Worship - John 4:1-26
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God’s Big Plan for the Church
It has been described as ‘worship wars’. Many a local Christian fellowship has faced far greater splits than even that between Remainers and Leavers in the Brexit debate, over the question of how should we worship God. Those wearing the WWJD bracelets might ponder the question: ‘What Would Jesus Do’, say, on a Sunday morning? Or, ‘Where would Jesus go for worship? Or ‘How would Jesus worship?’ Would it be high church- smells and bells or low church- drums and guitars? But before we can answer those kinds of questions, we have a more fundamental question which we can answer with far greater certainty: WDJS- ‘What does Jesus say about worship?’ And we would be hard pressed to find a better passage in the Bible which tells us than John 4 and Jesus’ fascinating encounter with the woman at the well.
The word ‘worship’ is like the word ‘love’, everybody thinks they know what it means until there’re asked to define it. At one level it seems so simple. Our word, ‘worship’, comes from the Old English term referring to a person’s worth- their ‘worth-ship’. So for Christians this means that we acknowledge and celebrate God’s worth as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At yet another level it seems so deep. We might think for instance of the definition by Archbishop William Temple which is one of my favourites, ‘Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose - and all of this is gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.’
Notice how in both definitions worship is a rightful response to God. Although it involves us- as it is our response, the ‘submission of our nature’, the ‘quickening of our conscience’ and so on, worship is primarily about God, who he is and what he has done which demands a response. But this is not the demand of a robber with a gun insisting you hand over your valuables, but more like the demand of a lover or a beautiful work of art, which elicits our love and appreciation, such that we feel compelled to adore- like when we say, ‘Isn’t she wonderful?’, ‘Isn’t that painting beautiful?’ As David Peterson so helpfully puts it, ‘Worship is engaging with God.’ But how do we do it? Well, Jesus tells us.
First, we discover what lies at the heart of worship.
Here is a woman whose promiscuous lifestyle (having had five husbands and now living with a man) is a mirror of the religious promiscuity of the Samaritans themselves as we see in 2 Kings 17, with the worship of multiple gods- the ‘baals’ which actually means ‘husbands’. By the time of Jesus, they were back to worshipping only one God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but without the fuller revelation of the rest of the Old Testament. The Samaritans had only the first five books of Moses. And in many ways the lonely trek by this woman to the well during the heat of the day (v6) is symbolic of the inner spiritual longings all of us have, something which Jesus picks up on in v10, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” What is that all about?
‘Living water’ was a common expression referring to flowing or spring water, in contrast to still water. In the desert, springs were literally life savers. And so not surprisingly some of the prophets use this picture to describe the renewal God gives to those who come to him, ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ says Isaiah (Is.12.3).
So what is Jesus referring to when he talks about himself being the source of this living water?
It could be two things.
First, living water represents the revelation Jesus gives which leads to eternal life. Proverbs 13:14 says, ‘The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life’. The woman may have sensed this because in v19 she says, ‘I see that you are a prophet’, that is, some kind of spiritual teacher. So here, living water is linked to truth.
Second, it could be the Holy Spirit. Earlier in John 7:37f, Jesus had said, ‘“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” And then John gives us a helpful explanation, ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’ In John 14 the Spirit is described as the Spirit of truth and in John 6, ‘the giver of life’. God is the giver of not only natural life (bios) but spiritual life (zoe)- a living, breathing relationship with him, through Jesus who is the ‘the way, the truth, the life’. Do you see?
Bringing these two together, which Jesus will do later in v24, we are taken to the heart of what we are placed on earth for and so given an understanding of what real worship is all about. Worship is the proper and joyful response to the reality of God (truth) which is personal and life changing (life)- symbolised by living water. Real worship is not like sipping from a stagnant pool- that’s idolatry, trying to find meaning in things other than God leaving you dissatisfied and sick; rather it is like bending down beside a running spring, in order to lap up great draughts of cool water which satisfies and invigorates. In this case the living water in nothing less than God himself in Jesus Christ mediated to us by the Holy Spirit.
