In Spirit & In Truth (A Sermon on John 4:1-26)

My first sermon as a newly ordained minister at Colonial Church. Given on January 21, 2018.

Now when Jesuslearned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but yousay that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I AM, the one who is speaking to you.”

– John 4:1-26 (NRSV)


Will you pray with me? God we give you thanks— for this morning and this place, and that you are a God who shows up in the everydayness of our lives…at the wells and the water coolers; at the fireplaces and around tables. God, be with us and meet us here. It’s in the name of Christ that we pray and give thanks. Amen.

Well, good morning! So hi, I’m Sara. If you don’t know that yet, then you weren’t here earlier, or you were sleeping. ☺ When I knew I was going to have the opportunity to preach today, I had a few goals: 1) I didn’t want to preach a bad sermon; 2) In view of the work we are doing with ReForming (where we are intentionally trying to listen to where God’s Spirit is inviting us in this next season) I wanted my sermon to be a part of the discernment and listening that we are all doing together; 3) I also wanted you to know a little bit about how I roll (I like to ask questions) and to introduce myself to you; and finally 4) I hoped to be an encouragement to you as we continue on this good journey together. So welcome.

I titled this sermon “In Spirit and In Truth.” I was originally going to preach on something else, but following the conversation last week with the consultant from TAG, I kept on coming back to this passage in John and the notion at the end about “in Spirit and in truth.” And here’s why…

One of the things that stood out to me the most from the consultant’s presentation was when he started out by saying “When we go into these spaces with churches or communities, one of the things we want to affirm is that the answer is already in this room.” 

The answer is already in this room. 

Their job as consultants is not to come in and tell us: “Here’s how you are going to be the church.” “Here’s what it looks like…” “Here’s the cookie cutter solution.” No, their job is to affirm and reflect back to us that which we already know God has been stirring—those places of passion, of joy, of longing…

God is already here. We just get to listen…and then, together, create and see what happens. Said another way, it’s a reminder that the answer is already in this room. 

That’s why on Wednesday night when Carter was out of town and he asked if I wanted to talk with the Senior Highers, I was like: “Sure! That’s great.” (And then I walked in the room and wondered what I was doing. Why am I here?! FYI- if you are a senior higher the deal is that individually, I think you are great, but you are really hard to read as a group and I’m never quite sure how to talk with you all as I haven’t hung out with a group of senior highers in a long time). So I took a breath and got all of my resolve together to act like a good adult and got to spend some time with them. Now, I went into that space not with some big lecture or sermon, but instead we, together, read this passage from John. Everyone took a verse and we went around the room. One of the things I said early on as some of the students were stumbling over words (that they never read- because who talks about Samaritans in their daily life?!). So they are reading along and you can hear the embarrassment as some of them don’t know how to pronounce things and so I asked them to pause and noted it’s OK to not know because we aren’t going to judge each other—inviting them, if you don’t know the words, no problem just keep reading. I told them we are going to do the same thing that some pastors do, it’s called a Text Study. A text study is where a group gets together, they all read the text together and then individually and collectively talk about what came up for them as they read, noting what stood out to them. As a part of doing our own Text Study then, I put the students into groups and asked them to share: 1) Did anything stand out? Did anything strike you as weird? Did anything make you happy? Upset? Angry? What were those things? Please share those with the group. 2) I asked them to also notice if they had any questions about the passage and to share those with the group. So we spent some time in the groups and when we came back together, the students shared. One of my favorite responses: “Jesus is sassy.” Here are some others:

“Jesus crosses boundaries.”

“Jesus accepts her.”

“Did you notice how he WAS I AM HE the whole time but it’s only at the end that he’s all like…IT”S ME!”

“I think about how everyone should be able to have access to water.”

And then they shared some of their questions. Questions like:

“I wonder if the woman felt OK with not having a husband? Was she ashamed or not?”

“What does it mean to worship in Spirit and in Truth?” (Thank you!)

So why did I do this exercise? Well, one of the reasons is because I didn’t know them and I wasn’t about to walk into a group of senior highers and be like: “Hi, I’m Sara, and I’m the pastor and I have all the answers.” (as if that would actually ever be the case) The second reason I did this is because I am a firm believer that we all have moral agency; we are all persons who carry the image of God in us. As scripture says, there is a priesthood of all believers and all of our voices and gifts matter. This means that you and your story and the things that you know and have experienced—the sorrow and the pain, and in the joy—you teach me, and we teach each other about the goodness of grace and love. And if we are concerned that young people leave church, then wouldn’t we want to affirm that the faith is already theirs? That this God loves them precisely in their story– in the passions that make their hearts burn? In their wondering? This faith is a faith that is ours and I wanted them to know that, just as I want that for all of us for, as the consultant reminded us: The answer is already in this room.

