In the course of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, she becomes aware that he is not quite like any other Jew she has ever met, or any other man for that matter. She, therefore, takes the opportunity to ask him a question that has been on her mind. Her people, the Samaritans, have always insisted the worship of God is rightly done in Samaria on Mount Gerizim. The Jews, on the other hand, have always insisted on Jerusalem being the place. Who is right? In response, Jesus tells her that salvation comes from the Jews and the Samaritans have always been confused about their worship. But he goes on; the time is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship God, unconfined, to any particular place. Instead, they will worship God in spirit and in truth.
What does he mean? Does he mean simply that genuine worship must be enthusiastic and orthodox? While no one should criticize worship like that, that is not really what he means at all. What he is after is something else; in fact, what he is trying to get at is almost its reverse. He is not worried about worship being subjectively enthusiastic and objectively orthodox so much as he is talking about worship that is objectively in God’s Spirit, and worship like that is worship that is subjectively “in truth.” The truth has to be in us; we have to take it personally. We have to put ourselves into it. It can’t remain outside us. Enthusiasm isn’t the issue, and the value of any orthodoxy depends on this internalizing of the truth.
Now, as to how that looks, I can do no better than to point to the story of the Samaritan woman and Jesus itself, since the idea that right worship is in spirit and in truth comes out of it. So, let’s retell it.
In the beginning of the story, after asking the woman for a drink, Jesus tells her that if she really knew what the gift of God is, and who was speaking to her, she would have asked him for water, and then he would have given her living water. She, not really understanding him, wonders how he can say that when he has no bucket. How is he going to dip into the well and give her anything? Jesus, politely ignoring her ignorance, then goes on to add that anybody who drinks of the water he has to give will never thirst again. She, thinking he is promising her something like an ancient version of what we now call running water, says she sure would like that. After all, she goes on to say, it sure would make life a lot easier if she didn’t have to keep coming back to the well with her bucket to draw water. Clearly, they are not connecting.
He is working on a different level than she is. In talking about living water he is, of course, talking about himself as the source of life, even as the source of eternal life. Whereas Jacob, whom she and the Samaritans highly honor, gave them a well, he is capable of giving them something far greater, just as he is far greater. All else, including Jacob, simply points to him as its fulfillment. But she doesn’t get that point at all. She cannot get her mind off the only kind of water she has ever known and the only kind that seems to have mattered to her.
Yet, as unpromising as this beginning may be, things actually improve between the two of them. She begins to catch on slowly. Immediately after he asks her to bring her husband forward, and she says that she doesn’t have one, he says that is right, for, he reveals to her, she doesn’t have a husband -- she has had five husbands, and the man she is living with isn’t even her husband at all. The light begins to dawn. She recognizes that she isn’t talking to just anybody. She calls him a prophet. As soon as she does, all the words with double meanings begin to disappear as do the confusions. He begins to teach her – and she begins to listen and learn in earnest. He teaches her first about tradition, and how it really is that it is the Jews who have been right about the worship of God, and not the Samaritans, their religious half-breed cousins. He goes on to teach her that even that issue is not the really important one, for the true worship of God is neither in Jerusalem or Samaria, but in spirit and truth. From there, she who, however confusedly, has been waiting for the Messiah, is told that she is speaking to him. So throughout the course of the story, her spirit then rises from earth to heaven and confusion disappears. By the end, she is operating on pretty much the same plane as Jesus. At the end, she understands things that many of the greatest teachers of Israel of the day were never able to grasp. Not only that, she goes and tells -- she goes and teaches – the village about the man she has just met, and they too come to believe.
Now, this is a wonderful story; for, just as the drama involves conflicting levels of understanding that are at the end reconciled, its happy ending is also happy on many levels. On the most obvious level, of course, is simply the fact that the woman does come to faith and understanding, and to a new sense of life. She gets it right and, doing so, she actually drinks of the water of eternal life, for getting it right here is eternal life. On another level, one also learns something important about Jesus’ openness and care for her. For, not only as a Jew should he have been unwilling to talk to a Samaritan, as an esteemed rabbi he should not have treated her as a disciple since she was a woman. Listening to great teachers was reserved to men. Yet, he did both. For this reason, just as the woman’s understanding is opened up, so, too, should the reader’s understanding be as we come to see that the worship of God in spirit and in truth means that the vision of the kingdom is open to all who are willing to listen long enough.
But there is something I have always wondered about in this story, namely, exactly how it is that this woman passes from an inferior level of understanding to a superior one. Not everybody does in their conversations with Jesus as John records them. This issue of “how” is a matter of getting the truth and understanding and it is something that each of us has to deal with.
Now, in the story of the Samaritan woman it is clear when this happens. The turning point is when Jesus first asks her to bring her husband. When, hiding the truth about her life, she says she has none, he then proceeds to tell her that what she says is true, but only in the sense that she has had five husbands and the one she is now living with is not even her husband. The turning point, in short, is when he tells her all about herself – and when she admits it. When she no longer denies who she is, that is the beginning of her understanding. We see that it is what is going on, because she, in turn, calls him a prophet. She herself admits that this was the turning point, for when she goes and tells everybody else about him her lead doctrine is that Jesus has told her everything that she had ever done.