In verse 23 Jesus says that the Father seeks ‘true worshippers’. Now, in most religions it is worshippers who seek God. The Bible presents us with something radically different, a God who seeks out worshippers, and what is more, who creates worshippers through his Son so we become ‘tasters’ of living water.-that is what lies at the heart of worship.
This brings us to the object of worship.
You know, it is only too possible to worship sincerely and yet falsely. That is the case here with the Samaritans, v22, ‘You Samaritans worship what you do not know.’ Sure, they knew something of God; after all they did have the first five books of the Bible. But because their knowledge of God was only partial their worship of God was defective. Think of a person with a severe eye condition like astigmatism. If the condition is so acute such that all they register is blurred, grey shadows- can they be described as really ‘seeing’? In one sense they can- there is some connection between the object out there and what the brain registers. But on the other hand it can hardly be described as ‘seeing’ at all because it is so woefully defective. So it is with defective worship of God. There is such a thing as blind worship which is empty. No, for genuine worship to take place, real knowledge is required- truth. Without the guidance of God’s Word we end up worshipping falsely- a fake god of our own imagination. As Calvin puts it, ‘For unless there is knowledge present, it is not God that we worship but a spectre or ghost.’
Just think about it: can we relate to God unless we know God? If I am to give God his worth, then I need to know his worth in terms of his holiness, his wisdom, his majesty, his power and his infinite love. And I can only know these things if he reveals them to me- which he has done in the Bible. This is why Jesus says that the Jews worship what they know, v22, because their faith is solidly based on what God has done for them in history, recorded in the Scriptures. Psalm 136 describes the LORD as Creator and Deliverer and the response made 26 times (worship) is ‘For his steadfast love endures for ever’. That is not just a statement of fact; it is a shout of praise. Knowing who God is and what he has done leads to devotion.
This naturally brings us to the manner of worship which Jesus pinpoints for us in v23f, ‘Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman is concerned with the question of where to worship; Jesus is concerned with a more fundamental question: how we worship because if we don’t get that right, then where we are won’t matter all that much if it is false worship we are engaged in.
You see, God is in the business of giving birth to worshippers by the living water of Truth – the revelation of God in Christ- and Spirit- the regenerating energy of God. And as both of these are essential to our becoming Christians they are crucial in our continuing as Christians as we worship.
Let’s take truth first. Genuine worship is mindful and not mindless. It has as its object the great God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father gave his Son-so that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life- and the Son sends the Spirit, to indwell the believer giving eternal life.
Let me put it this way: weak views of God lead to weak worship, whereas great views of God lead to great worship. Here is someone who had a great vision of God and so could engage in great worship of God- Jonathan Edwards; just listen to this: ‘Christ in the gospel revelation appears as clothed with love, as being as it were on a throne of mercy and grace, a seat of love encompassed about with pleasant beams of love. Love is the light and glory which are about the throne on which God sits…the light and glory with which God appears surrounded in the gospel is especially the glory of his love and covenant grace.
When you meet the God of Isaiah 40, the Triune Majesty of Revelation 5, the Creator of Jeremiah 10, and the self-giving God of Philippians 2, the only response possible, is to bow down and worship. We need to be fed the Truth. Which ties in with what Scott was saying last week- the church is a school- a school for Christ.
But, let me say that I have known people who have had theology coming out of their ears and who yet speak of God as if he were some interesting mathematical theorem. That means that there is something lacking there, which is the second aspect of real worship- the ‘Spirit’. Not only does God engage our minds, he captures our hearts, our hands and our imaginations too. The whole of our being is to be energised by him and this is the work of the Spirit.
Now, it is important that we recognise that these are the kind of worshippers God is looking for. In other words, he sets out the terms and conditions by which we can approach him, not us.
Perhaps we can think of it in this way.
