I don’t always like the Gospel of John. It often seems too detached and “spiritual.” From the beginning Jesus is the Word from heaven and sometimes I wonder if he ever actually makes it to earth in the that Gospel. Some of the extended speeches attributed to Jesus (e.g. John 6 and John 10) can seem hopelessly vague. I find myself quickly reading through them finding little or no connection to “the bread of life” or “the good shepherd” and the “gate for the sheep.”
My struggle with the Fourth Gospel is perhaps typified best in John 4 where Jesus says to the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” What in the world does that mean Jesus? And how does that help this poor woman? God just wants people to be more spiritual? “Woman at the well, God wants you to be good charismatic and evangelical Christian. Devote yourself to the Holy Spirit and sound doctrinal truth.”
As I was in this passage a few weeks ago the broader context began to transform my reading of this verse, and it makes me curious as to what else I am missing in John’s Gospel (I assume the answer to that question is “a lot”). This passage is not about “the woman at the well,” it is about “the Samaritan woman at the well.” In the conversation that precedes the “spirit and truth” verse, it emerges that the woman is living within a socially, racially, and religiously divided world. It is a world of “Jews” and “Samaritans,” a world of “us” and “them.” Each side has tried to claim that God is only present on their piece of holy land. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” This is the context within which Jesus speaks the truth that “God is spirit.” As spirit God transcends these boundaries and the true worshipers who worship the true God must do the same.
What does it look like to worship God in spirit and in truth? Jesus is enacting it in front of us as he willfully transgresses the social, ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries that separate him from this Samaritan woman. He enacts a unity between all people – one people under one God regardless of the labels they wear. Worshiping God in spirit and truth is not mostly an interior worship in my heart via the Holy Spirit, it is an embodied love for the “other” because of the love of the One God who is Spirit and who is not defined by the things that too often define and divide us. If you do not know who “the other” is, just find a person who everyone at your church “would be astonished” that you were speaking with and begin there to worship God in spirit and truth. The Father is seeking such to worship him.