In John Chapter 4, verses 1-26, we have the account of a conversation that Jesus had with a woman of Samaria. It is a fascinating exchange, and it gives us insight into the nature of true religion.
Jesus and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee following their trip to Jerusalem, and they took the direct route which led through Samaria. The Samaritans, at least to the Jews’ way of thinking, practiced a debased form of Judaism, and hence weren’t really Jews. And a Jewish man ordinarily would not be seen talking to a woman in public, least of all a Samaritan woman. But here Jesus found Himself, weary from His journey, sitting on a well in Samaria, when lo, a Samaritan woman came by to draw water from the well. Jesus, thirsty, asked her for some. The woman was surprised that a Jewish rabbi would make such a request of her, and the remarkable conversation began.
Jesus replied to her surprise by saying, “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” (v. 10; NKJV). The woman, of course, had been thinking in terms of normal social relations: Jews normally did not have anything to do with Samaritans. What she did not realize at this point is that she was not dealing with an ordinary Jewish man. She was, in fact, dealing with the Messiah Himself. And what He had to offer her far surpassed what she had to offer Him.
But what did He have to offer? He says that He could give her “living water.” She, of course, had no idea of what He was talking about. Just a minute earlier He had been asking her for water. He obviously did not have any means of drawing any water Himself from the well. And so Jesus goes on: whoever drinks from the water in the well will eventually get thirsty again. “. . . but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14). Here Jesus is evidently not talking about literal, physical water, but rather of something inside of a person that leads to everlasting life. As John makes clear later in his gospel (John 7:39) Jesus was, in fact, speaking of the Holy Spirit, whom He compared on the later occasion with “rivers of living water” (7:38). Jesus is using vivid imagery drawn from the real life experience of people who live in dry, arid climates: a river of water brings life to the soil it touches. Without water the land becomes a barren desert.
There is an important spiritual truth here. We are directly dependent upon God for whatever spiritual life we have. In and of ourselves, in our natural condition, we are spiritually dead, devoid of spiritual life. Our only source of spiritual life is God Himself: He must impart it to us, and this He does through the agency of the Holy Spirit. In the process of conversion the Holy Spirit convicts us, enlightens us, and finally indwells us. It is an inward spiritual renovation accomplished by the power of God, and it leaves us changed persons – alive to God and to spiritual reality.
But the conversation with the Samaritan woman does not end there. The woman does not quite understand what Jesus is telling her – she still thinks that Jesus is talking about literal, physical water, and she asks for some of it, “that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw” (v. 15). But then Jesus does something unexpected: He tells her to get her husband. She says that she does not have one. “Right you are,” Jesus says in effect. “For you have had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man you’re living with now” (v. 18, paraphrased). The poor woman was probably floored. How could He have possibly known such a thing? But, as it turns out, He was right, and she began to realize that there was something special about Jesus. “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19).
This led her to ask Him a question. The Jews worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem; the Samaritans worshiped on Mt. Gerizim. Who was right?
What Jesus tells her is nothing less than astonishing: “. . .the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father” (v. 21). He goes on to explain: “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” (v. 23)
Here Jesus is making an important statement about the nature of true worship. True worship. True worship is not tied to physical surroundings because it is essentially a spiritual activity. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him much worship in spirit and truth” (v. 24). God Himself is Spirit – He is not a corporeal being, and hence is not tied to a physical space, and He does not have any physical needs. Therefore He can be worshiped anywhere and everywhere.
But if worship is not tied to a physical location, how do we worship? How do you worship God when you are not in a “house of worship”? The answer is, you worship Him in your spirit. As human beings we are both flesh and spirit. But the real “you,” your real personality, resides in your spirit, your non-corporeal self. And that is the part that can have communion with God. And so that is the part of you that God wants to have worship Him.
Unfortunately it is all too easy for us as human beings to go through the outward motions of worship and not worship God at all. We can sit in the pew, sing the songs, put money in the offering plate, and listen to the sermon. But if the heart is not engaged, if we do not feel a genuine love for God and joy in what He has done for us, our “worship” is all sham and pretense. It is not worship at all. It is sheer hypocrisy. And God can see right through it; He is not impressed at all.
What is needed then, in the modern church, is genuine spiritual life and genuine worship. For too long we have been content merely to “go through the motions.” The real question is, what kind of spiritual life do we have when we are not sitting inside of a church building? This is not to say that God wants us to forsake His public worship. But true spiritual life does not cease the moment we exit the building. If it is the real thing, it grows and thrives throughout the week. It is evident to others. It is “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”