The Heart of WorshipHome » Blog » General
A sermon that I was privileged to share with my former home church, Redeemer Bible Church.
The Heart of Worship
On my final Sunday on staff at Redeemer I've been given the privilege of leading you in worship in a different way than I normally do – by preaching from the Word of God. Your pastors have graciously allowed me to let this kind of worship leadership be my last. I asked to preach for several reasons. First, I wanted to try and summarize what worship is all about, what I have been doing for the past 8 years, and what my biblical vision was and is for you as a church as worshipers. While planning and leading the service is a teaching ministry, it doesn't give me the opportunity to go into such detail or to interact with biblical texts with depth. Second, I wanted to present this teaching on the heart of worship as a kind of charge – a charge to remember what worship is supposed to be and to stick closely to what God says about it. While there are thousands of opinions about worship, many of which I keep up with in periodicals, there is one Whose opinion is all-important – God Himself as He speaks to us through His Word.
Before starting my study I assumed that I would give a topical sermon with various proof-texts, following bullet-points about worship that I have spent years developing. But as I chose a central text, namely John 4, and started to engage with it, my own feeble structures of understanding starting falling down in light of the richness that I found in the text exegetically. And as I finished my notes, I realized that most of what I wanted to share about the nature of worship was there anyway, but in a much more gloriously organized way than I could have come up with on my own. Isn't it always that way when you relate to a person? You might go into a meeting with an agenda, but the dialog always takes unexpected turns with surprising outcomes. This is one way that I have felt loved by the Lord the past few weeks – it was as if the Living Word Himself were sitting with me and showing me these amazing things from John chapter 4. And my hope for this morning is to simply take you down the path that I walked as I sought to understand this story's relevance to worship so that you might have an experience with Jesus that surpasses mine.
Let's turn to our main text today, the New Testament book of John, chapter 4. Please follow along as I read.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “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. 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.
( Look ahead to verse 39 )
Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Significance of the place
The first thing I want to help you understand about this story is the setting. This encounter takes place at the site of what is called "Jacob's Well." This was probably the site of the Old Testament city of Schechem, the place where Jacob built an altar after wrestling with God. After Jacob's wrestling match, God gave him a new name – Israel – which is where the nation of Israel gets its name since they are his descendants. In Genesis 33:18-20, it says that Jacob built an altar at this site named El-Elohe-Israel. This place of worship was inscribed as the altar of El, the God of Israel. So it was a known as a place of worship, established by none other than the patriarch Israel himself, which sat in then modern-day Samaria.
The Woman as an Outcast
Even if you don't know the Bible very well, you might be familiar with the place called Samaria because of the story of the Good Samaritan. This was a region in Israel between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. In Jesus' day the Jews viewed Samaritans as illegitimate children of Israel, both in terms of genealogy and religion. The Samaritans were descended from those who remained in the land of Israel during the Babylonian exile and intermarried with people who were relocated there from outside of the region. The Samaritans believed that their worship was the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the exile. They accepted the first five books of the Bible but rejected the writings of the prophets. To say that Samaritans and Jews despised each other is to put it mildly. A Jewish book of law called the Mishnah reflected the popular sentiments about Samaritans by saying that "all the daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle," meaning they were in a perpetual state of ceremonial uncleanness.
Not only was the person Jesus approached a Samaritan, but she was a woman. This is why she responded to Jesus the way she did in verse 9: "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" Even though at first glance it appears that Jesus might be treating this stranger like a slave by barking, "give me a drink," he was really showing her honor and acceptance by giving her the chance to talk with and serve him. The time of this encounter – in verse 6 referred to as "the sixth hour" or noon – also points to her place as an outcast. Water was normally drawn from wells in the morning or late afternoon, not in the heat of the day. The fact that this woman came to the well at this time and by herself is probably the result of her reputation among the town as a lowlife. She was a woman surrounded by walls of isolation, but Jesus was on a mission to break through them all and capture her.
