The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) (John 4.9)
This week I want to begin a three part contemplation of the scene in John’s gospel that took place at “Jacob’s well.” There are three ways we can approach this story. The first thing to note is the cultural context and meaning within which Jesus was associating with the Samaritan. The second thing to note is that Jesus was speaking, not just to a Samaritan, but to a Samaritan woman. The third thing is how Jesus relates to someone, regardless of who they are, someone who might have a sketchy past by which they define themselves and feel ashamed. We’ll look at each of these over the next few weeks, but for now, let’s begin our contemplation with the first way to approach this story.
Who were the Samaritans in the First Century?
The history of the Jews and Samaritans is a complex one, much like a divorced couple giving two different stories. But one thing is for sure: their history is rooted in schism. Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh (as well as the tribe of Levi). After the death of Solomon, the Kingdom split into two parts: the Northern tribes of Israel whose capital was Samaria, and the Southern tribe of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.
Return From Exile
The schism continues within the narrative of the Jews returning to their land and being given permission to rebuild their temple. When the Samaritans (remnants of the Northern Tribes after the dispersion of the Assyrians) heard that the temple was being rebuilt, they, as kinsmen, wanted to help. “They approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us’” (Ezra 4.2-3). Zerubbabel, discerning that the Samaritans’ worship of Jehovah had, over time, become a syncretistic religion, worshiping Jehovah as well as other gods of the surrounding nations, considered these descendants of the Northern Tribes no longer “Israelites” and thus not “fit” for helping in rebuilding the temple.
The last straw was during the Maccabean Revolt, when under Antiochus Epiphanes a holocaust of the Hebrew people was attempted in an effort to Hellenize his entire kingdom. During this time the Samaritans, desiring to be spared, repudiated all connections of kinship with the Jewish people. They were spared and this, above all, was the source of hatred by the Jewish people in the days of Jesus. Jesus over and over refers to this history within His ministry (see Luke 4). Jesus not only wanted to teach the Jews to love their historical enemies the Seleucids (Sidon/Syria), He wanted the Jews to learn to forgive and embrace their Samaritan brothers and sisters as well.
Due to their rejection during the time of the temple’s reconstruction in Jerusalem, the Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerizim.
Mount Gerizim was the original place of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and possessed a rich tradition of worship within the history of the Hebrew people.
“When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11.29)
The Samaritans, like the Jews, in the time of Jesus believed in One God, Yahweh, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets. They taught the Torah as it was given by God to Moses. Yet they worshiped on Mount Gerizim which they believed was the true sanctuary chosen by Israel’s God, rather than the sanctuary at Jerusalem which was associated with Judah’s God. It is true that in Jesus’ day, the Samaritan religious belief systems had become a hybrid of the worship of Yahweh combined with beliefs associated with the worship of other Gods.
In the time of Jesus, both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another. Josephus also reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century.
What we have to recognize and be confronted by is that Jesus ignores all of this. He sees Samaritans as children of God just like Himself and treats them accordingly. This is why the Samaritan woman was so shocked:
“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)” (John 4.9)
Jesus repeatedly confronted the tensions between the Jews and Samaritans. He told the story of a good Samaritan, whose actions were so at variance with Jewish religious leaders. Jesus’ story describes a Samaritan leper who is the only one of ten lepers (the other nine being Jews) to say “Thank you” and worship Jesus. He rebukes James and John for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritans and destroy them. Jesus did not relate to Samaritans according the script He had been handed by His Jewish culture. He rejected the rules He had been handed on how to play the game.
Notice, the woman reveals how the Samaritans still claim to be descendants of Abraham, still followers of Moses.
“‘Are you greater than OUR ancestor Jacob, who gave US the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’” (John 4.12, emphasis added)
To continue the dialogue.
“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [remember the Hebrew people originally worshiped on Mt. Gerizim before the temple was built in Jerusalem], but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know [Both the Jews and Samaritans had been influenced by Hellenization by this time, so this was not a jab at the “hybrid” nature of the Samaritan worship. The Jews too contained some level of “hybrid” from Greek influence. Rather the Samaritans believed the Messiah would come from the lineage of one of the Northern Tribes of which they believed they were descended]; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews [the Messiah was to come through the lineage of Judah and thus the Jews, yet be for all people]. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4.20-24, emphasis added)
Let’s unpack this a bit.