So let’s return to the passage and I’ll give you a bit of context that I didn’t give to the students. One of the things that seems clear right away is that the Samaritans and the Jews weren’t exactly best friends. There are reasons and some history behind this. The conflict was rooted in a struggle about who understood God rightly (because, you know, humans have never struggled with this!). They had a long-term disagreement about where to worship God/where the sacredness of God’s presence dwelt. They also diverged in their opinions about what counted as the sacred text. Additionally, there were rumors and in-fighting related to if there had been intermarriage amongst the Samaritans and the Gentiles, and what this meant for their being the people of God (this stemmed from the Babylonian Captivity). So you have the Samaritans believing that God showed up at Mt. Gerizim whereas the Jews believe that God’s presence was at the temple in Jerusalem. And never the twain shall meet. “We have the true access to God!” Yells the one. To which the other responds: “No, we do!”

And yet here, in this moment, at this well, Jesus (who’s a Jew) and a Samaritan woman (no less) come together. Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman, in spite of the fact that these groups didn’t talk or interact with one another. This engagement between Jesus and the woman was a type of “boundary crossing”—of moving across the room and the divides between humans because of our differences in order to see, hear, and be with one another. In this space between them, power and vulnerability is exchanged as Jesus, who is thirsty and can’t get a drink without this woman, is vulnerable before her. And the woman shows her vulnerability in asking if he realizes that she is a Samaritan woman (acknowledging that she know he isn’t supposed to be talking with her). 

Now the book of John is a study of polemics in many ways—light is contracted with darkness, life with death, etc.  John employs these binaries in order to make his point: Jesus is always the true light, the vine, the good shepherd, the water, the bread of life over against the darkness, the thief, and being cut off. And often in the book of John we see that the people we expect, or the stories we think are the “right person” who will “get it” is often not the person who apprehends who Christ is. So just to remind you (or to let you know) in John 3 a religious leader named Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the cover of the night (night). And then, in chapter 4 a Samaritan (!) woman comes to Jesus in the day (notice- day is the signal of faith over-against the night). We have a signal from John then in chapters 3-4: with the light we know there is something of light, faith, and goodness going on. Yet, so often when we read chapter 4, we think of, or have been taught to think, that this is a story of a “sinful woman”. But I’d like to inquire: where do we read that she is particularly sinful? Does Jesus say this? Does she ask for forgiveness? This is just the story of a Samaritan woman who comes and meets Jesus at the well and they begin having this conversation. Jesus sees her and it opens up space for them to talk about where God dwells.

David Lose, both a pastor and former professor at Luther Seminary, notes that how we read this passage says a lot about us. If we think this is the story of a woman who is a victim, who was sinful, it might tell us what we bring to texts—where we have presumptions about what we see in a frame. What happens then as we sit with the picture and wonder if there are other ways to see a text? What if we ask some questions about our presumptions about what is going on in the story? What if we wonder and allow God’s Spirit to open up new ways to see?1

So what if instead we see this as a story as both a “boundary crossing” and a tale of one of the very first disciples and evangelists? The story about a woman who, unlike Nicodemus, actually understood who Jesus was. She notes: “I see you are a prophet.” And so she pushes him and questions him, like a student of a Rabbi would. In fact, she becomes the first recorded evangelist who not only apprehends who Jesus is, but then goes to tell the whole town about her experience and encounter with Jesus. 

She is a moral agent, a person who is seen by Christ, and this connection opens her up; she asks for living water. And in the book of John, water is about faith- it symbolizes and indicates the ones who understand what God is about in Christ. There is no word of judgment from Christ here in John 4, there is no comment about the Samaritan woman being sinful, no, instead Jesus engages with her and talks with her like a Rabbi about where God shows up. And she is the first recorded witness.2 

  • What then is the invitation to us about maybe even the parts of our own stories, our lives, and our histories that we would rather not be seen; the places we feel are beyond love, beyond grace? 
  • And what if the gospel isn’t just about that person out there who is on the margins and needs forgiveness, but it’s about living inward and opening ourselves to experience God’s love and forgiveness for ourselves?
  • What if it’s about allowing God to do the “boundary-crossing” as Jesus did here, to also love us? 
  • What does this text invite from us and speak to us? 
  • What does it enliven in you as you consider the invitations of God that are already in this room?
  • What does it mean for us to be people who know ourselves as seen by God and to then be people who turn towards and see others? To be people who cross boundaries, because we have known a God who crosses boundaries to meet us in the very realness of our lives?

The answer is in this room. The answers are already here in this room.

