Most of us in churches of Christ have heard the phrase, “In spirit and truth” used of worship, but what exactly does that mean? To understand what Jesus meant by this phrase, we must look at the context in which it appears (John 4:5–26). Christ came to Sychar in Samaria where at Jacob’s well He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. In this scene, Jesus reveals who He is to the woman. First, she looked upon Him as a Jewish male for whom it would have been taboo that He even speak to her, let alone ask for a drink.
Christ informs her that had she known God’s gift, she would have asked Him in return, and He would have given her “living water” (4:10). Jesus turns His attention from the physical to the spiritual almost immediately. The “living water” of which He spoke would have been water of life, possibly a reference to baptism, which would have lived within her so that she would no longer thirst (cf. 4:13–14). Moreover, “living water” was another expression used to refer to running water as opposed to that which was stagnant.
After asking her to call her husband to her, she confessed that she didn’t have one to which Christ replied that she’d had five already. Upon this, she perceived that He was a prophet, so she turns again to the physical location of her fathers having worshipped at this location. Jesus once more goes from physical to spiritual by mentioning that the Father will be worshipped in spirit and truth. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). Some have taken “spirit” to mean “the attitude that one has during worship.” This, however, isn’t what Jesus meant though having the correct mindset is important (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27–32).
To worship in spirit means that the worship of God is not tied to a place such as the mountain to which the Samaritan woman alluded or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, because God exists in a spiritual realm, not a physical one since He is a spirit. Paul served God with his spirit in prayer (Rom. 1:9; Eph. 6:18; Jude 1:20)—something with which the Spirit aids us (Rom. 8:26–27). The true Jew was one circumcised not in the flesh but heart (Rom. 2:29; Phil. 3:3). However, to worship in Spirit doesn’t mean unintelligently, but with understanding (1 Cor. 14:14–15). People who believe that their worship in the Holy Spirit means speaking unintelligently or behaving erratically is not spiritual worship. Since our God is spirit and in a spiritual realm, the focus of our worship ought to focus on that realm.