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The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other recent racially-centered incidents have raised tensions in the USA to the boiling point. Racial animus is a sad part of American history—the “melting pot” can get very ugly. The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman in John 4 shows that we can overcome racial prejudice if we focus on God’s plan to unite people from all the branches of the human family in true worship through the Spirit sent by Jesus. All humans were originally made in the image of God, and God is at work today through the good news about Jesus to create a new humanity that worships God together in Spirit and truth, not in isolated ethnic enclaves.
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There are ten “divine necessities” in the Gospel of John. This post is about one of them—Jesus had to pass through Samaria in order to converse with a Samaritan woman (John 4:4). Although there was another another widely traveled route between Judea and Galilee, Jesus had a divine appointment in the obscure village of Sychar with an unnamed Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (cf. Gen 29:10). The appointment surprisingly resulted in many Samaritans coming to faith, and it became a teachable moment as Jesus taught the disciples about mission. Perhaps God will use the story to help you lay aside biases and pass through your own Samaria on a mission for God . . . .
Unpacking why “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”
A brief look into the background of John 4 explains why the Samaritan woman was so surprised when Jesus asked her for a drink. Centuries of rivalry and conflict led to the woman’s incredulity.
Geography. The map above shows the region of Samaria lying in between Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. The city of Samaria (Sebaste on the NT map above) was established as the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Omri and Ahab around 875 BCE (1 Kgs 16:23-33).
According to Josephus (Life 269), the journey from Judea to Galilee on the direct route through Samaria took three days. An indirect route along the Jordan River through Perea took longer. Some believe pious Jews would opt for the longer route to avoid the Samaritans, but evidence for this is weak. Josephus speaks of the route through Samaria as customary (Antiquities 20.118). If Jesus had been baptizing in the southern Jordan valley (John 3:22-23; 4:1-3), the more direct route would have been northward along the Jordan. In any event, the necessity which brought Jesus to Jacob’s well was not geographical but providential—the Father’s desire for people to worship him in spirit and truth brought Jesus to Sychar and Jacob’s well.
History. The region of Samaria was the scene of covenant renewal when, upon entering the land, Joshua led the tribes of Israel in reciting covenantal blessings and curses across the valley between mounts Ebal and Gerizim (Deut 11:29; 27:12; Josh 8:33). Nearby was Shechem (Tel Balatah), where Joshua gathered the people to rehearse Israel’s history and exhort them to keep the law of Moses (Josh 24). Previously Abraham had built an altar (Gen 12:6-7) at Shechem, and Jacob had bought land there (Gen 33:18-19). At Shechem the Jewish monarchy split into northern and southern kingdoms when the northern tribes chose to be ruled by Jeroboam rather than Rehoboam (1 Kgs 12; 2 Chron 10; c. 930 BCE). Later Sargon king of Assyria conquered Israel’s northern kingdom and its capital city Samaria (2 Kings 17; c. 722 BCE). Sargon’s policy of deporting native populations (2 Kgs 17:6, 23) and repatriating conquered areas with captives from other regions (2 Kgs 17:24; cf. Ezra 4:10) resulted in a mixing of Jews and Gentiles in the region’s population, as well as a mixing of religions (2 Kgs 17:25-41). Israel’s God Yahweh became one of the area’s gods, not the sole God of the population. Ezra and Nehemiah attest to animosity with the leaders of Samaria when the Jews returned at the behest of the Persian Kings Cyrus (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1) and Darius (Ezra 6) to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 4; Neh 4; 6). Around this time, possibly as a result of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the rival Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim was erected.
By New Testament times the city of Samaria had become known as Sebaste. Relations between the Jews and the Samaritans had not improved. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the Hasmonean Jewish king John Hyrcanus fought the Samaritans and destroyed their city and Temple on Mt. Gerizon around 110 BCE (Antiquities 281). He also speaks of the Samaritans murdering a group of Jews who were traveling through Samaria to a feast in Jerusalem when Cumanus was the Roman procurator of Judea (48-52CE). Cumanus neglected to deal with this atrocity, leading to continuing bloodshed between the two groups (Jewish War 2.232-46; Antiquities 20.118-36). The Roman historian Tacitus also speaks of the ongoing conflicts between the Jews and the Samaritans (Annals 54). A common Jewish attitude toward the Samaritans is expressed in Sirach 50:25-26: Two nations my soul detests, and a third is not even a people: those who live in Seir [the Edomites], and the Philistines, and the foolish people who live in Shechem [the Samaritans]. The Testament of Levi 7:2 similarly refers to Schechem as a city of fools.
