Many think the role of a worship pastor is summed up in song choice. That’s certainly a part of it. I choose songs. But worship pastors aren’t glorified DJs. Worship pastors are guides, storytellers in a way.
That’s because at the heart of Christian worship is the heart of the Christian story: A good and loving God rescuing, redeeming, and revealing himself to a rebellious and guilty people through the substitutionary life and atoning death of his own son Jesus Christ.
Week in and week out I create an order of worship that walks people through the gospel. I take the collective hand of a congregation and guide them with the flow of the service to experience the gospel again. And there’s one particular story in the Bible I use to plan the week’s journey.
What the Woman at the Well Has to Do with Your Worship Service
Are you familiar with the story of Jesus and the woman at the well? In John 4, a shame-filled Samaritan woman goes out to gather water at a well. There she has a life-altering encounter with the very revelation of God’s majesty and mercy—she meets Jesus.
After hearing Jesus recount “everything she has ever done,” she runs back into the town anxiously telling everyone about this man. The townspeople knew her story, but she testified that the stranger who recounted it was the promised Messiah. The people believed: first because of the woman’s testimony and then because of Jesus’ own words.
What? This doesn’t sound like a blueprint for a worship service. You probably expected me to dissect a psalm or even a prayer as the guiding rule for an hour and half in a sanctuary. There are lots of good ones for that. But stick with me.
The woman at the well is you and me. And Jesus, well, he was, he is, and he always will be. This story of their encounter walks the path I want to guide the congregation through in a service. God is good, we are sinners, Jesus saves us, Jesus sends us.
Beginning with a Confrontation: God is good. We are sinners.
In John 4, Jesus reveals himself to the woman as the Christ. He tells her that he is the Messiah she knows will one day come. He offers her living water of eternal life. And he tells her about her own life—as readers, we come to know that she’s had five husbands and is living with a man to whom she isn’t married. We know because Jesus says it, not the woman.
In the very instant that Jesus tells the Samaritan woman her own story, she is confronted with the power of God and her own frailty.
Corporate worship services should provide this same confrontation. To do that, the service needs to lead people to a truer picture of God. Worship is, after all, our response to his self-revelation. We see him for who he is. And once we see who he is—his righteousness, glory, power, and might—it gives us proper perspective on who and what we are. We are weak, we are sinners, we are not glorious.
Just like the woman at the well, a vision of God through Jesus Christ sets the course. The first place I take people on our guided journey into the Christian story is to the one place God is bound to reveal his character and nature—his word.
Songs are important, the music matters, but not more than scripture. Early in a worship service I turn to recognizing the goodness of God through the proclamation of scripture.
Such an astonishingly perfect God exposes our unworthiness in comparison. There is only one thing to do: confess our wretchedness. So, I actively move the service from scripture to confession. We sing and say that we are sinners. We pray and lament that we have turned to our own way, and all of creation is groaning for healing.
Partaking in the Living Water: Jesus saves us.
What if Christ just left the woman at the well to languish in her shame? We probably wouldn’t be talking about that story.
In our songs and prayers we ask the Lord to have mercy on us. What we find, like the woman at the well, is that God does not meet us with contempt. His majesty is met by his mercy. We recognize the offering given to us, the same given to the woman at the well, living water.
So, the focus of the service changes for a third time and our groaning gives way to praise. We look to the cross and with joyous gratitude celebrate that God has made a way. Jesus took all of our wretchedness and the full wrath of God to the grave and arose in power over sin and death.
We are assured through the reading of his word that we’ve been saved, and we’ve become his righteousness. We respond to God’s grace to us in Jesus with prayers and songs of thanksgiving.
Our celebration for our redemption culminates at the Table, the Lord’s Supper. Jesus himself institutes this practice in Luke 22. Partaking in the elements is the most communal and historical aspect of the gathering of the church; it connects us to both our history and each other as we remember by whom and through what means our salvation was bought.
Leaving Our Water Jar Behind: Jesus sends us.
Do you remember the water jar? The woman is so anxious to run into the town, the place her shame used to flourish, that she leaves behind the very vessel she came to fill.
A life is changed and the heretic becomes a herald. One woman at a well encounters Jesus, believes, and becomes saved, and the gospel reaches the entire city. When we remember our helpless estate and that God has entered into our sorrow and purchased his people at great cost to himself, we are convinced that his arm is never too short to save.
This remembrance of God’s ability to redeem and reconcile people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, every socioeconomic background, every kind of addiction, reminds us that no one is too far from his reach. And it should motivate us. Our own salvation compels us to run into the city telling everyone about the Messiah, who saw our sin and had mercy on us.
What we see in John 4 is a woman who is set free by Jesus to worship, and was sent out by him to minister. The church should gather with the scattering in mind. When we gather, we should be set free to worship and sent out to minister. We don’t just leave at the end of a service—we should sing or pray a benediction that turns our hearts to the outside world, asking for God’s blessing as we go out and minister in his name.
The Story Matters
The worship service isn’t meant to be thought of as a tiny concert and an encouraging word. The gathering of the saints is special. It’s the prime place for faithful obedience, prayer, confession, praise, and celebration to be modeled and observed.
Prayers of confession should lead the believer to confess, and they should serve as a resource to the believer in how to confess. Songs and prayers of deliverance, adoration, lamentation, and praise should help the church worship and teach them how to worship. The elements practiced in a corporate gathering are meant to be encouraging and equipping.
Our corporate worship services should take the shape of this woman’s redemptive encounter with the savior.
We should be immersing ourselves in this story every week instead of catching the high points along the way in an unguided hike. A worship service should make a point to walk through the whole story from beginning to end. By enacting the elements in a meaningful order, we are able to not only remember the gospel but also to rehearse it. We do not merely preach the gospel. We also practice it.
Cover image by Matija Sundalic.
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