What Is True Worship?

A Deficient View of Worship

It’s a sweltering, dusty day somewhere in the Middle East, and Jesus is thirsty. He sits down at a well to wait for a woman from Samaria he’s never met.1

Give me a drink.

It’s a simple request. But those four words cross religious, ethnic, and moral lines that have been in place for generations. The woman is dumbfounded.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?

She has good reason to wonder. In the eighth century BC, Assyria conquered the Samaritans and brought in idolaters from other nations to intermarry with them. Since that time, the rest of the Jews have viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, religious mutts. They are people you avoid, not pursue. They use an edited Bible and worship God at a different temple.

On top of that, Jesus is a man. Jewish men are never to be overly familiar with women, and speaking to a woman alone would look very suspicious. Jesus is undeterred.

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.

Jesus doesn’t answer the woman’s question. He’s not even asking her for a drink anymore. He’s offering her one. He wants her to see that she’s the one who needs water. Living water. Jesus goes on to make an uncomfortably perceptive comment about the woman’s home life.

True Worshipers

Bob Kauflin

This book connects Sunday worship to the rest of our lives, walking readers through what it looks like to live as a true worshiper of God who has been transformed by the gospel of Jesus.

You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.

It’s not often a man you just met unveils the scandalous details of your life. She discerns that Jesus must be a prophet. Maybe he even knows the answer to a question that has divided Jews and Samaritans for centuries. A question about worship.

Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.

At this point the woman may be trying to turn the spotlight away from her personal affairs. Maybe she genuinely wants to resolve the ongoing debate. It’s even possible she holds out hope she can somehow deal with her sin. But it doesn’t matter. This time, Jesus answers her question.

Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

Jesus tells the woman her knowledge of worship is woefully deficient. Earthly geography is a fading category. She doesn’t even know the one she claims to worship. And that’s after he’s already introduced the disconnect between her life and her professed religion. He goes on.

The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.

Spirit and truth? The Father seeking? It’s a typical Jesus response—unexpected, enigmatic, and containing implications far beyond what the woman could have dreamed. Implications that reach to you and me.

God Wants All Worshippers

The fact that Jesus had this conversation with an immoral woman in an obscure village should tell us something. God isn’t seeking worshipers only among the significant and popular people, the successful and powerful ones. The Maker of the universe is seeking true worshipers among us all.

But why is God seeking something? Surely the all-knowing, all-seeing One doesn’t lose things. And it’s not as though a self-sufficient God has any needs. Why would God seek anything?

We seek what’s important to us. We seek what has value. And God is seeking true worshipers—because true worshipers matter to God.

In Spirit and Truth

For those of us who think of worship primarily in terms of musically driven emotional experiences, Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman should be eye-opening. Jesus is talking about “true worshipers” and he doesn’t reference music once. Not a whisper of bands, organs, keyboards, choirs, drum sets, guitars, or even lutes, lyres, and timbrels.

The Maker of the universe is seeking true worshipers among us all.

Can we find out what it means to be a true worshiper and not talk about music? Apparently. Music is a part of worshiping God, but it was never meant to be the heart of it.

“True worshipers,” Jesus told the woman, are those who “worship the Father in spirit and truth.” He went on to say more emphatically that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Broadly speaking, worship in spirit and truth is worship that springs from a sincere heart and lines up with the truth of God’s word. But there’s more to what Jesus was saying.

To worship God in truth, says New Testament scholar D. A. Carson, “is first and foremost a way of saying that we must worship God by means of Christ. In him the reality has dawned and the shadows are being swept away.”2 And Jesus is the one who gives the life-giving Spirit, who produces rivers of living water in a believer’s soul (John 7:38–39). It’s the Spirit who brings life to our spirits and enables us to know, love, and worship God the Father through Jesus Christ.

In other words, it takes God to worship God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman not only that the Father was seeking true worshipers, but that he came to make her one. Her story is the story of every true worshiper. We begin to worship God by acknowledging our inability to worship him unless he draws us by his grace and reveals himself to us through his word.


  1. The italicized are excerpts from John 4:7–23
  2. Carson, Worship by the Book, 37.

This article is adapted from True Worshippers: Seeking What Matters to God by Bob Kauflin.

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