So we come to this part about “in Spirit and in truth”, about whose traditions and temple were the location of the sacred, and Jesus does a few amazing things. First of all, he dismisses the notion that there is a physical location that is the only space where God shows up. It’s not Jerusalem, he says, it’s not here on this mountain, it’s everywhere. Additionally, he invokes a reference in verse 26 to what happened when Moses encountered God in the burning bush and says: “I AM.” Jesus signals that he is this “I AM.” It’s a reminder that this presence of God shows up not only in the burning bushes, at the well, but also here in this space—in the midst of our celebrations about the Vikings’ wins (hopefully!). This claim of  “I AM” by Jesus is in conversation with John 2 where Jesus says that if you destroy the temple he will rebuild it, but he is the temple and the spirit is now not in any location, but is available everywhere. And yet, how many times in our lives do we still believe that some external authority has to tell us the truth about God? As if the pastor has special access to the answers?

What has God been inviting and already been cultivating in your spirit? Where are the places where God has shown up at the “wells” in your life? And how do we actually believe that this God of love is actually for all of us? 

The answer is already in this room.

So what happens when we allow ourselves to be seen? What happens when we believe the “I AM” is FOR US? What unfolds when we recognize that the divine is in our midst- that the God who already is, is with us at the water coolers and in the dailyness of loving our families, of messing up, and being human. This is the God of I AM—the sacred space, is now every space, and the knowledge of God isn’t located in some external holy mountain or temple, but with and in us.

As we talk about ReForming, we talk about how the world has changed and people no longer come to church the way they used to. But we ourselves have changed. How many of you had cell phones 20 years ago? And how many of you have one now? How many of want to check it right now (FYI- if I’m ever preaching and you look at your phone, I’ll just assume you are tweeting a great quote that you wanted to share with your followers!). We have changed too. And do we not believe that this God— who has shown up throughout history—will continue to show up? We don’t have to flail about then in this time of discernment, no, we just have to root in and listen more deeply, allowing ourselves to be seen in this time and space. God isn’t on some mountaintop, nor is God located somewhere in some past glory day. God is here. God is in our homes. God is in our schools and in our work. And we are present in that space and in this time, which is why Christ reminds us that faith is all around:

“In spirit and in truth.” 

“In spirit and in truth.”

The answer is already in this room. 

So may we be people who listen in, people who are willing to open ourselves to the whisperings of the Spirit, people who let each other, those others, and God “trouble” us and open us up to questions and new ways of seeing. And in all of this, may we trust that the I AM who met Moses in a burning bush, the I AM who met a Samaritan woman at a well, the I AM who has shown up throughout history, is the same I AM who loves you, who loves me, and who is doing a new thing amongst all who live in Spirit and in truth.

The answer is already in this room. 

So may this grace and love, may freedom and goodness be yours and be ours. And may we be a people who say YES to whatever God’s Spirit might invite us to next as we ReForm. In spirit and in truth…for the answer is already in this room. May God give us grace to listen and follow in faith. Amen.

  1.  See: David Lose, “Commentary on John 4:1-42,” Working Preacher, Accessed January 18, 2020, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1920. Lose writes: “For this is a passage and story that has, in my opinion, been notoriously misinterpreted, in part because we read it in isolation of the rest of John’s gospel and in part because of the Church’s history of bad treatment of women. So let me lay my cards on the table: I don’t think the Samaritan woman is a prostitute. I don’t think that she has a shady past. And I don’t think Jesus forgives her. Rather, I think he calls her not to repentance but to life-giving faith. Allow me to explain.”
  2. Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, Professor at Luther Seminary, has some wonderful commentary on this. “She is a woman, she has no name, but she meets Jesus at noon, in full daylight. And the contrast between their conversations with Jesus is even more extraordinary. Whereas Nicodemus is unable to move beyond the confines of his religious system, the Samaritan moves outside of her religious expectations and engages Jesus in theological debate (4:20). Whereas Nicodemus cannot hear that Jesus is sent by God (3:17), the woman at the well hears the actual name of God, “I AM” (4:26–“he” in the NRSV is not in the Greek text). While Nicodemus’s last questioning words to Jesus expose his disbelief, “How can this be?” the last words of the woman at the well, also posed as a question, “He cannot be the Christ, can he?” lead her to witness to her whole town.” … “Perhaps the extraordinary aspect of this text is not simply that Jesus is for her, but that she becomes a witness for him.” Also: “The Samaritan woman at the well is not a passive recipient of Jesus’ offer. She immediately recognizes the societal barriers and boundaries that keep her in her place (4:9) but at the same time challenges Jesus’ authority over and against the ancestors of the faith (4:12). Like Nicodemus, she first interprets Jesus’ words on a literal level, but she is able to ask for what Jesus has to offer rather than question the possibility (4:15). She is not certain that Jesus is the Christ (4:29–the syntax of the Greek expects a negative answer), but she does not let that stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus. She demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith. The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about growth and change. It is not about having all the answers. If we think we have all the answers, if we are content with our doctrinal constructs, if we believe more in our own convictions that the possibility of revelation, we will be left to ponder whether or not God will choose to be made known.” See: Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 4:5-42,” Working Preacher, Accessed on January 18, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=44

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s