Why should this be so convincing? Why is this the transition point from ignorance to teachability and finally to understanding?
If it were simply that Jesus was pointing out facts about her life, it probably shouldn’t be. After all, it could simply be the same sort of parlor trick that fortune tellers use, or supposed mind readers hired to entertain at a party; one would be a fool to call them prophets. Things lie on a somewhat deeper level. For what John seems to want us to grasp in the first place is that Jesus saw her as she really is. That is no mean point at all, for as a Samaritan she would have been, should have been invisible to a Jewish rabbi. As a woman who is simply doing the household chores in drawing water, she would have been doubly so. Yet, he talks to her, and he sees her. He knows her. But I think what John – and Jesus – also wants us to grasp is a second point, namely, that she lets herself be seen. She does not hide herself. This point is absolutely key for making the transition from ignorance to teachability and finally to understanding.
Let me put it this way. When commenting on this passage, St. Augustine argued in a highly allegorical way that, when Jesus first asks the woman for water, what he is asking for spiritually is faith. When he then later asks for her husband, Augustine claims that Jesus is really asking her to put her understanding into play. Now, all this may appear to be a stretch, especially in the equation of a “husband” with understanding. It may also appear that Augustine is simply forcing his famous teaching that from faith comes understanding onto a biblical text that won’t support it. But where, on a deeper level, Augustine is absolutely right is that the faith from which understanding finally comes is a faith that lets ourselves to be seen, a faith that makes us open and that leaves us vulnerable, because we drop all pretenses and all defenses, all hiding and all shams. It is in that sense that because she lets herself be known that she can finally be taught and can rise to the level that Jesus is talking to her on.
The Pharisees and the Roman authorities were not like that. For that matter, many “A” students and self-described intellectuals or important people of today are not, either. For what keeps so many from understanding what Jesus is talking about and who he is, is usually their self-image, which may well not be who they are deep down. They exude a sense of self-importance, and make constant attempts to present a mask of power, authority, utter competence and invulnerability to the world. But, to listen and to accept something new and wonderful into their lives, and then to understand, requires that they drop the mask and admit that they are not always in control and that they do not always have the answers. That they are not willing to do that, that they are not willing to be seen as they really are, makes them unteachable. That un-teachability is rooted in a sort of faithlessness, an unwillingness to trust themselves to somebody who could teach them, and that keeps them from understanding and wisdom.
In so many areas of learning – say, law, medicine, mathematics, physics, engineering – one in order to learn and finally to understand has to “master” the material. It is not that way at all in spiritual learning, though, for in spiritual learning one has to be mastered, one has to accept a master, and to do that one has to recognize sometimes that another knows us better than we know ourselves. Thus, one has to open oneself up and be seen if one ever wants to see.
That opening up of oneself is at the heart of faith. Faith, to be sure, is belief; belief, for example, that Jesus really is the Messiah, a confession that the Samaritan woman herself came to make at the end of her conversation with Jesus. But, to get to that belief and that confession, a certain kind of faith that trusts that the Lord can and will teach us about God, no matter how ignorant we may presently be, is first required. It is that openness, that kind of faith that makes Augustine right in suggesting that faith is what Jesus was first asking for when he asked the woman for water. For it is that kind of faith that alone will bring us to understanding and allow us to rise to a level where we can start to understand what we are being told – what we are being told about God, about the world and about ourselves. It is that kind of faith that the psalmist recommends when he says that God is not pleased with burnt offerings; rather, “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.” It is also this kind of faith that we offer in the prayer in communion when we say, “we offer ourselves to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to you...”
During the season of Lent one takes on certain spiritual disciplines. In addition to practices that curb our physical appetites, it is a time for increased attention to prayer, to study, reading of Scripture, and meditation. All of this is vitally important as a way of getting back to the center of our lives, and making them cohere once again. But, in all of these things, we regain that center and wholeness and integrity in life not by mastering prayer, Scripture or meditation. Rather, all of these things are helpful only when we drop the masks and let ourselves be seen. God then reveals himself. The center returns when we see ourselves in God’s light, not ours. It is as one philosopher put it: “To implore a man is a desperate attempt to cause, by sheer intensity, one’s own system of values to pass into the mind of the other person. To implore God is the reverse; it is an attempt to cause the divine values to pass into one’s own soul.” Worship, right worship, in spirit and in truth, is when we let the truth of the Spirit in. It is when we implore God to come to us because we know how much we need God.
So, implore God. Implore God by standing open before him. God cannot resist giving himself to anyone who talks to him like that. If, then, like that woman of Samaria, you let yourselves be seen, you will be taught and then, being taught, you will understand, and what you do will be done in spirit and in truth.