Question: "What did Jesus mean when He said, "You worship what you do not know" in John 4:22?"
Answer: In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, He remarked to her that “you worship what you do not know” (John 4:22). This was part of a larger conversation in which Jesus offered her living water, resulting in her salvation.
As Jesus was going north from Judea to Galilee, He chose to go through Samaria (John 4:4). Not everyone would take this route, as, historically, there was significant tension between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. At the end of the monarchy period in Israel, Assyria defeated Israel and brought people from various Assyrian territories to live in the region of Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). These people worshiped false gods and imported numerous worship systems (2 Kings 17:29). The later Samaritans were the products of intermarriage and were not received by their fellow countrymen as Jewish; the Samaritans also worshiped false gods along with the biblical God (2 Kings 17:41).
When Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know” (John 4:22), He was recognizing this cultural history. It was unusual for a Jewish man to speak with a Samaritan woman (John 4:9), yet Jesus initiated a conversation with her. After asking her for a drink, He offered her living water for eternal life (John 4:10–14). She was uncertain of His identity (John 4:12), so Jesus demonstrated His knowledge of her. He noted that she had had five husbands, and the man she was with was not her husband (John 4:16–18). She recognized then that He was a prophet (John 4:19).
The woman at the well also acknowledged that the Samaritans had a different understanding of how to worship God, and she looked to Jesus to provide the answer (John 4:20). Jesus responded by explaining that the true worship of God was not geographically limited to Samaria or Jerusalem (John 4:21). Jesus said of the Samaritans, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22, ESV). The Jewish people had clear direction about who God was and how to worship Him. The Samaritans had lost that certainty in their pursuit of a more pluralistic approach.
The Samaritan woman’s doubt and uncertainty reflected that of the general population of the region of Samaria. But salvation had come from the Jews in the form of the Messiah, the Son of God, in the line of David. Despite the woman’s confusion, she did understand the expectation that the Messiah would come (John 4:25). At that point, Jesus made the direct claim to her that He was the Messiah (John 4:26).
The woman left her waterpot at the well and went to the town to tell people about the Messiah (John 4:28–30). Up to that point, it could be said of the Samaritans that “you worship what you do not know” (John 4:22), but after Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman from Sychar, they were able to know the One whom they were worshiping. Many of the people of Sychar believed in Jesus because of what the woman had told them (John 4:39). Many more believed in Him because of what He told them over the next two days (John 4:40–41). Now they knew whom they were worshiping because they had believed in Him (John 4:42).
As John explains in the introduction to his gospel, Jesus came revealing God the Father (John 1:18). Those who heed His word and believe in Jesus can know with certainty whom they are worshiping. The disciples believed in Him and had come to know who He was (John 6:69). In another context Jesus challenged His listeners to believe in Him so that they might know (John 10:38). We do not need to be people who worship what we do not know. Like the Samaritans, we can have true knowledge of God through belief in Jesus.