John 4:19-24 (ESV)
19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But 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. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
This passage is one in which my understanding of it differs from what I most often hear taught. When many Bible teachers come across the question of the Samaritan woman in verse 19, they teach that she was attempting to change the subject, to angle the deflector shields as it were, in order to keep Jesus from pursuing the topic of her own personal sin. It is as if she brings up a question of religious disagreement in order to make the conversation less personal and more hypothetical in nature.
However, I do not think this is at all the case. In the previous verses, Jesus has just exposed the depth of this woman’s sin and shame. She has been taken in and used by a number of men. Now she lives with a man who is not her husband. She is at the well in the middle of the day, clearly wanting to be alone. There seems to be a sense of shame in this woman.
What is the right thing for the woman to do when her sin is exposed? Well, it obviously depends on what God is doing in her heart. If God has left her heart dead to him, she will recoil in anger. She might become haughty. She will shake her head at Jesus and tell him to mind his own business.
However, if God is doing something in her heart, if he has begun to make alive a sinfully dead and hopeless heart, something else will occur. In fact, it would seem most natural for the woman to cry for help. She has sinned. She needs grace. She needs to be forgiven. It seems logical that she would ask a question that would help her to identify how it is that she might be forgiven.
What does the woman do? She asks Jesus a question about which temple is the right one in which to worship. Is this a stall tactic, or is it something more? Our problem is that we view the concept of worship as modern people who go to church buildings for congregational gatherings of worship. This was not in her mind. People did not go to the temple for congregational singing and preaching. No, this woman is asking where she must go in order to make the proper kind of sacrifice in order to regain the favor of the God she has spurned. She wants to know where to go that she might find forgiveness.
I think Jesus’ answer to the woman shows that my interpretation of the woman’s question is correct. Jesus helps the woman to know that, indeed, the temple in Jerusalem is the one in which God has made it possible for people to worship him. The temple on Mount Gerizim never had any way of helping people to rightly sacrifice before the one true God. But Jesus also tells her that this system of going to a temple to worship is about to come to an end. Very soon, in fact, those who wish to worship God will not do so through bloody burnt offerings, but will instead worship the Lord in spirit and truth. Salvation is not going to be about anything related to the temple, it will soon be by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
It is logical that, were the woman trying to avoid spiritual discussion, Jesus would have exposed more of her need. Instead, Jesus answers her question and gives her a very real answer. “If you want to know how to be right with God,” he says in effect, “You need to know that it is a spiritual worship, a true worship that will bring you to peace with God.” Jesus does not send this woman away as he did the rich young man of Mark 10:17-22. No, Jesus told her how to find grace, because her heart was already despairing over its sin. Jesus saw the Spirit’s work on this woman’s heart, and he gave her the good news.