The Issue of Worship Location
An exposition of John 4.
Christian Worship Still Happens on Lockdown
With the arrival of COVID-19 and worldwide lockdown orders, every single religion on the planet has faced restrictions and issues. The adherents of these religions have been unable to follow through on the sacred ordinances of their “faiths.” Muslims are unable to journey to Mecca or gather in mosques, Catholics are unable to meet with their priests for the confession of sins, Jews are unable to journey to worship, and these are just three examples of religions unable to accomplish the essential aspects of their faiths. The works-based system of every false religion and cult on the planet has shown to be insufficient for the salvation of souls simply because their adherents are unable to follow basic tenets that are required for salvation. Articles have been written that speak on the panic mode of every religion on the planet except for true Christians. Christians understand that the worship location and the basic tenets of the Christian faith are not confined to a singular location but that Christians have access to God literally anywhere and at any time. Those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ are consecrated for the service of God, which would include consecration for worship. The primary qualification for sanctified Biblical worship can be found in Hebrews 12:28-29, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” While the false religions of the world were scrambling, making caveats for their worshipers contrary to the requirements of their own texts, Christians have freedom as the result of Christ’s redemptive work to access the Father from any location. In light of Christ’s redemptive work, His statements given to the woman at the well, in John 4:19-26, Christ declares an end to the locus of worship in Jerusalem and sanctifies His people for ubiquitous worship and service.
The Gospel of John was written by John the apostle and is believed to have been written between 80 and 90 A.D. John was referred to as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and this title bears reference to the intimate relationship between him and the Lord and is seen in John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20. It is believed that John wrote his gospel with knowledge of the synoptic gospels in mind. In comparison to the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John contains many unique characteristics and information that is not recorded in the synoptic gospels. The purpose of John’s gospel is explicitly stated in John 20:30-31 and provides an understanding for the reader that all within the Gospel of John is purposefully limited to only present information for one to come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Before the interpretation and application of the text can be made, the interpreter must understand the historical and cultural context of the audience. Modern readers, without proper preparation, will find themselves lost in a foreign 2000-year-old culture and be unable to grasp the true meaning of any Biblical text.
Two of the most important parts of historical and cultural context to understand concerning John 4 are the century’s long feud between the Samaritans and the Jews, which is further intensified with Jesus, a Jewish teacher, speaking with a woman, who is a Samaritan adulterer. The feud between the Jews and Samaritans stems back to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Scripture summarizes the final conquest of Israel (2 Kings 17:5-6):
“Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years, he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”
The judgment of the northern tribes was complete, and they were scattered amongst the nations of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, as was standard practice by the Assyrians , and the people were replaced with other citizens of the Empire. The action of dispersion and replacement by the Assyrians would give rise to the Samaritans, known during the Lord’s time on earth. Subsequently, the Samaritans would be known as unclean peoples and essentially Gentiles by the Jews because of their mixed lineage.
The Jews held to the entire canon of Scripture while the Samaritans only held to the Pentateuch; as a result, each group held to Jerusalem and Mt. Gerizim as places of worship, respectively. Due to their mixed heritage stemming from the captivities and their egregious way of worship, the Jews had nothing but animosity towards the Samaritans and treated them as unclean Gentiles. An excellent note from the Reformation Study Bible (RSB) reads:
“The background of this incident is the profound contempt that the Jews and the Samaritans felt for each other (v9: 8:48). Samaritan religion mingled reverence for Israel’s God with the pagan practices of non-Israelite peoples who had been resettled into the territory of the northern kingdom by the conquering Assyrians (2 Kings 17:24-41). Samaritan compromises with pagan idolatry under the Seleucid occupation intensified the Jews’ hostility toward them. Not surprisingly, the Samaritans responded with enmity toward the Jews (Luke 9:52-53). When traveling between Galilee and Judea, many Jews would cross the Jordan twice rather than pass through Samaria. Jesus did not follow this practice.“
The overarching passage of John 4:1-45 shows great significance to the flow of John’s gospel and plays right into his goal, showcasing Christ as the Messiah in accordance with John 20:30-31. While many Jews and especially teachers refused to even communicate with Samaritans, Jesus willingly went into Samaria, spoke to a woman of ill repute, revealed Himself to her as the coming Messiah, and subsequently, many Samaritans came to believe in Him for salvation (v.39). The Lord’s refusal to adhere to arbitrary human customs and instead He simply applied proper biblical principles of evangelism, the very thing the Jews were supposed to be doing through their history! He demonstrated Himself as the Messiah of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles alike through His words and actions. With a complete background in mind, the interpretation of the text can be made with proper exegetical tools.
