In the first Century AD, the Samaritans lived in the land of the former kingdom of Israel, but they were of mixed Israeli and Arab descent. (Wiki) The Samaritans had somehow escaped the exile to Babylon, and they were shunned by the Jews who returned to the land of Israel after the exile. (Ehow) The Jews did not consider them Jews, the people of God.
When Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman by a well, the woman knew he was a Jew. When Jesus asked the woman to draw water from the well for him to drink, she questioned why he, a Jew, would ask her, a Samaritan, for a drink. (John 4:9) In that day, Jews would not do that and would not drink from a cup used by a Samaritan.
Jesus turned the encounter into a gospel message. (Gospel literally means “good news”). He replied, “‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.'” (John 4:10) At first blush, the answer seems to be a “Jews are better than Samaritans” response. Jesus, of course, was speaking of Himself. It was an introduction to her. It was an invitation to her. Jesus is always extending an invitation to people to engage Him.
Jesus was at the beginning of “his ministry. He was unfolding his message. Paul would later say, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Paul, formerly known as Saul, was a zealot Jew who fiercely defended the Jewish faith against the early Christian influence by dragging professing Christians off to prison. (Acts 8:3) Paul was there for the stoning of Stephen and approved of it. (Acts 7:58 & 8:1) No one understood the Gospel message like Paul after his conversion, and the remainder of his life was devoted to bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews). The good news is meant for everyone.
In the story of the Samaritan woman, she responded with sarcasm, “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and his herds?” (John 4:11-12) she highlighted the rift between Jew and Samaritan, who both claimed the same ancestry and heritage as God’s people, and both thought the other wrong in their adherence to that heritage.
Undeterred, Jesus kept on with the proclamation and invitation: “‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'” (John 4:13-14) Equally nonplussed, she kept on with her sarcasm: “‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.'” (John 4:15) Knowing her heart and playing along, Jesus told her to get her husband and come back, to which she confessed she had no husband; and Jesus confirmed that she had five previous husbands. She lived with a man not her husband. (John 4: 16-18)
Significantly, this woman was not religious. Far from it. Yet, she was keenly aware of the deeply held beliefs of her people and the Jews, and the differences that wedged between them. It seemed to define her, as it was the subject of her response to a simple request for water. She seems hardened and sarcastic, disillusioned and skeptical. She had rejected devotion to that belief in her life, but it was still defining her relationship to others, and ultimately to God. It was, perhaps, as much cultural as religious to her, like so many people today who claim some affiliation, at least in name, to a religious and cultural heritage and system of beliefs, even while decidedly rejecting the relevance of that belief in their lives.
Jesus’ intimate knowledge of her personal situation must have pierced the façade of her hardened pretension. I can imagine that her response was this time sincere: “I can see that you are a prophet”; and her next statement I suspect was spoken without sarcasm, but with a real desire for an answer to the divide between the Samaritan people and the Jews, people so closely affiliated, so closely linked in location, ancestry and religious heritage, but divided by doctrinal and cultural differences. She laid out the problem: “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” (John 4:19-20)
In that statement she summarized the discord between her people and the Jews. She was obviously not interested in a doctrinal answer. She was not a religious person. She was looking to make sense of her situation. When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, the Samaritans who had never left worshipped God on Mount Gerazim; the Jews, however, believed the only place to worship was in Jerusalem. The Jews shunned the Samaritans. In turn, the Samaritans attempted to thwart the Jews construction of the temple in Jerusalem. (Ehow) (John 4:19) Does that not sound familiar?
In the wake of the presidential election, it is clear that the tendency of people to develop factions and exclude others who do not share the same views is as real today as it was two thousand years ago. Religious factions are no different, and are probably worse than political factions. Those differences often involve matters that are relatively meaningless, though they seem paramount at the time.
Jesus responded by saying, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem….” (John 4:21) The point that divided the Jews and Samaritans was meaningless in God’s design. Jesus said, “[A] time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)
God looks at the heart. People focus on external things. Jesus cut through the cultural differences that divided the Samaritans and the Jews, and spoke to the heart. The Samaritan woman, proclaiming, “He told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:40), became a believer and many Samaritans became believers. In Jesus, there is no Jew or Samaritan, no Jew or Gentile. The good news is available to everyone.