Jesus makes what must have seemed to his disciples to be an odd choice. After quitting his fledgling, but successful, baptism ministry in Judea, because he wants to keep out of the watchful eye of the enemy, namely, the Pharisees, he decides to travel right into different enemy territory. Jesus goes to Samaria.
In that era Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. But the quickest route from Judea in the south to Jesus’ home in the north, Galilee, was to travel straight through Samaria in between. Some Jews were so prejudiced against the Samaritans, they actually took the long way around, crossing the Jordan River eastward in Judea, heading north up the eastern side of the Jordan, and then crossing back over the Jordan to the west once they had passed by Samaria and were safely in Galilee. It was a much longer trip, but it meant they didn’t have to set foot in Samaria.
Not Jesus. He went right into Samaria, his disciples following him. I wonder what they thought about his decision. I wonder if they argued with him, or at least suggested, “C’mon Jesus, let’s just avoid trouble, let’s take the long route.” It seems Jesus wasn’t concerned about these new enemies. In fact, in this story we see Jesus’ heart for enemies.
But let’s back up a bit. Why was Samaria enemy territory for Jews? Why did these people groups hate each other?
That, historians tell us, is a complicated question affected by geo-political upheaval in that part of the world in the centuries before Jesus was born. It seems the Samaritans had ancient ancestral connection to the ancient Israelites. But the Samaritans claimed that they were true Israel, and that the Jews were a heretical splinter group. How could they say that? In 1 Samuel 1:3, we read about a sanctuary (worship space) that the prophet Eli set up long before the temple in Jerusalem. Eli’s sanctuary was in Samaritan territory, and eventually the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim, also in Samaritan land. So they said, “See the original sanctuary was in our land! We are, therefore, the true people of God, and you Jews are the breakaways.”
Also, just over a hundred years before Jesus was born, the Samaritans developed a Bible of their own, consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But they made some changes that differ in important ways from the Hebrew Bible. One of those changes was in the Ten Commandments. The Samaritan version of the Ten Commandments states that God is only to be worshiped on Mt. Gerizim, and thus the Samaritans rejected Jerusalem as the center of worship, which is an important piece of info for this passage in John 4, as we will learn in a future post this week.
Jews in that day, likewise, viewed Samaritans as lesser people, as polluted. Not just theologically either. They claimed that that Samaritans were descendants of foreign colonists brought to Israel by Assyria. It is probably not surprising then, that the Samaritans were equally disdainful of the the Jews, as often happens when people look down on you. So these two groups despised each other and treated each other horribly. There was plenty of ethnic and religious strife.
They even committed acts of terrorism against one another. In 6 or 7 BCE, for example, when Jesus was a boy, Samaritans scattered bones in the Jerusalem temple during Passover. Jews were prohibited from touching dead things, as it would make them ritually unclean. What do you do then, when bones are thrown into the temple during one of the most important religious feasts of the year? You get very, very angry at the people who did this.
And you avoid each other at all costs. Jewish people rarely traveled through Samaria. Except Jesus and his disciples do just that, arriving at the Samaritan town of Sychar around noon, by Jacob’s well, which you can read about in Genesis 33 and 48. Both Jews and Samaritans would have looked to Jacob as their common patriarch. So this well, if the Jews and Samaritans were willing to think about it, had a rich symbolism. Interestingly, this story will get to that eventually.
In your Bibles, read verses 7-9.
We learn that the disciples had gone into the town nearby to purchase food, so Jesus is alone. At that very moment, a Samaritan woman walks up to the well to draw water. Already, this story has drama. First, there is the tension of the hatred between Jews and Samaritans. Second, there is the cultural reality that Jewish Rabbis only very rarely talked with women in public. Jesus is crossing ethnic, cultural and gender boundaries in one fell swoop. Readers of this story in the first century would immediately pick up on this and think “Woah…what is Jesus doing???”
Jesus asks the women for a drink. Pretty normal, when you’ve been walking all morning. It shows us Jesus’ humanity. He needed to drink, he was tired. He was human. That doesn’t at all take away from the fact that he was also God. He was 100% human and 100% God at the same time. At this time, his humanity means that he is tired and thirsty, so he asks for a drink. But this is a classic Jesus moment. He is always ready to talk with people about the mission of the Kingdom of God. So he’s got that in the forefront of his mind as he asks the woman for a drink.
The Samaritan woman is sharp. She questions him right back. She, too, knows this is an unusual situation. When she says, “How can you ask me for a drink?” she is saying, as your Bible’s text notes likely indicate, that Jews would not touch dishes that Samaritans have touched. She is touching a water jug, and most Jews would’ve arrogantly said, “She touched it! I’m not getting anywhere near that! She’s a dirty Samaritan! I’ll deal with my thirst another way.” Even if it meant they went without food and water for a long time. But Jesus is different. How will Jesus answer her?
Check back to the next post and we’ll find out.