First, Jesus says the hour “is coming.” By is now here he is saying that shallow outward signs rooted in space-time debates such as which mountain they worship on would not distinguish true worshipers. True worshipers would, through Jesus, worship God in Spirit and Truth.
Let’s look at what Jesus meant by Spirit first. Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ use of “Spirit” here in John 4 is seen in 2 Corinthians 3 where he distinguishes between the Spirit of the Law with the Letter of the Law. The original Hebrew people formed a community, centered in the teachings of Moses, to which certain promises had been made. One did not earn a position within that community by following all the teachings of Moses. One simply had to demonstrate a desire to join the community by endeavoring to follow its teachings. Jesus comes to create a new human community, rooted in the Jewish community, but now centered around His own teachings. Today one does not earn a place in Jesus’ new human community by following His teachings, but we do demonstrate that we desire to be a part of this community, and a part of this new world Jesus is creating, by endeavoring to follow the teachings of this Jesus in whom this new world is centered. Jesus’ teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount. And although they are of the same “Spirit” of the “Law and Prophets,” Jesus’ ethical teachings are deeper, broader, and even more demanding at times, than Moses’ ethical teachings ever were. Jesus’ teachings are a fuller revelation. At times, following the Spirit of the Law in Jesus will be a deeper expression of the Letter found in Moses (see Matthew 5:21-28). Sometimes following the Spirit will be a direct contradiction to the Letter found in Moses. (See Matthew 5.38-43, as well as the woman of Luke 8, the woman of John 8, and the accusation of the early Jesus followers as being “lawless” according to the book of James.) Which leads me to the next identifier, Truth.
John too contrasts the law that came through Moses with the Truth that came through Jesus. What are we to make of this? It is true that both Jesus and Moses belong to the same moral trajectory. Yet God through Moses was leading them as far as they could possibly be led in that time. The Torah of Moses still included nationalism, polygamy, slavery, lex talionis (eye for an eye), the way of sacrifice (Matthew 9.13; 12.7), and violence against one’s enemies. Jesus moves us further toward an understanding of God and the truth about God that eliminates all of these. John states that you can have the Torah, yet still not truly see God until you meet Jesus (John 1.17-18).
There are some things between Moses and Jesus that are the same. Yet there are some things within their teachings that are radically different. (In much in the same way I am teaching my 6 year old not to talk to strangers while I am teaching my 17 year old how to talk to strangers effectively. Am I the same parent? Yes. Are these contradictory rules? Yes. Are my children in different places in their development and thus need different rules at different stages? Yes.)
What Jesus is telling this woman is that He has come to initiate a new human community which would no longer be distinguished by external arguments over the Torah or the teachings of Moses (Do we worship on this mountain or that one?), but rather that this community would be centered around Himself, His teachings, which are from the same Spirit of the Torah, but offer a much Truer revelation of God, how God sees ourselves and how we are to see everyone else around us.
The woman finishes with:
“‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to US.’ “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’” (John 4.25-26, emphasis added)
Jesus said the time is Now! This new community would no longer be defined by arguments over how to observe the Torah. This new humanity would be centered around a new way of seeing God, ourselves, and others who inspire us to live according to the ethical teachings of Jesus found in His Sermon on the Mount.
Time is coming and Now is!
Christians, Jews, Muslims and Samaritans have all fought over this well, historically dug by Jacob. Each has taught that it is wrong to associate with the opposite group. They have continued in the worship, not of the God of Jesus, but of the God of “us vs. them.”
