“Worship in spirit and truth.”
It’s a phrase well known, and oft-quoted.
In my particular, historical circles — and they are particular ones, despite a) the circles’ objections and b) my own developing, greater interest in being a simple, unaffiliated-but-connected, Bible-based, nondenominational, local-but-at-large Christian — the phrase has sometimes been used as a spiritual club. I don’t think that was a good thing. (Duh.)
What does the expression mean, though? And what doesn’t it mean? Examining the immediate context of the words, we might notice emphasis on location, on the relationship of physical and spiritual in general, on water and food, on Jewishness and Samaritanness, on sin, on honesty, and yes, on worship. It seems to me that the greater point Jesus makes here is not that we must worship in spirit and truth, but that we must worship in spirit and truth. In other words, the emphasis is possibly more on the how than on the what.
But again we return to the phrase. What does it mean?
I once laid out seven versions of John 4:24 side by side in order to show how slight variations in translation could affect how the Redeemer’s enjoinder is understood. That helped me a little (although it’s shocking how much sameness is experienced across many versions). A few days ago, a new version surfaced for me. I lost the identifier, so I can’t tell you the name of the version, but try this:
God is Spirit. Those who worship him must do so in spirit and in a true way.’ (John 4 :23)
I don’t think I’ll say much about the Spirit/spirit part except to remind readers of the lack of capital letters in the original text. It’s therefore difficult to tell whether “Spirit” or “spirit” was intended. My suspicion is the latter, because of the contextual emphasis on physical location.
I’ll say just a little more about the “truth” part. The “club” mentioned above is the notion that our way is the true way, and therefore, if you don’t do worship our way, you are not doing it “in truth.” This tack is something between unjustifiably judgmental and damnable, it seems to me. The honesty factor Jesus was dealing with in the woman he met — or maybe it’s better put in terms of genuineness, authenticity, and being “real” — leads me to think that “in truth” is better translated as above, in the mystery version. In other words, it’s more about truly worshipping, or worshipping truly or actually, than about worshipping according to some set pattern or codified set of supposed truths.
Now, after losing any thoughts of knowing exactly how to worship, it’ll be better if you and I quit thinking about it and just do it. Tonight, I look forward to worship. And have actually worshipped a bit just now in writing this.