Our major occupation right now is looking for a house to rent. We are rapidly discovering how pretty descriptions and pictures can conceal many a blemish.
One beautifully photographed property had somehow managed to miss the wobbly floorboards, the gaps in the lounge floor, and the mould being carefully cultivated on the wall of the “kitchen diner”, along with the condensation inside the double glazing and the paintwork flaking off.
Truth can be in short supply in the property world (although some other agents are, in all fairness, pretty good), adding to the frustrations of long distance property search.
I am reading John’s gospel at the moment, and recently read chapter 4 with its record of the fascinating conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The juxtaposition of this and the property search causes me to reflect on what the reality of worshipping “in spirit and truth” means.
Jesus’ words in John 4 speak of God as “spirit”, and that all who worship him must do so in “spirit and truth”. Our initial reaction to this can be to think of “God is spirit” as primarily being about God not being limited by a physical body, but being a “pure” spiritual being. We then link the “truth” section of the sentence to ensuring our ideas of God are right. Worship, we conclude, is not really linked to the physical world, and the really important thing is correct theology. Somehow this then links into the “real” world where such beings as estate agents live, although the link is often unclear.
A second reading of John 4 makes it seem unlikely that Jesus is talking in these terms. He is talking to a woman with a very messed up life. A woman who has just tried to move the conversation away from the awkward ground of her failed marriages by discussing the dispute between Jew and Samaritan over the correct place of worship. It doesn’t seem like Jesus to go along with this dodge by launching into a philosophical treatise on the need for pure worship.
To understand what is going on we need to get ourselves back in time, to listen with Jewish ears to the words of Jesus. Fortunately we have the way to do this bound together with John’s gospel – the Old Testament. What does “God is spirit” – and the demand to worship in spirit and truth – sound like to someone who has read the Old Testament (perhaps especially here the first 5 books, given that the woman is a Samaritan)?
The first reference to the spirit of God is in Genesis 1, when it is the spirit brooding over the waters who brings life. The word “spirit” (in both Hebrew and Greek) is also the same word as “wind” or “breath”. “Spirit” is not about “non physical”, but is closely linked to life itself.
Truth is also not primarily about an abstract concept, but about relational faithfulness. When John in John 1 talks about Jesus being full of grace and truth, he is alluding to the Old Testament concepts of mercy and faithfulness. “Truth” in worship is not mainly correct ideas of God (although they are vital) but about faithfulness, commitment and loyalty.
Jesus says this to a woman who has had 5 husbands, but the man she is with now is not her husband. To a woman whose life is messed up, and who knows all about the reality of unfaithfulness and death, Jesus comes and says that the true God is life in himself, the source of all life, and requires his worshippers to worship with all of that life in utter faithfulness.
Philosophy might be safer. Abstract theology can be a safe retreat from the mess of the day. Demanding from this woman a life marked out by truth, a life of complete integrity, sounds like a demand for the impossible. In reality it is a demand for the impossible. Which is exactly why Jesus is offering living water. Water that produces the life and truth that the Father requires. Water which does not come from a well at noon, but is poured out by Jesus from his cross. Water that provides the life needed to come to God in spirit and in truth. The impossible life which the Father requires is lived in the power of the Spirit who comes from the Son’s life poured out.
In a world of estate agents it reminds me that I must remember that God is my life – not finding a house for my family. God is the one who provides, not me. My first need each day is to drink from his well of living water. That is how I will be empowered to live a faithful life in an unfaithful world, and it is how I will be able to live in a world of death.
Father, give me afresh today your living water, that I might truly live a life of truth in a world filled with lies and death.