Volume 16, No. 5 (June 2021)
John 4 is one of the most important passages on worship in the New Testament. Because it’s here in John 4 where Jesus Himself teaches on worship. Zane Hodges wrote:
[The Samaritan woman] raised the subject of worship, and the Saviour’s reply was as pregnant a statement on this issue as had ever escaped the lips of man. Indeed, once He had uttered it, it would be impossible thereafter for anyone intelligently to ponder this theme without returning to consider those priceless words. As an utterance on worship they were timeless and absolutely definitive. (The Hungry Inherit, 18)
WORSHIP UNDER THE OLD COVENANT
But let’s set the stage by first considering worship under the Old Covenant.
In the Old Testament, there were many barriers between the individual Israelite and God. At the tabernacle, the people had to stay outside. Only the priests could go into the Holy Place, to burn incense, offer sacrifices, and so forth. (The people watched worship, they didn’t do worship.) And only the high priest could go inside the curtain into the Holy of Holies, once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies was where God dwelled in the midst of his people. And yet the people could not draw near. The setup demonstrated that God was so holy, and the people were so sinful, that the people could not come close. “Spiritual distancing,” so to speak.
Jesus came to break down the barriers between God and man. That is why we read in the gospels that when Jesus died “the curtain of the temple (that is, the curtain barring the way into the Holy of Holies—was torn in two, from top to bottom,” signifying that Jesus had removed by his death the barrier of sin between God and the people. One of the most tremendous aspects of New Covenant worship is that we now have direct access to God through Jesus Christ: in Hebrews 10:19-22 we read that we are invited to draw near to God in worship with confidence and assurance because Jesus has opened the way for us.
As we turn now to John 4, we see Jesus breaking down other sorts of barriers as well.
JESUS BREAKS DOWN GEOGRAPHICAL BARRIERS
We read starting in verse 3:
[Jesus] left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And He had to pass through Samaria. (4:3-4)
Now, as you probably know, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, for several reasons:
1) They were half-breeds, descended from the intermarriage of Jews and Gentiles (which was forbidden by the Law).
2) They rejected all of the Old Testament except for the first five books.
3) They had established their own system of worship on Mount Gerizim in their territory.
For all these reasons the Jews utterly detested the Samaritans. (That is what makes Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 so ironic—because the hero of the story is a hated Samaritan.) John reminds us here in v. 9 in a parenthetical note that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”
Now Judea was in the south and Galilee in the north, with the land of Samaria in between. A Jew traveling from Judea to Galilee would normally go to great lengths to avoid going through Samaria by crossing over the Jordan River and going up the other side, before crossing back over into Galilee.
But in verse 4 John tells us that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.” In one sense, of course, He did not have to: He could have gone around, like every other Jew would have done. But John seems to be implying that Jesus had to pass through Samaria because the Father had a divine appointment for Him there. Jesus later in the chapter will tell His disciples, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work” (4:34). And that work in this case is accomplished by Jesus through His saving conversation with the woman at the well and through the fact that later, as verse 39 tells us, “many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony.”
And so, to do the Father’s will, Jesus breaks down the artificial geographical barrier put up by the Jews, and He goes right through Samaria. And there a shunned, lonely woman sets out alone on foot from the town of Sychar, down the dusty path leading to Jacob’s well—as she had undoubtedly done hundreds of times before. But this time, unbeknownst to her, her world was about to be turned upside down and her life changed forever. And that’s why Jesus HAD to go through Samaria.
Jesus breaks down the geographical barrier, and heads right into Samaria for His divine appointment.
JESUS BREAKS DOWN SOCIAL AND ETHNIC BARRIERS
So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) (4:5-9)
In that culture it was not acceptable for a man to talk to a woman in public, much less for a Jew to talk to a Samaritan. But Jesus was not concerned about the contrived social and ethnic barriers; He simply saw the woman as a human being, and a needy one at that. And so He knocks down those social and ethnic barriers and engages the woman in conversation.
JESUS BREAKS DOWN SPIRITUAL BARRIERS
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. . . . Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (4:10, 13-15)
Jesus wants to offer her living water, and she doesn’t quite understand yet: she seems interested only in getting water to drink. But Jesus is able to look beneath her immediate, surface desire and break through the spiritual barrier to the need of her heart. He reaches out to offer her the living water of salvation.
So now Jesus, having broken through the geographical barrier, the social and ethnic barrier, and the woman’s spiritual barrier—Jesus is now is going to once and for all break down the religious barrier separating the Jews and the Samaritans, and get to the heart of true worship.
JESUS BREAKS DOWN RELIGIOUS BARRIERS
(CONTINUED NEXT MONTH)
(from a sermon preached on May 30, 2021 at First Evangelical Church, Memphis, Tennessee)