The Woman Deflects
It appears that the Samaritan woman was not expecting to have a complete stranger confront her on her sin (4:19). The town she lived in knew all about her five different husbands and the man she currently lived with; she was truly a woman of ill-repute. Two areas show that information from the fact that she went to the well by herself in the heat of the day (6-7) and her statement to the townspeople (29, 39). Based on her reputation and the significant impact that Jesus had on her, many came to see Him and also believed (39-42). The most telling text would certainly be the statement of the people in verse 42, “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” The depravity of this woman was known to all, which made her conversion and statement to the town all the more spectacular. While this would be the ultimate result of her sin being confronted, she deflected the statement and transitioned into a question that was one of the points of confrontation between the Jews and Samaritans. R.C. Sproul adds some clarity:
“The woman swiftly came to the conclusion that Jesus’ knowledge of her past had come not from men but from God. She said, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” (v. 19). That was a deduction on her part, but she was still shocked and troubled, so she tried to change the subject. Attempting to steer the conversation away from her private life, she asked a theological question, one that the Jews and Samaritans had been debating for many years.”
The woman may very well have wondered about the question of worship location (v.20) and who ultimately had the answer. Who was worshiping God correctly, the Jews, or the Samaritans? But her question was not to satisfy her curiosity, nor does she seem to be in the mood for a truthful response that would alter all she believed. Her sins of verses 16-18 have been confronted in verse 19, and she wants to change the subject. The only plausible explanation for a complete Jewish stranger to know all about her and all she has done was for him to be a prophet.
Where Jews and Samaritans Worshiped
All four Gospels have instances where individuals would try to trick Jesus into answering theological questions to distract, to give a reason for ignoring, or for an opportunity to murder Him. Examples for the attempted trickery can be seen in Matthew 12:2-8, 22:18-24, 22:33-39, Mark 12:14-20, 20-26, Luke 20:22-28, John 7:16-51, and 10:31-37. While the Pharisees and Sadducees desired to kill Him, the woman wanted to pull the spotlight off of herself. She was ashamed of her sin because if she was not ashamed, she would simply not care that this stranger knew all of her moral failures. The mountain that the woman refers to is Mount Gerizim, and it was in the shadow of this mountain that Abraham built an altar to God in Genesis 12:6-7. Further, the Israelites had come to this mountain to shout God’s praises (Deuteronomy 11:29-30), and because of these things, the Samaritans chose Gerizim as their place to worship God, which further divided the Jews and Samaritans. Her tactic of distraction would ultimately fail, and the Lord would show the insufficiency of her religion and the coming end of the Jewish method through His life.
The End of the Old Covenant
The Samaritans and Jews had the Pentateuch in common beliefs, and the Lord said that there would be a specific place for His people to worship Him. With the development of the rest of the canon of the Old Testament, God revealed a specific place for His temple to be established in accordance with Solomon’s desire. Since the Samaritans did not hold to the rest of the canon of Scripture, they were failing to uphold the Law of God and were not worshiping Him from the location that God had established for they had chosen the place for God. The mistake of verse 21 is to assume that Jesus is condoning the Samaritan methods of worship and disregard for the canon. The text of verse 22 will clear up interpretive confusion on Jesus’ labeling of the Samaritans. Suffice to say, Jesus is not condoning their method of worship but is rather condemning it, and He goes further and prophetically condemns Jerusalem as well. The age-old question of worship location was no longer going to matter with the arrival of the Messiah, but that does not imply that worship location never mattered. The aspect that mattered was not the highest mountain, the best scenery, or proximity to the capital city. The only worship and service location that mattered was whether God chose that specific spot in accordance with Deuteronomy 12:4-7, which reads:
“You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, your vow offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the Lord your God has blessed you.”
