52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #30. The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Jesus is traveling north (or “down” in elevation) from Judea to Galilee, and apparently “He had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4). Why He “had to” is not stated. In fact, it was rather uncharacteristic for many Jews to pass through Samaria. While this would have been the direct route to Galilee from Judea (as Samaria was directly in-between the two), hostile attitudes towards the Samaritans and the higher likelihood of meeting robbers and aggressors on that route created a custom of traveling east from Judea, arriving at the Jordan Valley, traveling north passed Samaria, turning west, and leaving the Jordan Valley to enter Galilee, an inconvenient, lengthy route all the way around Samaria to avoid being contaminated or attacked by those unclean “half-breeds.” John, in fact, is clear to point out to his readers that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9). But Jesus doesn’t do this. Perhaps He “had to” go that way because there was an appointment He just couldn’t pass up.

Setting up this meeting is a long history of animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Samaria, once the capitol city of Northern Israel, fell in 722 BC to the Assyrians. Many of the nobles and wealthy inhabitants were removed and exiled, while foreigners from other conquered lands along with many Assyrians began to repopulate the land. The remaining Jews intermarried with these foreigners and Assyrians and came to be known as impure “half-breeds.” These racial prejudices remained in the days of Jesus (and have continued throughout history).

On top of this, there were also plenty of religious disagreements which contributed to the animosity. The Samaritans rejected Jerusalem and its temple as God’s chosen place of worship, instead preferring the temple built around 400 BC on Mount Gerizim. They only accepted the Pentateuch as Sacred Scripture (not the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures), and in various places changes were made to suit their theology. Notice, as an example, the last of the 10 commandments in the Samaritan Pentateuch:

“It shall be  when your God will bring you to the Canaanite land, which you are going to inherit, you shall set yourself up great stones, and plaster them with plaster, and you shall write on them all the words of this law. It shall be, when you are passed over the Jordan, that you shall set up these stones, which I command you this day, in Mount Gerizim. There shall you build an altar to Yahweh your God, an altar of stones: you shall lift up no iron tool on them. You shall build the altar of Yahweh your God of uncut stones; and you shall offer burnt offerings thereon to Yahweh your God: and you shall sacrifice peace-offerings, and shall eat there; and you shall rejoice before Yahweh your God” (Exodus 20:17).

Needless to say, that’s not quite the way your book of Exodus reads.

And if racial prejudice and religious disagreements weren’t enough, they had a history of warfare and violence that kept the hatred running hot. I have an old Jewish coin in my office with the name and title of John Hyrcanus inscribed on the front (The Jews did not engrave his face on their coins, as they were not to make graven images), and a double cornucopia on the back:

John Hyrcanus was a Hasmonean ruler and high priest of the Jews during the 2nd century BC. The Hasmonean dynasty was a short-lived attempt to reclaim an independent kingdom after the successful Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Emprire. Hyrcanus led several military campaigns, one of which was into Samaria. After conquering, enslaving, and forcing Jewish customs on many of his defeated foes, Hyrcanus made his way to Gerizim and destroyed the Samaritan temple. Yahweh only had one temple and it was to be in Jerusalem! Well, these types of accounts in the recent national past didn’t endear Jews to Samaritans or Samaritans to Jews.

These types of prejudices and dissagreements and violent histories lead to statements like this one found in the Jewish Mishnah, Niddah 4.1, “The Samaritan women are menstruous from the cradle. And the Samaritans defile a bed both below and above, because they have connection with menstruous women, and the latter sit upon every kind of blood.” Or consider this lovely comparison, “The dwelling of the unclean women of the Samaritans defile after the manner of Ohel!” (m. Nid. 7.4). (Ohel a place that is contagiously unclean). The idea is that Samaritans, particularly women, are unclean and that anyone who comes into contact with them is unclean. Like a woman constantly menstruating from birth (Leviticus 15:19-33). These sentiments provide a helpful backdrop to the conversation that Jesus has with this Samaritan woman.

This is why she is so aghast when Jesus, clearly a Jewish male, sits at a well in Samaria and begins to speak to her. He not only speaks, but asks her for a favor. He asks her to touch her bucket, fill it with water, and hand it to Him so He can press His lips to it and drink. The thought would be horrifying and disgusting to most Jewish men. Especially considering that not only would her national and religious life render her unclean, but failures in her personal life as well. Her past and reputation, that Jesus mysteriously knows all about, would keep all men away except for the most unscrupulous men who may want to take advantage of a “loose” woman for their own gratification. She is living with a man to whom she is not married, and she has already had 5 husbands! Her reputation alone would repulse the honorable, pure, clean, holy, men of the day. This highly inappropriate conversation should never take place. And she knows it.

All of this baggage lies behind her statements, “How is it that you, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (John 4:9). Or, “I have no husband” (with her thoughts probably being, “and lets drop it.”). Or again, her mention of the irreconcilable theological dispute, “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain [Gerizim], and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20). These are conversation stoppers.

But not to Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t let her get away that easily. He doesn’t let status, history, purity, clean or unclean, prejudice, sexism, racism, nationalism, or any ism, or any ideology, or any cultural baggage get in the way of seeing a woman. A person. A human with intrinsic value who is in need of something only He can provide. We haven’t really even really discussed their conversation yet, but the fact that it took place tells us something about Jesus. Something that the world is still in desperate need of. There are a million reasons to hate, but really only one reason to love. To reach out. To be kind. It’s because we were all created with God given value. No matter who we are, where we’re from, what we look like, or even what we have done. Our failures do not define us. Our mistakes don’t need to be the end of our story. Jesus is still there. He still reaches out. He still offers that “living water” that leads to eternal life. He’s still sitting at the well.