Today, we must squarely face this first revelation of Jesus talking to this Samaritan at Jacob’s well to confront us. Today we have Christians with different theologies who all claim to follow the same Jesus. We are told many times that it is wrong and even dangerous to associate with the “them” instead of just our “us.” A list of doctrinal truths and lifestyle behaviors has become the test of which ones are truly following God and who are not. Today Jesus would say to this: “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem, but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
Today we have multiple world religions. Critics ask, “If all religions teach peace than why can’t they get along?” They each teach, to varying degrees, that it is wrong or dangerous to associate with those who are of a different creed. A creed has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say again, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
Today, we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by nationality. Consider the West’s attitude toward the Taliban: anyone who disagrees with this view is “sympathizing with the enemy” and probably a terrorist. Such disagreement must be met with violence. Anything less is unpatriotic or treasonable. Tribal loyalty has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
Today we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by economics. Whether it is the refugee who appears at our border, or the foreign worker who threatens our jobs, we respond with territorialism rather than hospitality, self-interest instead of sharing. Fidelity to capitalism has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
Today we practice dividing the world by race. It is appalling that any group bearing the name of Jesus would still practice segregation. We all drink from the same “Cup.” But some denominations still say that it is best for everyone not to integrate. In some areas, the complexion of one’s congregation is still the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
Today we practice the way of dividing the world between Jews and Samaritan in matters of gender. I know of religious communities that teach that women should not be permitted to be in a position to teach men. They say it’s morally wrong to place women in an egalitarian position with men. One’s position on gender in religious leadership has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
And lastly, we see this way of dividing the world between the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority. Protestors carry signs that proclaim “God Hates Fags!” “Love the sinner Hate the Sin!” “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” It is argued that “they” must be opposed or “they” will corrupt “our” children. One’s position on gay marriage has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”
In all the ways that we divide each other, ways that cause us to see others as “the enemy,” ways that echo the First Century’s divisions of Jews and Samaritans, we have forgotten the first teaching of Jesus: We are all children of the same divine parents. On the inside, we are all the same. Jesus died and was resurrected to save us all from the ways of Cains against Abels. These divisions will one day cease. One day we will all, once again, sit at the same table. It’s this table practice that Jesus put on display in His ministry, and it was this table practice that got Him killed. I know we are addicted to our exclusive clubs, but Jesus is offering us the privilege, in our present age, of putting on display what the beautifully restored inclusive age to come will look like. We are called upon to show how the world will look when transformed and restored by Jesus.
If Jesus were alive today, He would tell the story of the good Catholic (if He were among protestants, or the good Protestant if he were among Catholics, or maybe the good “both” if he were among Eastern Orthodox). He would tell the story of the good Muslim, the good Hindu, or the good Buddhist. He would tell the story of the good terrorist, the good immigrant, the good “welfare recipient”. He would tell the story of the good ordained woman priest or female preacher, the good gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.
I know what your thinking. You’re thinking “But, but, but, but . . .” Whatever is wrong with the “other” group you are having a problem with, remember, the Jews had persuasive arguments, rooted in the Torah, against the Samaritans as well, and yet Jesus ignored all of that and extended His invitation to them as well.
Whomever our “them” is, whomever we have labeled as “the enemy,” we are going to have to confront Jesus going into Samaria, stopping by the well to talk with this Samaritan, and inviting her to embrace Him as her Messiah. He broke every “us and them” rule that existed that day, and the question we followers have to ask ourselves is, do we?
Jesus is seeking to create a new humanity, centered in Himself, comprised of people of all our present ways of dividing ourselves. Are we helping Him, or are we standing in His way? It is Jesus and His new world rooted in His Sermon on the Mount by which this new humanity will be defined. Nothing else, and nothing less. I have a sneaking suspicion that we choose to dived ourselves by these periphery standards to give us a sense of assurance in the midst of the fact that we are all, to a large degree, hiding from the fact that we find Jesus ethical teachings too radical to follow. We are not following the Sermon on the Mount, so we have to come up with lesser things to distinguish others as different than ourselves by. The very first teaching of Jesus is that we are to stop this way of dividing ourselves. We are all in a process. And as we are in this process, we must remember that we are all children of the same God and that Jesus is seeking to restore and reconcile us all to Himself and to each other. It was Jesus’ radical inclusivity that got Him killed. We must be careful or we may one day see that the hammer and the nails are once again being raised, and in hands that belong to us.
1. This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus. Ask Him to show you whom your own “Samaritan” is that you feel should be excluded, shunned or simply not associated with.
2. Ask Him to show you what these people look like through His eyes rather than your own.
3. Journal what He shows you and share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.
Next week we’ll look at the shocker: This wasn’t just a Samaritan, but it was a “woman” within the context of First Century, Palestinian, Jewish, patriarchal standards.
And the week after that we’ll look at Jesus’ relation to her, not as a Samaritan, nor as a woman, but as simply a human being with a past she felt ashamed of.
Stay with me over the next few weeks.
It’s a beautiful picture of God, a beautiful picture of how God sees each of us, and a beautiful picture of how we too are to see each other. The picture will emerge, but we first have to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle.
Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.
I love you guys,
I’ll see you next week.