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In John 4, we come to the famous account of Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give Me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to Him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can You ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) (Jn 4:7-9)
So why don’t Jews associate with Samaritans? After all Samaria was one of the most important cities in Israel’s history. It was the capital of the northern kingdom for hundreds of years. Throughout the Old Testament, Samaria was a Jewish city that was the home of many Jewish commoners and Jewish kings. So what’s wrong with Samaritans?
To understand this strange animosity between New Testament Jews and what appear to be their fellow countrymen, we have to do a bit of digging. First we have to turn back the clock to King David. He had a son named Solomon, who built the first grand Temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem. In Jewish society, the throne was supposed to be passed from father to son, and David was from the tribe of Judah. That meant all of Israel’s kings would be from Judah’s line. But Solomon was such a rebellious punk to Yahweh, that Yahweh decided to smash the kingdom of Israel into two warring nations: Judah in the south, and Israel in the north. He chose a man named Jeroboam to be the first king of the north (see Treachery & Wrath: Lessons Learned from King Jeroboam). Jeroboam was from the tribe of Ephraim, which made him a shocking choice for a Jewish monarch. After Solomon’s death, everyone expected Solomon’s son Rehoboam to take over as king. But when Rehoboam announced that he intended to be a cruel leader, ten tribes decided to break away and follow Jeroboam instead. Those ten tribes became the northern kingdom of Israel while the remaining two tribes named themselves Judah. Eventually the city of Samaria was chosen as the capital of the north. After the dust settled from the civil war, Yahweh continued to preserve David’s line of kings in Judah, and of course the people in the south felt like their kings were more legitimate than the rulers of the north. This is what the psalmist is referring to in Psalm 78 when he writes:
“Then God rejected the tents of Joseph, He did not choose the tribe of Ephraim; but He chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which He loved.” (Ps. 78:67-68)
Tension existed between the two kingdoms for centuries. Every once in a while they’d work together to fend off a common enemy, but the rest of the time they hated each other. Meanwhile, idolatry and evil abounded in both kingdoms.
Eventually Yahweh judged and destroyed the entire nation of Israel. He attacked the northern kingdom first, enraged by her worship of other gods, and He brought in the nation of Assyria to seize the capital city of Samaria. As part of the Assyrian takeover, all of the Jews who were living in the north were forced to relocate to various parts of the Assyrian Empire. When you’re the invading king, forcing people to leave the land you just took from them was a good way to keep them from organizing a revolt against you.
In 2 Kings 17:23-34, we are told that the ethnic Jews who were exiled from the north never returned to their homeland. Instead the king of Assyria sent a mix of non-Jewish ethnicities to go and populate the land he had conquered. These newcomers didn’t know the first thing about Yahweh, so they brought their various idol gods with them and paid no mind to Yahweh as they settled into their new homes. Well, in these times, people believed that there were many gods, and that each god claimed a certain turf on earth. Yahweh was the national God of Israel, and even though the Jews had been driven out, people would still expect that “the god of the land” would remain in His turf. The common tradition was to try and appease the god of the land you had just stolen, but no one was paying Yahweh any mind when they moved into the northern region of Israel. In order to get people to pay attention to Him, Yahweh sent wild lions in to start attacking them.
But since these foreign settlers did not worship Yahweh when they first arrived, Yahweh sent lions among them, which killed some of them. (2 Kings 17:25)
This stunt worked. When the king of Assyria heard about the lion invasion, he assumed that the local God must be offended, so he found a Jewish priest among the prisoners whom he had taken and sent that priest back to teach the foreigners how to appease Yahweh. Suddenly Yahweh started getting attention from the foreigners, even though they continued to worship their own gods as well. The important point is that non-Jews were now cluttering up the northern region of Israel, much to the dismay of the very racist Jews in the south.
When Yahweh later destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah, the Jews in that region were also exiled to foreign lands, but God later had many brought back to the area to rebuild. As a result, ethnic Jewish bloodlines were preserved in the south, but not in the north. And with racism being very popular in ancient Israel, ethnic Jews living in the south felt quite justified in hating the foreign imposters in the north who were living in the land that ethnic Jews felt entitled to.
Jump ahead several centuries, and we come to the New Testament. By now the original Promised Land has been divided up into Roman provinces. Galilee was in the north, Samaria was in the middle, and Judea was in the south. Ethnic Jews refused to publicly associate with the icky Samaritans, even when they had to travel through Samaria in order to get from Galilee to Judea where Jerusalem was located. It is because the Jews so intensely hated the Samaritans that the four Jewish Gospel writers make a point to tell us when Jesus interacts with a Samaritan. This is also why the parable of The Good Samaritan is such a zinger—because Jesus depicted a hated Samaritan to be the hero while He portrayed ethnic Jews to be jerks. Jesus was intentionally provocative with His parables and He was constantly throwing people off guard with His behavior.
No ethnic Jew wanted to go through Samaria if there was a better option, but for the Jews living in northern Galilee, cutting through Samaria was the most efficient way to get to Jerusalem. This is why we find Jesus sitting on the edge of a well one day when a woman who lives in the local town comes over to get water. Just by looking at Jesus, the Samaritan woman can see that He is an ethnic Jew, so she expects Him to snub her. When instead Jesus asks her to get Him some water, she is quite surprised. Not only is this ethnic Jew talking to her, but He’s even willing to touch His superior lips to a Samaritan’s drinking cup.
Now this particular Samaritan woman worships Yahweh. She’s a religious Jew, even though she’s not an ethnic one, and she soon asks Jesus to clarify an issue that’s been troubling her. Because of all the tension between Jews and Samaritans, the Samaritans didn’t go to worship Yahweh at the grand Temple in Jerusalem. Instead, they had built their own temple on a hill in their area. Since Jesus sounds quite knowledgeable in spiritual matters, the woman asks Him to clarify this confusion over the temple issue for her.
“Sir,” the woman said, “You must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”
Jesus replied, “Believe Me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the One you worship, while we Jews know all about Him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way. For Yahweh is Spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:19-24)
Jesus doesn’t exclude any ethnicities in His reference to “true worshipers.” Instead, He says that Yahweh wants followers who will worship Him in on a soul level, and that could be anyone, even a Samaritan. The woman responds to this comment with a declaration of confidence that when Yahweh’s Messiah comes, He will help Samaritans like her understand what Yahweh wants.
The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming—the One who is called Christ. When He comes, He will explain everything to us.” (John 4:25)
This comment reveals why Jesus has so purposefully intercepted this woman–because she is sincerely seeking God in her soul. Despite the fact that she lives in a society where God’s “chosen” people are constantly telling her that she is some inferior yuck, she remains confident that Yahweh will accept her–she just needs some guidance from His Messiah. There’s no way this woman could have come to these conclusions on her own. Instead, it’s obvious that she’s been listening to God’s convictions on a soul level.
Then Jesus told her, “I am the Messiah!” (John 4:26)
What a special moment! Here this woman has been clinging to the hope that one day Yahweh’s promised Messiah would show up in Israel and be willing to accept someone like her. Now suddenly, here He is: sitting right in front of her, and giving her—a lowly Samaritan—His full attention.
God & Ethnicity: Understanding Cultural Bans in the Bible
Know Your Bible Lesson 23: The Fall of Samaria
Know Your Bible Lesson 79: Tolerating Gentiles
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Understanding Divine Election: Jacob I Loved, Esau I Hated (Malachi 1 & Romans 9)
An Indifferent Savior: Lessons Learned from a Canaanite Woman