The Samaritans chose the location, not God. Further, they removed all aspects of the Old Testament besides the Pentateuch. They ignored a large chunk of the Word of God, and as a result, their religion was useless. The Lord Jesus did not condone their lack of knowledge as acceptable worship, nor did He condone the faithless religion of the Jews; both sides were coming to an end with His redemptive work.
Agnostic Samaritans, Faithless Jews
In light of verse 22, the Samaritans were agnostic; they worshiped what they did not know, and their service was falling short for willful lack of knowledge (their willful ignorance is evident in their exclusive adherence to the Pentateuch). In other words, they did not know the Lord, the one whom they claimed to worship. The God they claimed to know is unknown to them; there is no intimacy, no true worship, no obedience, and they were willfully ignorant of the entire canon of Scripture that God had given. The major difference in this age-old debate on worship location was the reality that the Samaritans worshiped a God who was unknown to them while the Jews worshiped the God who had revealed Himself to them. The major issue with this is not a matter of true spiritual ignorance like the philosophers in the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-34 or others who have never heard of the Lord (Of course, those who have not heard are still without excuse as seen in Romans 1-3). The Samaritans had access to the whole counsel of God as revealed in the Old Testament but chose to ignore it and only adhere to the Pentateuch. As a result, they worshiped in willful ignorance, and subsequently, their worship was false, and hence they were agnostic. The Jews, on the other hand, had full access to the whole counsel of God, but their beliefs were faithless and loveless.
The Lord stating that “salvation is from the Jews” does not imply that the Jews are eternally sealed by extension of the heritage or their religion but that God chose the Israelites to be His specific people. These people were to display His glory and bring other nations to worship the One, True, and Living God. However, as noted in verse 21, the Jewish way of religion was coming to an end through the redemptive work of Christ. While the Jews had been entrusted with very oracles of God (Romans 3:2), they were no better off since all are under sin (3:9-10). The offense of the Jew, given the reality of their access and knowledge of God, is greater since they took what God gave them and created abominations in the sight of God. The Israelites had God as their king and demanded a human king (1 Samuel 8:4-9), they had the very word of God being systematically revealed to them through the prophets, and yet they killed the prophets (Matthew 23:37), in addition, they followed after foreign gods, hated one another, hated other nations, and forsook God. As a result of their hardened hearts and habitual disobedience, God proclaimed their sacrifices, worship, and service as abominations and their house would be desolate (Isaiah 64:11; Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5; Ezekiel 5:14); the climax of their judgment coming in the murder of the Son of God. The Lord gave a parable in Mark 12:1-9 that summarizes the wickedness of the Jews:
And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
The New Covenant in the blood of Christ was coming, and the Christ was already here; the wicked systems that the Samaritans and the Jews had created were coming to a swift end, and worship of God by true believers would become universally pervasive.
God Seeks Believers who Worship in Spirit and Truth
The arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ on the earth set into motion a universal change; the Kingdom of God had arrived, and the Messiah who had been prophesied for thousands of years had finally arrived. The redemptive work of Christ was being realized and with that the transition of the Old Covenant, under the Mosaic Law and its impossible demands (Galatians 3:14), and the grace and truth that came through Jesus Christ in the New Covenant (John 1:14-18). The hour referred to here is the coming of the Christ, and He had arrived and was speaking directly to this woman. The Incarnation of the Lord God Almighty stood before this woman, speaking to her with kindness, gentleness, patience, and compassion. The Lord had, and still has, a love for this woman that humans struggle to fractionally comprehend. How can the Sovereign Lord save sinners? How can He pardon sin? Every Christian must respond to such wonder and awesome realities with worship, honor, and praise to the Lord, who saved His people.
