I had mentioned here in part II I would give my own opinion regarding the real world referent of πνεύματι? I mentioned I would be short. O!, well.
My reason for going down this pathway is simple: the phrase “in [s/S]pirit” is not English and so there is no real referent for it. And, by real I do not intend to refer to only those things of this world. For example, demons and demonic activity are very real and we have English ways of referring to them.
The problem for translation, of course, is there are several views, not just mine. Some of which have been expressed in the comments to this short series (and I thank each of you for how well you did in not taking us off track). Because of these highly divergent views, we tend to acquiesce to a morpho-syntactic result (popularly known as a “literal translation”), somehow thinking that we’ve at least partially succeeded in translating. What we’ve actually succeeded in doing is to introduce a huge degree of ambiguity into the text so that people can make the text say just about anything. In other words, the real referent (as the modern reader understands it) must be constructed in the reader’s mind. Unfortunately, in many cases, I question whether such a referent can be found in the original, interpretive context. Questions I think of are: Is it something the modern reader places in the text from their own interpretive context? Is it a theological concept developed later in history? That is, basically, is it simply anachronistic and eisegetic. And, frankly, it’s incredibly easy to do, especially in cases like the text before us.
I’d like to quickly present a few different views and hopefully do it in such a way that I show respect for the different views.
Quaker worship is characterized by a waiting on the Spirit. There are no presiding ministers within their meetings. One or more people are moved to speak out of the silence which characterizes their meetings. This movement is the result of a very careful discernment, a deep sense, of the Spirit’s leading. The best English I can think of for this viewpoint is worship must be in a Spirit led manner.
A more Pentecostal view acknowledges the ongoing vitality of spiritual gifts such as tongue speaking and prophetic utterance. The best English I can think of for this viewpoint is worship must be in a Spirit energized manner.
My view is that spirit refers to that aspect of a human being which is inherently non-self-centered. When it is active it produces results such as love, joy, peace, self-control, etc. So, it’s not referring so much to a “worship service” as it is to a “worshipful life.” Spirit is a psychological construct, though not one utilized by modern psychological frameworks. It is supernatural, and so can not be directly observable through any kind of clinical study–we only see it’s effects. For the believer, because of regeneration, the distinction between Spirit and spirit becomes quite difficult.
So, I see Jesus reaching forward to much of Paul’s writings where Paul lays out what it means to live a life reflecting who God is. I see John building up the incarnational concept he’s been presenting since the beginning of the book. That is, that true worship of God is seen not only in a Spirit filled Jesus that shows who God is, but in those who follow Jesus by stepping into the light, also being filled by the Spirit, and so their life reflects God and therefore reveals their worship. Romans 12:1-2 comes immediately to my mind as well as a significantly sized portion of Ephesians. As mentioned previously, I think the best English for this is worship must be spiritual.
I also think this view ties in quite nicely with the other term used in the phrase, authentic. One can fake what the Spirit produces and thereby fake worship. So, Jesus adds, as this spiritual activity of worship is realized in one’s life in the real world, it must be authentic.
The question then is would the original audience, the Samaritan woman and secondarily, John’s intended audience, have understood ἐν πνεύματι in any one these ways (as well as potentially others I haven’t mentioned)?
For my view, I’m not asking that the Samaritan woman fully understood Paul! I’m simply asking whether the woman (and secondly, John’s audience) would have understood πνεύματι to refer to a human aspect of her being that is to be fundamentally reoriented Godward in her life.
I might add that during my writing of the first two postings I chose must be spiritual since I thought that English could handle any of the above cases as well as others. So, by using spiritual I’m not trying to fully explain my view in the translation by carefully choosing a single word, part of speech, or preposition.
Lastly, the process of discovering the English that conveys the original forces the analysis of where the referent is coming from. It’s a very important question. We’re forced to ask the question, Is the referent in my context, in the original context, or both? And please note that the referent can certainly be theological. But, can I reasonably expect the original audience to have or grasp the theological referent we’re assuming the original author intended?
For convenience here are back links to the short series:
 This ties in with Jesus saying that people would not be worshipping in Jerusalem or this mountain. As I mentioned before, the answer Jesus gives is not about geographic location. If the answer has anything to do with location, the location is one’s life.