We have a Queen who, I gather, is warm and gracious when she speaks to you. But it is not possible for anyone to approach her whenever they want and in whatever way they want. There are certain protocols to be observed. I don’t know if you have seen the film ‘The Queen’, but there is one scene when the new Prime Minister- Tony Blair and his wife have their first audience with the her Majesty at Buckingham Palace. Before they go into the room, an official lays down certain dos and don’ts. They are to address her as Mam (as in Spam) and not Ma’m (as in arm). They are never to turn their back on the Queen and so on. That is the way it is when you approach Majesty. Are we to think there will be any less conditions attached when approaching Holy Majesty? In the Old Testament very strict directions were given to the priests and the people: which sacrifices were to be offered and when; what kind of clothes had to be worn and how; which days were considered holy and so on. This was because of the nature of God- he is holy; and the nature of man- we are sinful. Without certain things being in place such an encounter between God and man could only result in one thing- -the destruction of sinners; as dark is swept away by light, so sinners are swept away in the presence of Holiness. That is, unless God provides the means whereby we can come into his presence safely.
So let me say this: all the provision we now need to enter into a worshipful relationship with God has been met in Jesus. He is the sacrifice whose blood cleanses us from every defilement. He is the priest who ushers us into his Father’s presence. He is the temple, the meeting place between God and man because he is God and man in one person. And as we are joined to him by the Holy Spirit we become part of that temple too. In short, it is only possible to worship God in Spirit and in Truth- that is, by way of the Gospel, there is no alternative given by God- it is on his terms or not at all.
And when Spirit and Truth come together true worshippers are formed and genuine worship happens. Look at verse 25-26 and then 39-42, ‘The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he [lit. I am]; v 28, ‘Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him. v39, ‘Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”
The truth that Jesus is the Christ, and more than that, the ‘I am’, is disclosed and the woman is animated in such a way she makes her way to the village which had shunned her as a loose woman and spreads the Good News about Jesus. In response the Samaritans gather around Jesus for themselves, and insist he stays on to teach them. The result? They make their own profession which itself rings with praise, “we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.” That is worship. Worship begins in the heart of someone who has encountered the Truth in Christ, who is restored to God through Christ and transformed by the Spirit of Christ. It then propels her out into the world to proclaim the praises of Christ with the result that believers are formed and gather around Jesus to be instructed, delighting in his presence and proclaim his praises too- this is the ‘Saviour of the World.’
Just let me mention a few points for us to take home.
First, God is the primary mover in worship, he enables us to come to him and adore him with sins forgiven and new lives given. Just as Jesus came to this woman, God comes to us. And so God’s Word must take priority in worship. We must not only be instructed we need to be inspired. As our vision of God is expanded (truth), then our hearts are stirred (Spirit), and our devotion is intensified-(worship), spilling out beyond our church gathering into everyday life-(mission).
Secondly, our worship should be befitting this God. This means we need to prepare ourselves for worship. To come to worship with our minds cluttered with other things means God will not get of our best. As God addresses us through His Word we worship him by listening carefully and not going to sleep or day dreaming. What we offer should be our best-in our music, our prayers, our teaching, our singing, our conversations before and afterwards-knowing God is here.
Thirdly, worship is the purpose of mission, as John Piper says- ‘The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God.’ The apostle Paul made that point in Ephesians 1 as we saw a few weeks ago. The purpose of salvation and the church is all ‘for the praise of his glorious grace’-worship. Heaven is a place filled with worship because it is a place filled with God. God’s desire, and as should be ours, is for more people to worship this God, giving him his due, his ‘worth- ship’. As a wife is adored by her husband and this is to his delight and fulfilment, humans are made to adore and enjoy God. That is what we see happening here with the Samaritans.
Let me finish with this quotation from David Wells, which brings this altogether: ‘Nothing is more important to our understanding of worship than this: we come to the Lord, not because it is our idea to do so, or because we need to do so, of even because we like to do so, but because he first came to us. Worship is our response to what he has done. Worship undoubtedly has its benefits. However, it is not primarily about our finding comfort, inspiration, or social connections, or being entertained. It is primarily about adoration and praise being directed to God simply for who he is and what he has done. Worship loses its authenticity when it becomes more about the worshipper than about the God who is worshipped.’
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