What Does It Mean to Worship ‘In Spirit and In Truth’?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/22/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  John 4:5-24. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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In our reading this morning, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “…the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” The traditional Quaker interpretation of this statement is that Jesus has broken down the need for holy sites. No place is more sacred than another. The important thing is worshiping God spiritually, being in a spirit of worship, allowing the Spirit to fill our bodies, hearts, and minds. If we do that, it doesn’t matter whether we’re on the pinnacle of the Temple or in a gas station restroom. God is there.

And that is absolutely true. But there’s more. Jesus’ point here isn’t just to deny the idea of there being designated holy places. In the context of this conversation, where Samaritans and Jews were bitter religious enemies with competing holy sites and truth claims, Jesus wasn’t just saying, “oh yes, all places are equally holy” as some sort of metaphysical statement. This was not an abstract idea for Jesus or for the Samaritan woman. It struck to the heart of the conflict between their two peoples, and what it might mean to be in relationship with one another.

In this encounter, Jesus reveals a life, power, and kingdom that breaks down political, ethnic, and even religious divisions. Jesus says, it’s not about whether you worship in Jerusalem or on the mountaintop. It’s not about whether you’re a Jew or a Samaritan. What really matters is that we are worshiping in Spirit and in truth. When our hearts, minds, and spirits are in the right place – when we are aligned with God and at peace with one another – that’s where the kingdom is.

This is a really liberating teaching from Jesus, and it’s been a major influence on American society and culture. Thanks in large part to the Quakers’ affinity for Jesus’ teaching in John, we Americans today often say, “You’ve got to follow your heart. You’ve got to do the right thing even if no one else is doing the right thing. You are individually responsible for being authentic and truthful and spiritual.”

Especially in the United States, and to some degree throughout the Western world, we have taken this principle to the max, saying: “It’s not about who your family is, it’s not about what ethnicity you’re from, it’s not about your culture. Rather, it’s about you as an individual making your choices and doing the right thing as far as you can tell. That’s the ultimate good.”

This principle, this cultural teaching derived from the words of Jesus, is close to the truth, but it is a distortion. It’s easy for us as Christians to mistake this radical individualism for the gospel, because it is true that Jesus frees us from religious tradition. He frees us from the law. He frees us from holy places where we must do this, or unclean places where we may not do that. Jesus frees us from all the rules and regulations and barriers that divide us.

But the good news is not that we are all free to be individuals. The gospel is not that each of us simply pursue the truth as we each personally see it. That’s not what worshiping “in spirit and in truth” means. The gospel is that we are drawn into an organic community – a body, as Paul puts it – of disciples, of children of God.

The future and present reality that Jesus reveals to the Samaritan woman is that God is gathering true worshipers, who will worship him in spirit and in truth. Jesus reveals that there is, as George Fox put it, “a great people to be gathered.” He shows us that we are not merely called out to be individuals and seek our own individual best judgment and spiritual truth. We are called into fellowship, into community.

Now, that community may not be a particular religious organization. One place where Quakers are in disagreement with a lot of our brethren in the wider Christian church – for example, Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox – is that we do not believe that Jesus has established a single organization that we all need to belong to. There is no human hierarchy that should be governing all Christians. There is no single institutional church that we have to belong to. There is no group of humans that can claim to be the “one true church” to the exclusion of all others.

Following Jesus’ lead from his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Quakers believe that the church is made up of those who worship in spirit and in truth. We believe that those people who are worshiping in spirit and in truth, who are seeking the Lord in spirit and truth, will be drawn together into community. 

It’s that seeking that comes first. It’s the spiritual encounter with God that is primary. But that experience of the Spirit, if it is real, always draws us together with other God-seekers. The Holy Spirit is actively drawing people into spiritual community, into Christ’s church. That’s a big part of what the Holy Spirit does.

So, on the one hand, in this passage Jesus is revealing a kingdom that breaks down barriers, that breaks down holy sites. But on the other hand, Jesus is announcing an order that builds up community and draws people together. Having broken down the barriers of ethnicity, politics, and religious rules, the Holy Spirit does not scatter us to the wind as individuals. Instead, she opens up a place for a people to be gathered – an organic community to be planted and built up. This new community is not meant to be controlled by men or women; it is to be ruled directly by the Holy Spirit – in spirit and in truth. 

That can look messy. This church, this community of spiritual seekers and finders might look disorganized to the wider world. But our unity is in the Spirit, regardless of the organizational structure, regardless of the institutional labels. Whenever we have been corralled or retreated into our organizational structures – our Religious Society of Friends or the Roman Catholic Church, or any other religious structure – whenever we say, “our God is bigger than your God, our holy place is better than your holy place, our faith and practice is truer than your faith and practice” – Jesus is here to show us a different way, just as he did in his conversation with the Samaritan woman.

Quakers, Baptists, and Roman Catholics. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, and so many more. We all have our own identities and beliefs and holy sites. But the day is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the spirit and in truth. Not because the Pope told them. Not because a book of Faith and Practice said it. But because the living Holy Spirit of God is gathering a people again, drawing us together into an organic body. Gathering us into a people of peace. The kingdom of God.