] say
that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." A trapped animal will
chew his own leg off. A trapped sinner will mangle his own mind and rip up the rules
of logic and discourse. "Why, yes, as long as we're speaking about my five
husbands and my adultery, what is your stance on the issue of where people should
worship?" Brothers and sisters, that kind of double-talk and evasive, verbal footwork
is very common. And texts like this incline me to think that wherever I hear it
someone is hiding something. If your conscience is clean reason can hold sway; if
it's not, you will be instinctively irrational.
It's interesting, though. Jesus never goes back to the issue of adultery. It was a
thrust against the sealed door of her heart. But now his foot is in and he is willing to
take the very issue she raised and use it to finish his saving work. She raised the
issue of where people ought to worship, Jesus responds by saying, "That
controversy can't compare in importance to how you worship and whom you
worship." How and whom are vastly more important than where.
Verse 21 turns her attention from where to how: "Jesus said to her, 'Woman, believe
me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you
worship the Father."' In other words, it is not the location that makes an act of
worship authentic. Worship is not merely an external act that you can accomplish
by going to a place. Jesus said in another place (Mt. 15:8): "This people honors me
with their lips but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me." Worship is
first and foremost an experience of the heart. Prayer without heart is vain. Songs
without heart are vain. Confession and creeds and liturgies and sermons that don't
come from the heart are empty and worthless in God's eyes. So Jesus says to the
woman: Don't get hung up on irrelevant controversies. How you worship is vastly
more important than where.
Then verse 22 introduces the question of whom you worship.
"You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from
the Jews." When all our efforts to be gentle and sensitive and respectful of another
person's religion are done, the time eventually comes when you have to say: Biblical
worship is true worship and yours is false. That will often be thrown back in your
face as a statement of arrogance. But it isn't. If there is truth, and you have bowed
humbly before it, then to try to persuade another person to bow with you is not
arrogance. It is love. The Samaritans rejected all the Old Testament except for their
version of the books of Moses. Their knowledge of God was deficient and so their
worship was deficient. And to tell them so was as loving as telling a person with
lung cancer to stop smoking.
So in verses 21 and 22 Jesus directs the woman's attention away from the external
question "where" to the internal question "how" and the theological question
"whom." Worship must be vital and real from within and it must be based on a true
perception of God. Now verse 23 sums this up with the key phrase "in spirit and
truth": "But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship
the Father in spirit and truth." The two words, spirit and truth, correspond to the how
and the whom of worship. Worshipping in spirit is the opposite of worshipping in
mere external ways. It's the opposite of formalism and traditionalism. Worshipping in
truth is the opposite of worship based on an inadequate view of God. Together the
words "spirit and truth" mean that real worship comes from the spirit within and is
based on true views of God. Worship must have heart and worship must have head.
Worship must engage your emotions and worship must engage your thought. Truth
without emotion produces dead orthodoxy and a church full of unspiritual fighters.
Emotion without truth produces empty frenzy and cultivates flaky people who reject
the discipline of rigorous thought. True worship comes from people who are deeply
emotional and who love deep and sound doctrine.
Therefore, as a pastor I agree with Jonathan Edwards when he said, "I should think
myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I
possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections
that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with." I think of it
something like this: The fuel of worship as the truth of a gracious, sovereign God;
the furnace of worship is your spirit and the heat of worship is the vital affections of
reverence, fear, adoration, contrition, trust, joy, gratitude, and hope.
But something is missing from that analogy, namely, fire.
The fuel of truth in the furnace of your spirit does not automatically produce the heat
of worship. There has to be fire, which I think is the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus says in v. 23, "True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and
truth," some take him to mean "in the Holy Spirit." I've taken him to mean that
worship must come from your spirit within instead of being merely formal and
external. But in John 3:6 Jesus connects God's Spirit and our spirit in a remarkable
way. He says, "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In other words, until the
Holy Spirit touches our spirit with the flame of life our spirit is so dead it does not
even qualify as spirit. Only that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. So when Jesus
says that true worshipers worship in spirit he must mean that true worship only
comes from spirits that are made alive and sensitive and vital by the touch of the
So now we can complete the analogy: the fuel of worship is the grand truth of a
gracious and sovereign God; the fire that makes the fuel burn white hot is the
quickening of the Holy Spirit; the furnace made alive and warm by the flame of truth
is our renewed spirit; and the resulting heat of our affections is worship, pushing its
way out in tears, confessions, prayers, praises, acclamations, lifting of hands,
bowing low and obedient lives. Notice verse 34. When his disciples come back with
food Jesus says, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish
his work." The work of God is to seek real worshipers. Jesus was sent to
accomplish this work. Therefore we should see the whole interchange with the
Samaritan woman as the work of God in Jesus seeking a real worshiper. In verse 35
Jesus applies his example to us, "Do you not say there are yet four months and
then comes the harvest? I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are
already white for harvest." There is a white harvest of harlots in Samaria. I have just
made one into a real worshiper. That's why the Father sent me, so send I you. God
seeks people to worship him in spirit and truth. Here comes the city of Sychar white
unto harvest. If you love the glory of God make ready to reap.
COPYRIGHT John Piper