Right from her first response in verse 9 she was evasive with Him. She essentially says to Jesus, "You shouldn't be wasting your time talking to me." But He is unfazed and responds in verse 10 by telling her that if she knew what God offered to give her and who Jesus was, she would have asked Him for something. Now He's really got her attention – he brings God into the conversation and hints that God might want to give her something, something he calls "living water." This phrase has a double meaning in Greek, just like the phrase "born again" in John chapter 3, which can also mean, "born from above." The word translated "living" can also refer to running or fresh water. Running water was more valuable than well water – it was the really good stuff. Jesus could have been suggesting that He knew of a better water source close by, making it seem like He knew better than Jacob and centuries of tradition. But he was using the term metaphorically to represent life that flows from belief.
Now whether she took the literal meaning of the phrase, or just played along like Nicodemus appeared to do when he asked Jesus "can a man enter a second time into his mother's womb," she dismisses Him by pointing out that He didn't even have any equipment to give her this fresh water, even if he knew more than everyone else where to find it. Jesus then makes it crystal clear that He is talking about spiritual realities when in verse 14 He explains the kind of water he is offering her – so much pure water for her soul that it will be like she has a spring within her welling up in eternal life. Intrigued and becoming more and more captivated with this strange Jew, she plays along and says in verse 15, "give me this water."
The Woman's Sin Exposed
Verse 16 represents an abrupt shift in the flow of their dialog. It's at this point that some churches might want to have her walk down the aisle, sign a card, or pray the sinner's prayer. After all, she has just expressed her desire to have eternal life. What Jesus says next is strange indeed. Think of what He says to her in this way: Imagine that you are sharing about Jesus with someone. After telling them about the eternal life He offers, they express an eagerness to receive it. You then pull out a giant file from a private investigator that you have hired with all of their dirty little secrets – the various porn sites they regularly watch, the secret stealing from work, secretly recorded video of them flirting with a co-worker, and on an on. How well do you think that would go as an evangelistic strategy? Immediately after the Samaritan woman says, "Give me this water," Jesus calls her out on her sin, pointedly. It's like He's saying between the lines "before you can receive this water you have a problem you need to deal with – your sin."
At this point she tries to hide from him. When Jesus asks her to get her husband, she responds by saying that she has no husband even though she was living with a man. Her admission of not having a husband was an attempt to prevent Jesus from pressing further. If He had made her uncomfortable by just talking to her, imagine how she felt now that He was asking her questions about her love life! Now Jesus makes the final surgical cut to her heart – He reveals that He knows the truth about her sin – that she has had five husbands and is now living with a man. I'm sure she swallowed hard after that one. The pieces must have been coming together in her mind that this was no ordinary man but a prophet. But she doesn't run away, at least not physically. She does, however, try to change the subject, not unlike what we do sometimes when people get too close to our guarded secrets. She quickly tries to get Jesus into a theological discussion, a discussion about a seemingly unrelated topic – worship. And this topic that she goes to is precisely why I, a worship leader, have chosen to preach from this chapter.
The Shift to Worship
After realizing that Jesus is a prophet, she brings up her burning question in verse 20. She asks Jesus what the acceptable place is to worship the true God. Jacob worshipped Him right here (she was probably thinking), the Samaritans say it's on the mountain right next to us, and the Jews say it's in Jerusalem. She's really asking where she can go to find acceptance with God. Now it doesn't seem so unrelated to her shame, does it? She may have been challenging Jesus to write her off – to agree with her conscience that she was an outcast and shouldn't have any access to God. But Jesus doesn't write her off – in fact – He gives her an answer that I'm sure surprised and intrigued her, as Jesus was known to do. Look to verse 21. He says that a time is coming when neither here in Samarian nor in Jerusalem will be the place to find acceptance with God in true worship. Something greater, a greater means of worship, is coming.
