In John chapter four the woman at the well asked Jesus what must have been the burning controversy of her time: Where was the proper place to worship? The Samaritans worshiped on nearby Mount Gerizim. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain,” (it is easy to imagine her gesturing towards Gerizim’s summit) “but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).
Jesus’ answer indicates what is less important in worship, and what is vital. What is of less importance? The location where worship took place: “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the father,” Jesus began. Next he suggested that there was something that was important in worship: “True worshipers,” he declared, “must” worship God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). From the divine perspective, the location of worship was not as important as the attitude of those who worshiped there!
The Lord’s enigmatic statement regarding Samaritans worship is revealing. They worshiped “what they did not know,” he said, implying an ignorant form of worship (John 4:24). History sheds some light on this: The Samaritans, as the woman indicated, believed that the proper place to worship God was on Mount Gerizim. How, the reader might ask, did they come to this conclusion given the many Old Testament references to Mount Zion, and Solomon’s temple?
Long before Israel entered the Promised Land God had expressed his intention to choose a place for honoring him. “You shall seek the place the Lord your God shall choose … and make his habitation there” (Deuteronomy 12:5). Where was that place to be? Moses specifies the saddle of land between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Here the nation was to go over the terms of the covenant with God, the blessings and curses.
When a blessing was pronounced on some good deed, six tribes, ranged on one of the mountains were to shout, “Amen! Amen!” in assent. When a curse was pronounced on some sinful deed, the other six tribes, ranged opposite, were to shout in similar fashion (Deuteronomy 27:11-14). The point is that this was the very place in which this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place!
Still, did not subsequent Old Testament passages tell of the building of Solomon’s temple on Mount Zion? Then how could the Samaritans have ignored these passages? The answer is simple. They accepted only the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, as authoritative. Read this way, they could point to an Old Testament canon that made no mention of Mount Zion and Solomon’s temple.
In a word, Samaritan worship was conducted in ignorance because they accepted only a part of their Bible. They worshiped what they did not know. It seems that the Samaritans worshiped “in spirit” – full of enthusiasm and zeal, but not “in truth” – ignorant of God’s will in its entirety.
So, we might ask, does God want us to worship him in spirit, or in truth? The answer is, well, “yes.”