John 4:16-24

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.”

The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.”

The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

– John 4:16-24, NAU


While Jesus was sitting by Jacob’s well near Sychar in Samaria, a woman came to draw water. Jesus said to her (John 4:7), “‘Give me to drink.'” Jesus’ request opened the way for a very fascinating conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria.

During the conversation, Jesus promised that whoever drinks the water that He gives shall never thirst (John 4:13-14). Moreover, this water shall become like a well springing up to eternal life. The woman answered (verse 15), “‘Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty, nor come all the way here to draw.'”

She thought that Jesus was speaking literally about physical water. It would be great not to have to come to the well and draw water again! However, Jesus was speaking figuratively about spiritual water. He often spoke figuratively, and people sometimes misunderstood His meaning.

Then Jesus told the woman to go and call her husband to come. She replied with a partial truth, saying, “‘I have no husband.'” Then Jesus said (verses 17-18), “‘You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.'” At this point it dawned on the woman that Jesus was no ordinary man. She said (verse 19), “‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.'”

The Worship Controversy

Perceiving that Jesus was a Jewish prophet, the Samaritan woman brought up a very controversial subject. Jacob’s well is at the foot of Mount Gerizim, so they could see the mountain before them. The woman said (verse 20), “‘Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, but you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.'” Feelings about the issue were strong. The Samaritans were as loyal to Gerizim as the Jews were to Jerusalem.

Jesus did not remain neutral about the controversy. He responded by saying (verse 22), “‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.'” According to Robertson (p. 66), “The Samaritans rejected the prophets and the Psalms and so cut themselves off from the fuller knowledge of God. . . . The Jews, as the chosen people, had fuller revelations of God (Psa. 147:19f.; Rom. 9:3-5).”” The gospel of salvation came through the Jews and, specifically, through Jesus.

At this point Jesus declared (verse 21), “‘Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.'” Then in verse 23, He further stated, “‘But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.'” True worship was worship in Spirit and truth. It did not depend on being either at Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. True worship can take place anywhere.

Present and Future

The statement that “an hour is coming, and now is” brings in the element of time. Gramatically, “an hour is coming” refers to the future, while “and now is” refers to the present. However, a theological question remains: “Do the words of Jesus about true worship apply now as well as in the future or only in the future?” As we answer this question, we will consider Jesus’ comments about eternal life as well as worship.

First, some writers draw a line between the present and the future. With regard to John 3:5 and 7:39, for example, Dunn (Baptism, p. 180) recognizes that John uses the present tense, but he holds that the application was future. He says (p. 180), “John would not hesitate to write in the present tense since he is writing for his contemporaries.” However, my view is that John was recording what Jesus said. Therefore, Jesus Himself used the present tense.

Second, others hold that the words of Jesus had a present application in anticipation of the future. With regard to verse 23, Burge says (p. 191), it is tempting to hold that Jesus said “an hour is coming,” but that John added “and now is.” However, he suggests another solution. He concludes (p. 192) that “we probably should say that this fluid chronological perspective means that chiefly later experiences are present in an incipient and anticipated way before the cross.”

Third, Ladd (p. 257) maintains that eternal life in John is both eschatological and present. By “eschatological” he means that “‘Eternal life’ is the life of the Age to Come.” There is a future fulfillment in the giving and receiving of eternal life. However, he also says (p. 257): “While eternal life is eschatological, the central emphasis of the Fourth Gospel is not to show men the way of life in the Age to Come but to bring to them a present experience of this future life.”

Fourth, In my view the words of Jesus applied immediately. Through faith in Christ, the Samaritan woman could worship in Spirit and truth. Nevertheless, all is not fulfilled right away. The fulfillment happens over time. A great advance was made through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The ultimate fulfillment will come when Christ returns.

God is Spirit

Jesus said (verse 24), “‘God is Spirit.'” There are at least three approaches in interpreting this comment. We must keep in mind that Jesus was giving a reason why worship must be in Spirit and truth. We must worship in Spirit and truth because God is Spirit.

First, as Morris (p. 271) states, Jesus’ meaning is “‘God’s essential nature is spirit.'” Similarly, Wescott (p. 73) says, “God is Spirit, absolutely free from all limitations of space and time.” Robertson (p. 67) agrees that “The non-corporeality of God is clearly stated and the personality of God.” However, he adds this clarifying comment (p. 67):

More precisely, “God is Spirit” as “God is light” (I John 1:5), “God is Love” (I John 4:8). In neither case can we read Spirit is God, Light is God, Love is God.

Second, another line of thought emphasizes God’s relationship to man. With regard to “God is Spirit,” Dunn (Jesus, p. 353) maintains:

as is generally agreed, these three words are intended not as a definition of the being of God, but as a description of his relationship to men. In other words, Spirit is God’s mode of communication with men. Consequently he looks for men to respond in the same manner–to worship in Spirit and truth.

With a similar approach, Burge (p. 192) states. “He is the God who gives the Spirit (14:16), and the Spirit in turn becomes the medium of his relation to human beings.”

Third, others take a “both-and position.” For example, Rea (130) writes:

God is spirit, that is, completely spiritual in His essence. At the same time, God’s Spirit is the “medium” of His relationship with human beings. Therefore, if worship is to be effective, it must be spiritual in nature, and we must personally experience this medium through which God chooses to join Himself to humanity.” This approach, in my view, is the most satisfying.

Worship in Spirit

Jesus said we must worship in Spirit. Does He mean in our spirit or in the Spirit of God? Or, can we combine these views into a both-and position?