While Jesus does acknowledge that the Samaritans are wrong and that Israel was right about worship when He says, "salvation is from the Jews," He offers her a new paradigm for worship that transcends both systems. When He says in verse 23 that it is "now here," He makes it clear that she can be one of these "true worshipers," those who worship God in an acceptable way, right now. And what was the means by which she could become a true worshipper? In contrast to worship that is according to intricate rules and in a particular place, it would now be in "spirit and truth." Much like the phrase "grace and truth" in chapter 1, these two words are meant to depict one thing. Too much is made of each term independently. The main point I want you to take from this phrase is that it refers to, as one commentator says, "fellowship established no longer by provisional and symbolic forms, but directly ." Or in the words of D.A. Carson, "worship must be God-centered, made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in personal knowledge of and conformity to God's Word-made-flesh, the one who is God's truth ."
Now the Samaritan woman is really captured by this prophet, and suspects that He might be the Prophet, the one spoken of in Deuteronomy, which the Samaritans saw as the Messiah. She says in verse 25, "I know that Messiah is coming… when He comes He will tell us all things." It's almost as if she was already suspecting that Jesus was this ultimate Prophet. Even though it's not really formed as a question, Jesus readily answers her as to His true identity. It's now time for Him to disclose Himself to her. Though His disclosure does not involve telling his dirty secrets since He has none, it is nonetheless an intimate moment in which He is sharing His deepest identity with her. After all, she could have run off laughing at Him. But Jesus knew that she was ready to receive the truth, so He said it plainly in verse 26: "I who speak to you am He."
In English you miss something incredible about how Jesus said this. In Greek, word order isn't as important as it is in English, therefore word order can be used for things like emphasis. What do you notice when I give you the most literal translation of this phrase? "To her, said Jesus, 'I am the one who speaks to you.'" The Jews and Samaritans both would have recognized the prominent way He used the phrase "I AM" right after His name. This was the divine name of God as revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus. My own paraphrase of what He communicated to her is this: "I, Jesus, the one speaking to You, am God Himself."
The account of Jesus' dialog with the woman ends there, rather abruptly. Let me extrapolate a little bit to try and give a sense for what the Samaritan woman may have been thinking when Jesus said this to her. It's as if He was saying, "I am the one who accepts outcasts, I am the one who gives eternal life, I am the one who knows your every secret yet will not condemn or move away from you, I am the prophet who you were waiting for, the ultimate prophet, I am the one who will bring about a radical change in worship from externals to internals, I am the truth, I make it possible to worship God who is a spirit… I am God Himself."
The Woman's Response
How does the woman respond to such an amazing claim? She responds with worship. No she didn't lie prostrate before Jesus or start singing to Him (well, at least it's not recorded for us). Her response helps us to understand worship not primarily as something we do for God, but as something we do in response to what God does for us. Maybe I'm reading too much into this little phrase, but I see worship in verse 28 when it says that the woman "left her water jar." I think that she lost herself, she got so caught up with what she had seen and experienced with Jesus that she left her stuff behind. Then she went away into town to share her experience with others. Worship should move us outwards. True evangelism flows out of a heart of worship; it says "come and see what I've seen, come experience what I've experienced, come find the life that I've found."
And she tells the townspeople the very thing that seems so strange to many of us in the modern-day church world. She says in verse 29 that Jesus "told me all I ever did." She actually brags about Jesus nailing her to the wall by exposing her most shameful sins! It's like she's saying, "He knew me inside and out, every dirty little secret, but loved and accepted me anyway! And if He can love someone like me, the worst person in the town, then why shouldn't He love anyone?!" In contrast to a complex series of externals, worship is about being known and exposed yet accepted and loved. It's about meeting Jesus. The point of worship is to come "to Him" as the woman calls the townspeople to do. And what flowed out of the encounters with Jesus from the woman and the townspeople? Look at verse 40 – welcome, hospitality, love, and ultimately, conversions as the people professed that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
There's one more piece of this text that I skipped over that I want to mention briefly. Did you notice in verse 23 that it says "the Father is seeking such people to worship Him?" Well, the word such points back to those in the previous verse called the "true worshipers" who worship "in spirit and truth." It seems at first that God is looking for people who are already worshiping in this way, in a way that is acceptable to Him. It almost makes God look like a narcissistic movie star who is looking for His fans in a crowd, not content until they swell up in hysterical, screaming and fainting, trying-to-touch-Him, worship. But if we are to understand true worshipers as those who come to God through Jesus, aware of their spiritual bankruptcy, humble, teachable, and broken, then we can understand God's heart for finding worshipers. He seeks those who will admit their inability to please Him in worship by their own power, those who are aware of their deep spiritual need and who cast themselves on His mercy, in order to bless them with joy-filled, abundant life that comes from knowing and receiving Him in Jesus. He seeks worshipers not to have his ego stroked, but in order to give them an experience of Himself, an experience that goes beyond simply emotions but to a joy that penetrates all the way down to the deepest parts of their souls and explodes out into a life of worship filled with gratitude, evangelism, and sometimes water jugs left by the side of the road.
