Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman as recorded in John’s gospel is one of the most instructive passages of Scripture on the topic of worship. As we look to this text, let us recall that the Samaritans were the descendants of the ancient northern kingdom of Israel who had intermarried with non-Israelites that the Assyrian Empire settled in the Promised Land after 722 BC. By the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, these Samaritans had developed a distinct theology, believing that the true place of worship was Mount Gerizim and following a version of the five books of Moses (Genesis–Deuteronomy) edited to reflect that belief.
This information forms an important backdrop to our Lord’s comments that God is seeking worshipers who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). The Samaritans were not worshiping God in truth, for they had altered God’s Word and were not offering sacrifices in the true designated place for sacrifice—the temple on Mount Zion. Yes, Jesus was soon to fulfill the temple’s purpose and establish an order in which worship could be offered elsewhere (vv. 20–23), but that had not yet happened when He spoke to the Samaritan woman. Our Savior’s words, therefore, served as an implicit critique of Samaritan practices and all worship not regulated by God’s Word. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John: “Our worship must be based on God’s self-revelation in Scripture. He is truth and His Word is truth.”
In addressing the Samaritan woman, Christ also spoke of spiritual worship. He said that those who worship God must “worship in spirit and truth.” What does this mean? First, note how worship in spirit is combined with worship in truth. This tells us that we cannot have one without the other. Whatever else it may be, worship that is not conducted according to the truth of God’s Word is not worship in spirit.
John Calvin’s comments on this text explain what it means to worship God in spirit: “The worship of God is said to consist in the spirit, because it is nothing else than that inward faith of the heart which produces prayer, and, next, purity of conscience and self-denial, that we may be dedicated to obedience to God as holy sacrifices.” To worship God in spirit is to worship Him with the right spirit—to worship Him in true faith that believes what He says and that He rewards those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). In other words, worship in spirit is not worship that merely goes through the motions. To worship in spirit is to set our hearts and minds on the Lord when we praise Him.
Dr. Sproul also comments on today’s passage that Jesus exhorts us “to see that the worship we offer comes from the depths of our souls, from our inner spirits, from the very cores of our being.” There will be an outward form to our worship, but it must not be dead formalism. In worship, we must give to God all that we are, loving and glorifying Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.