"In Spirit and in Truth"
21 March 1999
Text: John 4:21-24
To this day, a small group of Samaritans gather to celebrate the Passover on the summit of Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. It might seem a small matter to us that some form of worship has taken place on this mountain since the times of Nehemiah when a temple was erected there by Sanballet. The construction of that temple in opposition to the temple being restored in Jerusalem is a mute, and sad testimony to religious division. The Jews returning from exile held those who had remained behind in contempt, maintain that they were no true Jews, that their intermarriage and that their staying behind disqualified them from inclusion in the ranks of God’s chosen people. Furthermore, the Samaritans were accused of collaborating with the enemy, the Assyrians, as far back as the conquest of Israel, the northern kingdom. Centuries of rancor and bitterness, mutual hatred and strife marred the relationships between these two groups of peoples who used to be one.
Mt. Gerizim stands with Mt. Ebal as twin sentinels over two ancient highway routes, one running north and south to Jerusalem and one running to the east to Shechem and beyond. I do not believe it is accidental that routes of commerce are fraught with danger. Commerce can bring prosperity to a region, it can also bring cultural degradation and collapse. Many enemies other than alien armies can enter the land through its commercial avenues and wreak havoc with the culture, the social order. Alien religions, untruth, destructive ideas and perverse values can come down the pike, so to speak, enter the city and cause dissolution and collapse. Fortresses were built to control these routes of access, other defenses must be erected to protect a nation against the invasion of destructive ideas and values. Solid education in the truth, true worship and training in Scripture are among such defenses.
Mt. Gerizim was an attractive place to have a city. Jacob’s well provided a reliable source of potable water. The elevation of the mountain 2,900 feet above sea level and 700 feet above the valley gave visibility and the limestone formation was amenable to fortifications. This location, both a militarily and commercially strategic site, was also rich in Jewish history. Here Moses commanded the tribes of Israel to renew their covenant, six tribes (Simon, Levi, Judah, Isaachar, Joseph and Benjamin) were assigned to pronounce the blessings from the slopes of Gerizim and the other six tribes were to face them on the slopes of Mt. Ebal to pronounce the curses. (Deut. 27:12) This instruction was carried out by Joshua (Joshua 8:39-53) with the ark of the covenant placed between them. Mt. Gerizim has the distinction of being the traditional site for the tomb of Joseph who delivered Jacob’s family from starvation while governor of Egypt. And Mt. Ebal has the honor of being the site where Joshua is said to have built an altar, and written a copy of the Law on stones. According to the historian Josephus the temple on Gerizim was built later than the time of Nehemiah, in the times of Alexander the Great. This is questionable. What is less questionable is Josephus’ recording that the temple was destroyed around 130 BC by John Hycanus. In the fifth and sixth centuries, two churches were erected on Mt. Gerizim, the first by Zeno and the latter by Justinian.
It is significant that this is the site where Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and held discourse with her. It is an admission that under the terms of their historical division, the Jews and the Samaritans probably could not be united ceremonially, or religiously. The Law was not helpful in this regard; it was powerless before the schismatic and divisive tendencies of mankind in general, and the Jewish nation in particular. You will note that the rift has not been healed to this day. That is one compelling reason why the age of the Jewish economy had to come to an end, and the hour of the gospel had to replace it. If Jews, and Samaritans, and, of course, Gentiles are to come together, they must come together on gospel terms and in the Name of Jesus! There is no other hope for unity, or peace, or even harmony amongst the children of God. And the reasons for that have much to do with true worship, to which we must now turn.
Let’s not forget that the passage before is about a woman’s liberation from bondage. It is also about the forgiveness of sins. Some have read the woman’s redirection of the conversation to matters of worship, whether the Samaritans or the Jews had it right as to where true worship should take place, as diversionary, but I think not. It is better to take this as an intuition on her part that the disorder in her private life (the sin of adultery) might have something to do with false worship. And she is correct. False theology leads to immorality. Considerable weight is behind my view given that Jesus speaks to the matter of salvation in v. 22. His usage there is striking, he actually says "the salvation is from the Jews." Psalm 147:19-20 reads: "He has revealed His word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel. He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws." This specific salvation means a divine rescue from guilt, pollution and punishment for sin; therefore it concerns more than a person attaining eternal life. And, of course, if we think it through, salvation would have to have that broader significance if we are to make sense of Jesus’ mission. The blood sacrifice dealt with the removal of guilt, the Levitical laws dealt with pollution, with purity and impurity. The restoration of the nation Israel was an expression of divine forgiveness. Furthermore punishment for sin wasn’t something that Old Testament prophets felt was reserved for the remote future, as in the white throne judgment—they believed that punishment for sin was experienced in real time now as the nation was punished with strife, division, exile and so forth for corporate sin. They knew that a decline in communal morality, that corruption among the leaders of the nation spelled imminent disaster. Jesus meant all of this when he proclaimed that the salvation was from the Jews—he also meant that this particular woman’s deliverance from sin depended on her faith that he was the Christ. Her subsequent witness suggests that she did believe, and that she felt released—at least she was no longer concerned that her reputation might hinder growth in truth.
Forgiveness for personal sin completely transforms one’s worship life. Jesus wants this woman to know that some of the thins she has been taught have great weight, such as the physical location of where one worships, have become a matter of indifference now that the time has come that true worshippers worship the Father in spirit and in truth (v. 23). Perhaps we, too, need to be reminded that some great matters will vanish—such as matters of worship style, liturgy etc. The sole object of worship is to be God the Father as He truly is in all His truth. It is easy to clutter that singular object of worship with many other objects and lose ourselves in the process. Reason may suggest that decency and convenience should direct our worship life, but God urges us to be passionate as well. Without that flame of affection, worship can be decent, convenient and dead.
Notice that Jesus sides with the Jews in the debate about where worship should transpire. Gerizim is the wrong place because at that time Jerusalem was the right place; it was both mandated and available—although not convenient. But more significantly, the Samaritans were wrong because of their object of worship ("you worship what you do not know"). They worshipped God as if he were just a local deity, as if he were god of that place and not the universal cause and Lord of Lords. Those who are taught of scripture will worship both knowingly and acceptably. As Matthew Henry says, "Ignorance is the murdered of devotion." The Jews, worshipping in Jerusalem, could be true without being entire and pure. Indeed, we know from Jesus’ critique elsewhere it left much to be desired. They also tended to substitute the external for the internal, the show of observance for the substance of worship.
What is necessary and essential is to worship in spirit and in truth (vv.23-24). If worship tends to the ceremonial, there is a risk that the worshippers will be inclined toward the carnal. We must take care that we are not devoted externally at the expense of our inwardness. Our worship is to worship of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to step beyond the general worship of God by all creatures as Creator, or Father of all. God wants animated and invigorated worship, worship that is rational, yes, even intellectual: not longer a matter of mere ritual, external rites and magic! There is to a marked change in the temper and disposition of the worshippers, a greater spiritual vulnerability, a laying bare of the soul before God, or, if you prefer, under the influence of His spirit. A willing reliance on Him for strength, truth, direction and assistance demonstrated through a fixedness of thought and a flame of affection: "Let all that is within me praise His holy name!" As we read in Hebrews 12:28, grateful worship characterized by reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire. Such spiritual worship is the glory due His name because our God is a spirit.