John 4:1-42 — Jesus and the Samaritans

Reading:  John 4:1-42

When I was young, I was always reminded of the relationship between Jews and Samaritans in the New Testament. When people of Galilee would travel to Judea, or back, they would go around Samaria. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan? Jesus told this story to a lawyer who asked Jesus the question “who is my neighbor”, and when Jesus finished the story Jesus asked: “Who proved to be a neighbor to the man who was robbed on the road?” The lawyer was unwilling to say the word “Samaritan” in a reply that put one in a good light — and thus replied “The one who helped him.”

This is enlightening: It is possible to be a good, God fearing, gentile. Though the Jews hated the Romans, and wanted them to go far away, it was possible for one to become respected by the community –and even accepted as a decent person who can be part of the community. I believe that a 1st century Jew might say of Cesar the same as the prayer in “Fiddler on the roof” “May God bless the Czar, and keep him far far from me.” Now the Samaritan was an embarrassment. The Jew did not wish them to live somewhere else, they’d rather them not live at all.

Now Jesus is traveling through Samaria, and he stops to talk with a Samaritan woman. The disciples noticed this, and did their best to ignore it. Nobody asked what he wanted, nobody asked why he was talking to her — I’m sure none of the disciples wanted to know. It must have been bad enough for them that they were taking this shortcut.

We know how the Jews felt about Samaritans, but do we know who they were? What was it that made the Samaritans so hated? The woman at the well asserted who Samaritans were when she said to Jesus: “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well?” Jacob was renamed Israel after he wrestled with the angel, and his twelve sons were the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Samaritans are named for a place that is familiar to those who know the Old Testament. Samaria is the name of an important city — it served as the last capital of Israel before the kingdom was completely destroyed by the Assyrians. Samaria the chief city within the half-tribe of Ephraim. Samaritans generally consider themselves to be descendants of either Joseph or Levi, just as the people of Judea considered themselves to be descendants of Judah, Benjamin, or Levi.

Fortunately for us, Samaritans still exist. Bible scholars are in debt to the Samaritan people, because they provide an independent witness to the text of the Torah. They also provide their own version of history. This means that we can know not only what was said by their enemies, but also who they claim to be. The Samaritans claim that they have always been culturally separate from Judah, even in the time of the United Kingdom. We see some evidence of this in the accounts of David’s kingdom in that David becomes king of Judah before he becomes king of Israel: even in the united kingdom, Judah is culturally distinct from the other tribes.

This division was complete when Solomon’s son Rehaboam gave a rather foolish speech where he promised to enslave the people. Judah accepted the rule of David’s grandson, but the other tribes did not feel obliged to remain in the kingdom; and Jeroboam started a kingdom with the capital in Shechem. Jeroboam established two centers of worship, one at Dan, the other at Bethel. Judah was deeply angered that temples were built outside of Judah — and, the relationship between the two kingdoms was always uncomfortable.

The Assyrians spent 20 years conquering Israel. Israel was significantly reduced long before it was fully conquered, they lost all their land except Samaria and the surrounding area; only Ephraim remained. When Samaria was finally conquered, the Assyrians exiled, according to their records, 27,290 people. The Assyrians also sent a similar number of people conquered in other places to take the place of these people — one might say that the Assyrians decided the best way to prevent revolt was to remove the ruling class from their people, and replace them with foreigners.

The foreigners moved to Israel assimilated. While Judah was in captivity in Babylon, Samaria built a new temple on Mt. Gerizm where they worshiped God. When the Judeans returned, and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem they met the Samaritans, and the arguments began. Here you have two groups that read the Torah and worship God, but they do not have a shared history, nor do they worship in the same place. Where there are differences, both groups are convinced that their understanding is the more legitimate one. Their fight is not because they are so different — but, because they are cousins fighting over their inheritance.

Near the end of the 2nd century BC, the Jews destroyed the temple on Mt. Gerizm — Josephus tells us that the temple was destroyed by Maccabean ruler John Hyrcanus — and that he conquered the Samaritans. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman — less than 150 years ago, Jewish armies destroyed the temple on the mountain where her people worshiped, and they waged war on Samaria. The Samaritans had many grievances against the Judeans.

As they have their conversation, Jesus tells the woman about her personal life — that she has been married 5 times, and is currently living with a man who she has not married. The woman recognizes that Jesus is a prophet; and asks a question relevant to the argument between the Samaritans and the Jews: “Where should you worship God, on the Holy mountain, or in Jerusalem?” Jesus answers in the future, one would worship at neither place, but ‘in spirit and in truth’, and then claims to be the Messiah.

The woman then goes out, and tells everybody. She lets them know about the man who knew her life story and still spoke with her, and called them to listen to Him. Jesus stayed in Samaria for two days to teach those that the woman brought to him — and many believed. Early Christian preacher John Chrysostom spoke of the woman at the well as a person who did the work of an apostle; she went out and pointed people to Jesus. She somehow recognized the Messiah, and showed him to others.

Now this tells me something of the gospel. Jesus went to Samaria knowing who the Samaritans were to His people. This hatred was part of his culture. He willingly entered a city inhabited by hated enemies, and stayed there to share God’s love with them. The message is that God’s love, and God’s plan of salvation is not limited by our prejudices.

Jesus spoke to the woman, knowing that her past was not something we easily accept. I know I have watched attitudes changing in my own lifetime; but even people who reject the idea of traditional marriage are going to ask what is wrong with a person to make her have such a history of failed marriages. Jesus offered her insight on the nature of God, and how this argument about which group possesses the place where God is worshiped is a pretty meaningless argument. Jesus shows a gospel of grace to those who are despised and rejected — and a gospel that tears down those things that divide God’s people. God has a place for those who worship outside of Jerusalem and in places other than Mt. Gerizm.

As I walk with Christ, I must remember that sometimes good news is hard to accept. The offer of salvation to a Samaritan is offensive to Jesus’ Jewish disciples. C.S. Lewis tells us that there is no Christian teaching more offensive than that of forgiveness — because forgiveness offends our sense of fairness. Sometimes people want to look down on somebody, to feel more righteous; forgiveness offends the self-righteous. Grace is given to those who need it, and there is enough good news for everybody; friends and enemies alike. The good news that is hard to swallow is that God’s love is greater than the human capacity for hate and anger — and God tears down walls and makes enemies into good neighbors.

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