With this new transition in the covenants, worship location itself will cease to matter. Jesus does not say that true worshipers will worship the Father in “Jerusalem and the temple,” but rather that true worshipers will worship “in spirit and in truth.” The external functions of worship, the sacrifices, the ordinances, the feasts, and all that the Law required will have no bearing on worshiping God in a way that glorifies and pleases Him. Arm motions, lip service, crying, nothing physical will be what is looked upon but how the worshiper worships from their very being, their human spirit. As MacArthur acknowledges, “Jesus’ point here is that a person must worship not simply by external conformity to religious rituals and places (outwardly) but inwardly (“in spirit”) with the proper heart attitude.”The reference to worshiping in truth is crucial since God revealed more of not only His plans and purposes but the reality of His Son taking on human form to live, die, be buried, resurrect, and ascend. These truths being revealed are all part of worshiping God in truth. Every Christian who seeks to worship God will continue to expand and grow in his or her knowledge of God and then worship Him accordingly. Such growth is the normal part of maturation and sanctification. True worship of God will be out of love and joy, not compulsion, and according to what He has revealed of Himself, not subjective interpretations.
The Christ Will Reveal All Things
Despite lacking the large chunk of the Old Testament, the woman’s statement here shows her understanding and belief in the coming Messiah. What exactly her understanding concerning who or what the Messiah cannot be determined since there is no way to speak with her. However, the Jewish version of the Messiah was completely corrupted. The Messiah, in Jewish minds, would be a marvelous military ruler and would kick out whatever nation was currently oppressing them. However, this woman seems to have longed for the Messiah and believed that the Messiah would come one day. Jesus plainly speaks His Messianic identity to her in a way that He typically avoided simply because of how the Jews would react with their own warped version of the Messiah.
Jesus Reveals Himself to the Woman
The love and compassion Jesus shows to this woman, and ultimately her town should never be glossed over or underemphasized. The Samaritans were absolutely loathed by the Jews, and even among a town of outcasts, this woman was an outcast of outcasts, and yet Jesus chose to reveal Himself to her as the Messiah. Through her encounter with the Messiah, she would go back to her town and proclaim the coming Messiah, and many in her town would believe.
The Wonderful Mercies of the Lord Jesus Christ
Human kings and emperors often find compassion, mercy, and grace weaknesses. The view towards these wonderful attributes is habitually shared amongst countless other humans as well, for the absence of mercy and compassion is not limited to rulers but also to bosses, employees, teachers, students, parents, and children. Yet the Lord God Almighty, the Sovereign King of all Creation, and Creator of the Universe willingly and joyfully deluges all creatures, and especially His people, with all of these marvelous attributes. The woman at the well needed living water and the Living Water came and found her, and she truly will never thirst again. This amazing truth is the reality for all who come to Christ in repentance and faith, and no Christian will ever hunger or thirst again with their faith stayed firmly on the Lord Jesus Christ. Believers should constantly be worshiping God with joy in their spirit and the truth of His mercies as undoubtedly, this woman would go forward doing after her timely salvation.
Worship and service are not bound to a building but occurs wherever Christians are at any moment. Worship in the car, worship in the living room, worship in the bathroom, believers are able to serve and worship God everywhere.
Christians can learn much from the Lord’s treatment of this woman. Christians should not be falling prey to human taboos, sinful ethnic or gender divisions, and other wicked barriers that people use to condemn others. Christians are to be full of grace, compassion, and love towards those who need Christ just as much as the Christian does. In a similar situation, would the Christian be like Christ or the disciples? Is the cause of Christ something to be ashamed of to the degree that the Christian should ignore biblical mandates just so that arbitrary and sinful human customs can be followed? Believers need to follow in the steps of Christ and show compassion and love through the preaching and living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Grayson, A. Kirk. “Assyrian Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East: Volume II, by Ed., Jack M. Sasson., 961. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1995
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2010.
R.C. Sproul, ed.,. The Reformation Study Bible. Sanford: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015.
R. C. Sproul. John (St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary) (Kindle Location, 903-904).