In the middle of an intense conversation between Jesus and an unnamed woman of Sychar, Jesus, in John 4:21-24, responding to her question, seems to digress from the point that he is the living water. Why, in the middle of this evangelistic conversation, does he spend so much time talking about worship?
Worship God in truth. It matters to God how you worship him. He reminds the woman that the Samaritans worship “what they do not know,” in contrast with the people of Israel, who worship with knowledge. He adds the significant statement that salvation is of the Jews. Jesus’ response, as well as Deuteronomy 12, point out that there are wrong ways to worship, in contrast to the right way. As Psalm 139 makes clear, the OT believer could connect with God anywhere. Central to worship is the idea that we are meeting with God. That draws an awed, reverent, joyful, fearful response from his creatures, whether the authors of the Psalms or the angelic beings of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 and 5. Why you worship as well as how flow out of knowing God. Understand the privilege of worshiping him! Participate actively!
Worship according to Scripture. Include what God has commanded, not what we think might be nice or relevant. Be willing to put what God says above your preferences. Worship must be filled with Scripture: read, preached, sung, prayed, and seen (in the sacraments).
Worship God in spirit. The presence of Jesus changes the way you worship. Not only is Samaritan worship wrong, but Jewish worship in the temple is about to end. The time is coming. The time has come, because Jesus is present and is about to perform his Messianic work. The coming time contrasts with the past, and is characterized by worship in spirit and in truth. God is spirit, and seeks such to worship him. There is a contrast between past and future, but it is connected with God being spirit. What about God being spirit changes the way you worship? Look back at John 1:32-34 and ahead to John 20:21-23. As Christ fulfills the ceremonies and types of the Old Testament, as public worship is loosed from the one location of the temple, and instead is relocated to the living temple (the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit), worship becomes simple. Hebrews reminds you that you have a far greater reality than the complex ceremonies of the Old Covenant. You have Christ—but you see him by faith. Don’t confuse simplicity with boring! “Do you see the passion with which the Psalmist seeks for God, particularly in and through public worship? He ‘thirsts,’ seeks ‘earnestly,’ ‘yearns,’ and “clings.’ God’s ‘lovingkindness’ for him is ‘better than life.’ Besides God he desires ‘nothing on earth.’ God’s ‘nearness’ is his ‘good.’ God’s ‘dwelling places’ are ‘lovely’ and he longs and yearns for them. Relish this deeply experiential language and do not settle for less. Come to God in Christ and feed on the bread of life and quench the thirst of your soul with Living Water (John 6:35; 7:37).” (Terry L. Johnson, Reformed Worship, p. 49).
Be a worshiper whom the Father seeks. Worship in spirit starts with a heart right with God. You need to repent, you need to drink of Jesus as the living water. Worship in spirit involves longing for God’s presence. It involves a participation of your whole person, mind, emotions, body. Prepare for worship. It is not simply putting your body in the right place at (almost) the right time, and automatically receiving God’s blessing. Rather, participate actively. Prepare. Come in plenty of time. Meditate on God and his Word. By faith see God in his glory. The Father seeking people is unique to this passage. You should want to be present in worship. Know that the Father seeks to have you worship him in this way! He seeks you to worship him, not by idly expressing a hope that you will be a true worshiper. Rather, the reason his Son was having the convesation with the woman, the reason his Son was in the world, was to redeem her—and you—to worship him.
Why is a discussion of worship not a digression from evangelizing the Samaritan woman? Because a central purpose in Christ redemptive work is to form a people who worship God in spirit and in truth. That is why he died for you. Will you worship him that way?