In this historical setting it is not a surprise that Jews in Jerusalem once called Jesus a demon-possessed Samaritan (John 8:48), or that James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village that refused them hospitality as they were traveling to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-56). Jesus rebuked his disciples for this suggestion and his later teachings in Luke portray Samaritans positively. Jesus’ famous parable is about a Good Samaritan, not a good priest, a good Levite, or a good Pharisee (Luke 10:29-37). The only one of the ten lepers healed by Jesus who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19). What about the nine Jewish lepers?
Luke’s interest in the Samaritans continues into the book of Acts, where the Jews and Samaritans are potentially reconciled in Christ. Philip successfully evangelized the area in obedience to Acts 1:8, but the Samaritan believers did not receive the Holy Spirit until the apostles from Jerusalem arrived and laid hands on them (Acts 8:4-25; cf. 1:8). This unifying movement of God reprised the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem and anticipated the coming of the Spirit on the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household (Acts 10).
These events amount to the outworking of what Jesus taught in John 4:19-24. Salvation is from the Jews and Jerusalem; the Samaritans were mistaken when they established a temple on Mt. Gerizim (4:22). But this past reality is being overshadowed by the new reality of worship that is not a matter of where one worships God but how one worships God. It does not matter whether one is in Gerizim, Jerusalem, or anywhere else. It matters that one comes to God through the Spirit, focusing on the truth of Jesus Christ (4:21, 23-24). The movement of God which began when Jesus sent the Spirit to the Church encompasses all humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike, as well as the Samaritans who were somewhere in between the two.
The Samaritans today. Through the centuries many ethnic Samaritans were pressured to convert to Christianity or Islam. A series of bloody rebellions against the Byzantine Christian empire in the 6th century CE led to harsh repressions of the Samaritans. Today a small Samaritan community numbering only a few hundred continues to reside on Mt. Gerizim near the Palestinian West Bank city of Nablus. Others live in Holon near Tel Aviv. Their ancient text of the Torah is important for Old Testament textual criticism. They continue to celebrate the Passover with animal sacrifices. More about their current activities at Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim can be found here.
How the Story Unfolds
John 4:1-42 is a complex narrative that artfully weaves together two plots, one about Jesus and the disciples and the other about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The two plots eventually come together in a teachable moment for the disciples. First, Jesus and the disciples arrive at Jacob’s well (4:1-6). Jesus converses with the woman (4:7-26) on center stage after the disciples have left to buy food. The disciples return to center stage as the conversation ends. They are surprised that Jesus is speaking to a woman. As they encourage Jesus to eat, the woman has moved to stage left, where she tells the people of her village about Jesus (4:27-29). As Jesus teaches the disciples about mission, the people of the village stream to center stage in order to hear more about Jesus’ living water at Jacob’s well (4:30-38). Many in the village believe, confirming Jesus’ teaching about doing the Father’s will and harvesting a bumper crop for the kingdom of God (4:39-42).
The point of this story isn’t that the disciples were wrong to be thinking of food but that their preoccupation with physical needs had prevented them from taking advantage of an opportunity to serve in God’s multi-cultural harvest. They had unwittingly violated what is perhaps the key statement in the whole book of Deuteronomy: People do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3). They model cultural bias and preoccupation with legitimate but secondary physical needs. Jesus models absolute commitment to the Father’s mission to seek true worshipers, whether Jews or Gentiles.
An Upper Class Jewish Man and a Samaritan Peasant Woman
Reading John 4 against the background of the story of Nicodemus in John 3 can be enlightening. The contrast between the Samaritan woman’s openness to Jesus and Nicodemus’ confusion is surprising, and it teaches an important lesson about the mission of God.
It would be difficult to find someone who was more different from the Samaritan woman than the prominent Jewish leader Nicodemus, featured in John 3. Our previous post worked through his journey toward faith which unfolds in the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus and the Samaritan womean differed in many ways, most obviously in their ethnicity, sex, and social status. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night; Jesus came to the Samaritan woman at noon. Perhaps the most striking difference between them is how they responded to Jesus. Nicodemus’ faith in Jesus seems to grow throughout his three appearances in John, but it remains a bit ambiguous. Not so the woman—as soon as she hears that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, she tells her neighbors about him and leads many of them to believe in Jesus.