First, some hold that Jesus refers to man’s spirit. According to Wescott (p. 23), spirit is “that part of man’s nature which holds, or is capable of holding, intercourse with the eternal order.” He cites I Thessalonians 5:23. Similarly, Morris (p. 293) says, “It is not likely that ‘spirit’ refers to the Holy Spirit (though the Spirit does help us worship, Rom. 8:2ff.).”

Second, others maintain that Jesus means the Holy Spirit. Dunn (Jesus, p. 353) writes:

As most commentators agree, the talk here (in v. 24b) is not of man’s spirit, nor is there any suggestion that worship must be a purely interior affair. Rather the worship looked for is worship in the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth.

In accordance with this approach, Keener (Gospel, p. 614) says, “John here refers to worship empowered by the Spirit.” He argues for this over against the human spirit.

Third, another approach would be more inclusive. The human spirit and the Holy Spirit become so related in the believer that it is often difficult to determine when the Bible refers to one or the other. This is particularly true in Pauline writings. Thus, we could say Jesus was referring to God’s Spirit who inspires the human spirit. Rea, for example, states (p. 130):

Worship is thus a matter of inner devotion and wholehearted sincerity, not of outward ritual and ceremony. This is not to say that the latter have no proper function, for even spiritual worship may have certain liturgical forms to express its meaning. But it is true that the empowering of the Holy Spirit is needed to make worship genuine.

Worship in Truth

Jesus declares that worship should be “in truth.” As with the term Spirit, we might ask, “What does the term truth mean?” Several views have been advanced.

First, we can think of truth as opposed to falsehood. Morris (p. 293) states: “In Greek writings generally the basic idea of truth is much like our own. It is truth as opposed to falsehood, reality as opposed to mere appearance.” This approach to truth is, of course, valid. Our worship must be based on the Word of God and the truth it proclaims. Otherwise, it would be false worship. Wescott (p. 73) says, “A true idea of God is essential to a right service of Him.”

Second, truth in the New Testament refers, also, to faithfulness. Although acknowledging the Greek approach to truth, Morris (p. 293) continues: “But in the New Testament the use of the term is complicated by the fact that it has imported some features for the Old Testament as well.” As Rea (pp. 130-131) explains:

The Lord is near to all who call upon Him in truth (Ps. 145:18). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated “truth” (‘emet) may also mean “faithfulness.’ True worship and service entail turning from every other god (any person, thing or ambition that is granted first place in our hearts) and yielding absolute loyalty to the one true and living God.

Third, we recognize that truth is embodied in the person of Christ. Dunn, (Jesus, p. 354), writes: “‘In truth'” most probably refers again to the definitive revelation of God in Jesus as testified to in the original kerygma; this significance also is implied by the context since John has already portrayed Jesus as the one who fulfils and supercedes the role of the temple (2.21).”

All three of the above views are valid. We must worship in truth in the sense that it must be based on God and His Word. Beyond this, we must center our worship upon Christ who is the embodiment of truth. Finally, we must live the truth. It must be expressed in our lives.

Spirit and Truth

The Spirit and truth are closely related. Morris (p. 295) states, “The Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (14:17; John 15:2616:13; John can even say, ‘the Spirit is the truth’, I John 5:7). Part of the work of the Spirit is to guide men into all the truth’ (16:13).”

Moreover, Jesus is closely related to the Spirit and to truth. In John’s Gospel, these relationships often stand out. Ladd (p. 292) writes this perceptive comment:

Truth came through Jesus Christ (1:17), i.e., the full disclosure of God’s redemptive purpose for men. This is so exclusively embodied in Jesus that he himself is the truth (14:5). Worship in truth, therefore, is synonymous with worship in the Spirit. It means worship mediated through the person of Jesus, and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Form and place of worship are irrelevant.

The Messiah

The Samaritan woman said to Jesus (v. 25), “‘I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.'” As this suggests, the Samaritans had an expectation of the Messiah. Concerning this expectation, Lenski (p. 326) writes:

What ideas the Samaritans held concerning the Messiah has been investigated at great pains but with small results. Their name for him was Taheb, probably meaning “the Restorer.” He was to be both a great prophet and a wonderful king, although the strong political feature of the Jews seems to be absent from the Samaritan conception. In many respects the Samaritan ideas of the Messiah coincide with those of the Jews. The woman uses the Jewish name ‘Messiah’ not the Samaritan “Taheb.”

Then Jesus responds (v. 26), “‘I who speak to you am He.'” NAU As Lenski (p. 327) states, “To this obscure woman Jesus reveals point-blank what he had revealed to no one else.” The woman expected the Messiah to reveal all things. Jesus, the Messiah, begins right away by revealing His identity to her. As a result, she went on her way witnessing.


True worship is worship in Spirit and truth. The place where the worship takes place is irrelevant. Naturally, there are places where we regularly go to worship. This is an important part of our spiritual lives. However, we can worship without being at any given physical location.

True worship involves Jesus, the Spirit, the truth, and the human response. All these elements are included in this summary comment by Rea (p. 131): “Worship in Spirit and truth is worship that is focused on the risen, exalted Christ and; empowered by His Spirit. As the incarnate Son of God and Lamb that was slain, Jesus Himself is worthy to receive the same adoration and loyalty that belongs to the Father (Rev. 5:8-144:8-11).”

For Further Study

Burge, Gary M. The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Dunn, James. D. G. Jesus and the Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1975. Hendriksen, William. . Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1964.
Hull, Willilam E. The Broadman Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando: Creation House, 1998.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery

Next Lesson