Inferences About Worship
Now that we have taken in the story as a whole, I'd like to make 5 inferences about the nature of worship and apply them to us individually and as a church. Jesus paints a picture of an overflow of abundant life that is possible by knowing Him. He offers us a deep and transformative experience in worship that goes beyond merely having an emotional response. How do we pursue that kind of worship? Let me offer 5 suggestions.
1. Worship Starts with God
First, worship starts with God. Worship is about responding to God as He reveals Himself to us. It's not something we should try to "muster up," a feeling or a mood that we can create by listening to the right kind of music (often some kind of peaceful synthesizer chords with nice major sevenths and sharp fourths). What worship looks like, our response, will vary – from thinking to speaking to internal prayer, to singing, dancing, or shouting. Don't pigeonhole how to respond to God to having a charismatic moment – eyes closed and arms raised, as if that means that you really got to Jesus. It doesn't, trust me. If you want to experience transformative and satisfying worship, start by filling yourself with the knowledge of who God is and His grace in the gospel. Make sure that your private worship includes substantive Scripture reading and thoughtful meditation on the Lord. Make sure that public worship includes not only our response to God, but also plenty of truth both from Scripture directly, and in songs and prayers full of a deep knowledge of God.
2. Worship Involves Repentance
This brings us to our second inference about the nature of worship. The path to life-changing encounters with God starts with God revealing Himself, with truth, but leads through confession and repentance. Before we can know true worship, we must be broken before the Lord. Worship must acknowledge our sin and make room for confession and humility before our holy God. We need to spend time reflecting on and confessing our sin and asking for forgiveness. We need to get specific. It's the elephant on the table when you come to worship. Imagine going on a date after your wife has found evidence of what seems like an affair, and going about the date normally as if nothing were wrong, talking about how much you love her, expressing thankfulness for what she has done for you, but not dealing with the problem. God will press us and press us hard to move us to repentance because he knows that it is the path to joyful, genuine, and transformative worship.
This may be one of the most neglected aspects of worship today. Remember how shocking it seemed when Jesus responded to the woman's eagerness to accept eternal life by calling her out on her sin? Let me suggest that's due in part to the larger Christian culture that has minimizes our sin by hardly or barely talking about it in vague generalities, and has certainly abandoned times of confession in public worship. When so-called worship music is mainly about offering people a positive, family-friendly, motivational, feel-good message set to sub-par adult-contemporary music, it does damage to our view of what worship should be all about. Where is the knowledge of God, in detail? When we sing praise to God, what are we praising Him for? Where is the weight of the holiness of God? It's easy to play a sad song and get people to feel sorry for themselves that they haven't been good enough, but where is the acknowledgement of utter ruin, rebellion, coldness towards God, spiritual bankruptcy, and certain and terrifying judgment if not for the mercy of God? Oh, that the church would return to helping people understand, acknowledge, confess, and repent of their sin in worship.
3. Worship Involves Acceptance
Our third inference about worship is integrally connected to our need for confession and repentance. Worship should expose us in the context of being assured of God's love and acceptance for us. Jesus showed the Samaritan woman acceptance from the moment He even came near her, and never stopped loving her even when He was telling her how bad she was. We need assurance that God won't write us off or stop loving us when we get real with him and admit our sin. So let's not neglect to get to the love of God in Jesus when we worship God privately or publicly.
