Gospel John 4:5-26
Worship in Spirit and Truth and Never Thirst Again
The account of Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well comes to us in the Gospel according to St. John hard on the heels of the “Gospel in a nutshell” that we heard last week: “16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”1 Now today we hear of this interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well and I can’t help but see this as an illustration of what we just heard, “that the world might be saved through him.” We know that the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t get along, they did not peaceably coexist, they did not seek to be in each other’s company. The Samaritans were regarded by the Jews as despised half-breeds, outsiders who deliberately disregarded the entirety of the Holy Scriptures and were outside the covenant that God had made with his people. They even had an alternative for their worship, Mt. Gerizim instead of the temple in Jerusalem.
So when an exhausted and thirsty Jesus sat down beside the well and the Samaritan woman approached there developed a multi-level crisis. Not only did Jews avoid contact with Samaritans in general, but Jewish men avoided speaking with women in public. Jewish rabbis wanted women to stay in their place. And just one more thing: this woman came to draw water from the well. That was manual, hard work. So she was a common labourer, or the wife of one. She comes to the well not for a little rest and relaxation, and the work she does is made all the more hard by the burdens she carried. The men she had known, or rather the men who had known her, and used her, and had dismissed her with certificates of divorce. So now she is marked by all these marriages. She carries this stigma. And now the man she is with is not even her husband. Maybe he won’t give her that honour because of her past. So she appears even a little less human in the eyes of others. She comes to the well wanting water, but what she comes away with is a Word of life. She comes away with the restoration she has been looking for. Even as a foreigner, someone supposedly on the outside looking in.
No wonder many of the church fathers see the woman at the well as a picture of Christ’s church, His very bride. The woman at the well comes to Jesus not yet having known of or received the gift of her salvation. She comes in ignorance and He speaks with her, and she receives the Word He brings, that He is the Messiah who has come to bring about something completely new and different. So also doesJesus bring His gifts of Word and Sacrament to His church, in His very person. He brings worship in Spirt and in truth, which is neither the worship of the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim nor the worship of the Jews in the temple. No, this is something new. And so what does this mean, that the church of Christ worships in Spirit and truth? Simply this: the worship of the New Testament is of the righteousness of faith in the heart, and the fruits that proceed from that faith. Faith, which is counted to us as righteousness: “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” 2 Jesus says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”3 The Father is seeking, and he draws them to Himself in the sending of His Son, who says, “44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”4
So worship in Spirt and truth is with the deepest activity of the heart and faith. God spoke of this through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, this righteousness of faith, saying, “in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.”5 “Obey my voice,” says the Lord God, for he wants us to believe that he is our God, he wants to show grace and mercy and help for you, and he does not need sacrifices. Rather he justifies and saves, not because of works, but because of his Word and his promise. He justifies and saves in spite our sin and grumbling, as we heard in the Old Testament account of the people who thirst for water in the desert of Sin. Despite their ingratitude and grumbling the Lord provides for them. He did not strike the people for their sins, but instead Moses struck the rock, and from that rock poured living water.
And turning back the illustration of the woman at the well, our Lord is asking the woman for a drink but really is thirsting that she receive the water that He promises to give. ““If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”6 If only you knew the gift of God, Jesus says. The gift is the Holy Spirit, who brings us to Christ Himself. But how does this happen? Now we clearly see the connection to last week’s reading with Nicodemus and the promise of being born again, born from above, by water and the Holy Spirit. St. John never allows us to wander too far away from the means of grace. In the waters of Holy Baptism we receive this living water of our Lord who seeks us on behalf of the Father who sent Him, who loves us to the end. So here is the connection: the same Spirit who is in and of all true worship is the same spirit who brings rebirth and new life in the waters of Holy Baptism.
So here in the season of Lent we are seemingly bombarded with the Scriptural teaching of our Baptism in these Gospel readings. Why is that? We can find the answer by once again remembering where we are headed in our 40 day journey. The focus of our attention in this season must remain the cross of Good Friday. And we must remember that without the cross there is no living water, there is no justification, there is no worship in Spirit and truth. For the living water which Jesus gives us is in fact given to us on the cross, at the very hour of His death. Only in the Gospel of St. John do we hear Jesus cry out on the cross, “I thirst!” The one who gives living water to us becomes the thirsty one who longs to give us life. St. John is the only Gospel writer who includes the account of the water gushing forth from Jesus’ side. He writes, “30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit7…one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”8 The Israelites in the desert were spared God’s justifiable wrath when Moses struck the rock instead of them. On the cross we are spared God’s righteous judgement against sinners when Jesus is struck, and as the rock in the desert gushed forth with water so does the side of Jesus. Now it is finished, once and for all. “[A]t the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”9 Water and Spirit, once again. And again we are reminded that the rebirth we have in water and Spirit is also once and for all, it too is finished, and that it has eternal ramifications. Jesus says, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.”10 That means for eternity, for all time. On the cross he bears all for us, our suffering, our shame, our sin, and he dies in our place so that we might receive His eternal, life-giving stream, bring to new life what was once desert.
You may have heard the expression still waters run deep. Well, the living water of our Lord’s Word and His Sacraments runs deep, deeper than all of our troubles, deeper than our sin, deep enough to to conquer hell itself. Our Lord sits there, by the well, but with “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”11 With a splash of water and God’s Word, you are made a child of God, once and for all, so that you will never thirst again.
1 Jn 3:16–18.
2 Ro 4:24–25.
3 Jn 4:23.
4 Jn 6:44.
5 Je 7:22–23.
6 Jn 4:10.
7 Jn 19:30.
8 Jn 19:34.
9 Ro 5:6.
10 Jn 4:14.
11 Jn 4:14.