Most Christians will be familiar with the Bible text: ‘The Father is looking for those who will worship him . . . in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23b-24, New Living Translation throughout this study). But how rarely does anyone consider that its context (John 4:1-42) actually shows us the lengths to which God went to find a lot of genuine worshippers on that occasion, with implication for us as his agents today.
- Jesus’ tiring search
(a) He had to leave a flourishing ministry of ‘making disciples’ elsewhere
‘Jesus knew the Pharisees had heard that . . . his disciples [were] baptising . . . more disciples than John. So he left Judea [in the south] and returned [north] to [his native] Galilee’ (John 4:1-3).
(b) On the way, God prompted a detour by ‘the road less travelled’
‘He had to go through Samaria on the way’, although Galilean Jews would cross the River Jordan and travel along its eastern side, deliberately avoiding this area where Jews were unwelcome (John 4:4).
(c) He arrived in the vicinity of potential worshippers when he was weary, thirsty and alone, a condition not conducive to sociable conversation (John 4:5-8)
‘Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside [Jacob’s] well . . . alone . . . because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food’ (John 4:6,8).
(d) An unlikely candidate to become a ‘true worshipper’ arrived at an inconvenient time of day – ‘about noontime’ (6)
Around midday the sun’s heat was fiercest, and most inhabitants would stay in the shade. Usually women gathered at their local well in the evening (Genesis 24:11).
(e) She considered Jesus an intruding outsider
We, too, in our commission to seek for genuine worshippers, could initially encounter such resistance as: (i) racism, (ii) gender inequality and (iii) religious prejudice.
‘The woman was surprised, for (i) Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan (ii) woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”’ (John 4:9). And later: (iii) ‘”Sir,” the woman said, “ . . . why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place to worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshipped?”’ (John 4:19-20).
- Wisdom was needed in handling objections
(a) God gave him discernment about her current state and circumstances
This woman was devoutly religious but, like Jesus, she too was (i) alone, (ii) thirsty and (iii) weary. When he mentioned ‘the gift God has for you’ (John 4:10), namely ‘eternal life’ as ‘a fresh, bubbling spring within’ (John 4:14), she pleaded, “Please, sir, . . . give me this water! Then (ii) I’ll never be thirsty again, and (iii) I won’t have to come here to get water’ (John 4:15).
(b) He side-stepped her irrelevant objections
When Jesus offered her eternal like, indicating his own vital role as Messiah (“if you only knew who you are speaking to, you would ask me . . .” (John 4:10), she straightaway became argumentative.
First she raised a practical objection (‘“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep”’, John 4:11). Then she made a historical observation: ‘“our ancestor Jacob . . . gave us this well”’ (John 4:12), implying that Jesus was Johnny-come-lately! But, of course, he needed no mechanical equipment, and he most certainly did share in her ancestral heritage of this spring; but all these facts were of no consequence concerning her need of salvation, so he simply ignored them.
(c) He enabled her to face her real blockages.
When she expressed her longing to be released from her persistent thirst and lack of inner rest (John 4:15), he helped her to face the true cause of her inner disquiet. Since the Father is seeking for those who will worship him in spirit and ‘reality’ (Greek aletheia, John 4:24), the candidate must ‘get real’. When he told her, “Go and get your husband” 16), her instant reaction was a give-away: “I don’t have a husband” (John 4:17). ‘The Jews held that a woman may divorce twice or at the most three times. If the Samaritans had the same standard, the woman’s life had been exceedingly immoral’ (The NIV Study Bible). And to co-habit without being married was certainly taboo. This became for her what is commonly called ‘a light bulb moment’ – ‘Sir, . . . you must be a prophet’ (John 4:19).
That’s when she tried to ease her conscience by arguing about where to worship (John 4:20). To which he plainly replied, ‘It’s not a question of where by how you worship’ (John 4:21-24).
Having become real she could now ‘worship the Father in . . . truth’ (John 4:24).
(d) Then she needed to receive the ‘living water’ (John 4:10) of ‘eternal life’ (John 4:14) to be able to ‘worship the Father in spirit’ (John 4:23)
And she needed to experience ‘eternal life’, about which Jesus had spoken to Rabbi Nicodemus while in Judea (John 3:1-17, especially 14-16). When, at that vital point in their conversation she said, ‘“I know that Messiah is coming – the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus told her, “I AM the Messiah!”’ (John 4:25-26).
(e) She became an instant worshipping witness
In that moment a spiritual artesian spring gushed up from within her innermost being (compare John 7:37-39) and she began worshipping God and witnessing to fellow humans. ‘The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! – well, that’s how it felt! – Could he possibly be the Messiah?” (John 7:28-30). So the people came streaming from the village to see him.’ And after two days of hearing Jesus’ message (John 7:40-41) they were convinced ‘that he is indeed the Saviour of the world’ (John 7:42).
Our Lord described those couple of days as ‘harvest time’, ‘the crop’ being the ‘people brought to eternal life’ (John 7:35-36).
- Jesus is our role model
We have been watching the Saviour enact Paul’s exhortation: ‘Make the most of every opportunity’ (Ephesians 5:16).
Love is more than mere unselfishness. Our Lord demonstrated:
 vulnerability – he was transparently weary, thirsty and lonely;
 humility by asking for a drink; he thus maintained the attitude of his incarnation (‘he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave’, Philippians 2:7);
 availability – ‘Ask me . . . and I’ll give you’; and
 mutuality – as Paul pleaded with his spiritual children in Corinth: ‘Our hearts are open to you . . . I am asking you to . . . open your hearts to us’ (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).