God welcomes outcasts to come to Him in worship; likewise our worship should be welcoming to outsiders. The Father is seeking humble, teachable, broken people in worship. Are we? Is worship set up to attract and help those kinds of people, or just to satisfy the influential or difficult people? Is it mainly for those who conform? Those with lots of opinions? How might our Sunday mornings change if the emphasis was on brokenness and not on execution or performance? How do we react when messy people come on Sundays? Are we more concerned with our schedule and responsibilities than we are with loving others?
4. Worship Is About Jesus
Fourth, worship should be all about Jesus. Worship must be anchored in or centered on Jesus. It should unmistakably convey the fact that Jesus is central to honoring God and that true worship is in and through Him. We need to get to Jesus in content and in response. When we care more about doing worship "correctly" than we care about having an encounter with Jesus, we are getting off-track. Even if we are from a tradition that places more emphasis on rituals and forms, a more so-called liturgical church, we must not let these rituals become the focus, but always what they represent. We must keep pointing ourselves and our people back to Jesus with clarity, relevance, and passion.
Redeemer is in the midst of big changes – changes to our buildings, changes in our attendance, and changes in our staff, specifically in the area of worship. As you move forward as a church, would you pause for a heart-check in this area? Would you confess to the Lord, and maybe to others, some of the ways you have been overly critical about our public worship? Would you be willing to admit that you have sometimes been more concerned about doing things correctly than with actually having an encounter with Jesus? This, my friends, is the path to genuine worship.
5. The Effects of Worship
My last inference about worship is about its' lasting effects. Worship should result in getting so caught up with who God is and how much He loves us that we lose ourselves, we forget about our affairs and our opinions, and we are motivated outward towards others in loving self-forgetfulness. Are we leaving worship so caught up in God that we talk about Him to others or do we simply go back to talking about sports? I don't mean to pick on sports as if it were inherently ungodly, for there is a way to talk about sports in light of the knowledge of God, but that is outside of the scope of this message. The point is, do you leave with your face shining, to use a biblical phrase? Can others see evidence of you meeting with God? If not, consider that you haven't been, that you have wandered away from true worship. It's so easy to fake, isn't it? We simply do the externals and participate and then think, and sometimes even talk, about how worship was so great when internally we felt or cared very little.
Call to Salvation
In conclusion, let me shift gears and describe another possible ending to this story. Think of this as a "choose your own adventure," books that were popular when I was a kid. What if after Jesus confronted the woman about her love life, instead of letting her walls fall down, she erected more? What if she debated with Jesus about His theology of worship? What if she simply got silent and refused to talk to Him anymore? What if she went back to talking about water and made chit-chat? Perhaps one of these responses would characterize what happens inside of you when you come to public worship at Redeemer. I don't care if you have been here 45 minutes or 45 years. Maybe you are content to take in what is happening in worship: you nod in agreement with the truths that we are singing, reading, and reciting, but it doesn't go beyond that. Maybe when we pause for confession you've long given up on trying to find and name specific sins and you simply think about all of the tasks of the day or your hobbies. Maybe when someone starts getting to know you and gets closer to exposing the real you, you simply shut down. Shutting down for you might mean getting quiet, getting angry, getting silly, talking about the boat, or even talking about theology. You leave worship unaffected, critical, or even disillusioned.
If this describes you would you consider that maybe you haven't yet become a Christian? You don't become a Christian by signing a statement of faith or by becoming good at participating in public worship. You become a Christian by finally giving in to God's quest to expose you for how bad you really are, and in that place realizing how much He really loves you anyway, so much that He gave up His precious Son to suffer and die the death you deserved. Maybe today is the day when you leave your water jar in the dirt and run home to your friends and family boasting about how amazing this Jesus is who knows your darkest secrets but loves you more than you ever thought possible. Maybe today is the day you get to experience what worship was meant to be. Would you surrender yourself to His loving authority over your life today? Why not run to Him right now in prayer?