This shocking plot movement that contrasts a rich Jewish man with a Samaritan peasant woman illustrates a key irony of John:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:10-13 NIV)
Nicodemus, a leader of God’s own people, does not immediately understand Jesus’ teaching. The lowly Samaritan woman immediately believes and leads others to believe. This striking turn of events illustrates what Jesus told Nicodemus about the unpredictable work of the Spirit, whose movement is like the wind (John 3:8). The loving heart of God moves in mission to renew all the nations of the world he created (Gen 1:1-5 with John 1:1-5). Like a shepherd, Jesus wishes to bring other people-groups into his flock of nations (John 10:16; cf. 3:16; 8:12; 12:32). As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends us, empowered by the Spirit. We have received a mission from the triune God (John 20:21-22).
Where is Your Samaria?
Jesus had to go through Samaria. Despite a history of suspicion, rivalry, hatred, and numerous atrocities, mission to Samaria was a divine necessity. The disciples’ concern for creature comforts kept them from seeing the fields ready for harvest. Jesus’ commitment to doing the Father’s will was more important to him than his next meal. The disciples likely viewed Samaria as God-forsaken and barren, but Jesus viewed Samaria as a place that could yield a bumper crop of people who would worship God in Spirit and truth.
Like Jesus first disciples, we also live in cultures where ethnic rivalries and hatred have led to atrocities. Today in the USA it’s not a matter of Jews having no dealings with Samaritans but of Caucasian-Americans having no dealings with African-Americans, Latin-Americans, or Asian-Americans. As followers of Jesus we’re quick to acknowledge in theory that racial bias is a sin that should not be countenanced, let alone practiced. But we need to get beyond theory. We need to open ourselves up to the truth that God’s work is not limited by our short-sighted cultural preferences, limitations, and expectations. Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples who wanted to call fire down on the Samaritans (Luke 9:55) echoes through the centuries, reminding us that we need to respect all human beings, especially those whom our fallen cultures most despise. Jesus obedience to the Father took action as he reached out to the Samaritan woman. This should prompt us to similar obedient action. Perhaps there are changes in our thinking and behavior that have to be made. Let me make a few suggestions:
- Bias—whether racial, sexual, cultural, or of any other sort— cannot get in the way of God’s Christ-centered mission to form a new humanity. God loves the whole world and Jesus is the Savior of the whole world (John 4:42). He had to go through Samaria, and he commanded his first disciples to go there too (Acts 1:8). Through the Spirit he united Jews and Samaritans (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17), men and women, rich and poor, in one flock (John 10:16), the body of Christ (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13), the family of God (Matt 12:46-50). He has other sheep which he must bring into his sheepfold through our witness (John 10:16). In these days of ethnic tension the body of Christ should celebrate and leverage its diversity in mission, proclaiming the gospel message and demonstrating its power in strife-torn communities that need it the most.
- Even our well-intentioned sensitivity to human diversity can hinder witness. We ought always to be concerned about cultural intelligence, relating wisely and appropriately to people from other cultures. Yet such concerns shouldn’t stifle our concern for mission itself and our response to the prodding of the Spirit. Our difficulty in being sensitive to the customs and ways of our human brothers and sisters is not an excuse to avoid bearing witness to the good news of Jesus.
- We need to take risks for God’s Kingdom. Despite all the history between the Jews and the Samaritans—all the suspicions, the rivalry, and the bad blood—Jesus still “had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). Jesus’ disciples were dumbfounded by his claim to have food they didn’t know about. Preoccupied with their own needs and limited by their cultural biases, they were oblivious to the missional opportunities right before their eyes in Samaria. Jesus called them to look around at the harvest, and to join in the labor of reaping. He is calling us to open our eyes to mission opportunities today.
George Floyd and the Mission of God
Sometimes shocking current events lead us to remember and reapply biblical truths we never should have forgotten. The horrific killing of Mr. George Floyd should drive us to greater commitment to following Jesus through today’s Samarias. It is reported that Mr. Floyd had turned his life around and was involved in ministries with Resurrection Houston. There are bi-partisan calls for changes in dangerous police practices as a suitable legacy for Mr. Floyd. No doubt such changes are urgently needed, but wouldn’t it be amazing if God used the senseless death of Mr. Floyd to call people to abandon their biases and go through their own Samarias bearing witness to the reconciling power of Jesus? These difficult days of racial tension and violence in the streets should not be days of retreat for the church. Just the opposite! The hatred and strife all around us provides an amazing opportunity for us to show people a different way of living, a way that honors all people as creatures of God for whom Jesus lived, died, and rose again.
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. . . 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 (John 4:22-23 NLT).
My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work (John 4:34 NLT).
You know the saying, Four months between planting and harvest. But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest (John 4:35 NLT).
I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd (John 10:16 NLT).
As the Father has sent Me, I also send you (John 20:21 NLT).
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God (Matt 5:9 NLT).
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Go here for a comprehensive video lecture on John 4.