In John 4, Jesus is on the move. He’s left Judea and is journeying into Galilee. He’s venturing out of Jewish territory.
John 4:1-2 says:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria.
First thing I want to focus on is where the text says that Jesus had to pass through Samaria. That’s relevant because it will be the location of our story today. There actually more than one route Jesus could have taken. But where the text says Jesus had to pass through Samaria, it’s an indication of the divine will. Jesus had to go this way because it put him in a place to have a divinely appointed meeting.
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
John makes a reference to Jacob and Joseph. In the Old Testament, Jacob is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. And the region to which Jesus has traveled is an area of land that had been owned by Jacob and given to Joseph. We see that in Genesis 48. It’s this land to which Jesus has come.
The humanity of Jesus
6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
When the text talks of Jesus being worn from his journey, it is a reminder to us that Jesus is human. During his earthly ministry, he experienced fatigue. We see him sleep. We see times where he eats and drinks. Times where he goes off by himself to be alone. He was fully man.
This verse tells us it was the sixth hour. That’s relevant to the story. In first century Jewish time keeping, the first hour was sunrise, so in it being the sixth hour, it’s around noon.
All of this is setting the scene for what follows.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water.
Background on Samaritans
We need some background.
When we were looking at passages in Isaiah over Christmas, one thing we talked a lot about was how Israel split into two kingdoms. You had a northern and a southern kingdom.
In 722 B.C, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians.
Thousands of the Jewish people from the northern tribes were deported from their land. The Assyrians procreated with the Israelites, and so you had an ethnic group who was half-Jewish and half-Assyrian.
That is the ethnic group which became known as the Samaritans. There are still Samaritans today. It’s a very small community of about 800 people and they mostly live in Israel. There are some very significant distinctions between Jewish people and Samaritans.
Samaritans do not believe the entire Old Testament is scripture. They only believe in the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Since they do not believe in the entire Old Testament, Jerusalem is not the sacred place to them that it is to other Jewish people. Because if all you have are the first five books, the Jewish people had not yet reached Jerusalem.
Instead, the sacred site of worship for the Samaritans then and now is Mount Gerizim. And actually, about half of present day Samaritans actually live there.
In the first century, there had been a lot of animosity between the two groups. About 160 years before Jesus had this interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, a group of Israelite soldiers had destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerizim.
And there was later retaliatory attacks.
In John 8, when he’s being questioned, Jesus will be asked if he’s a Samaritan or has a demon (John 8:48), which essentially puts those two situations on the same plain.
The Samaritans were looked down upon. These two groups hated each other.
Within a generation of the life of Jesus, official Jewish teaching from their scholars ruled that Samaritans were inherently unclean and defiled.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus gives the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer is questioning Jesus about the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus tells a parable about a man who had been severely beaten, left for dead. A priest and a levite both come by the man and stay on their journey, but it’s a Samaritan who sees the man, tends to him, sees that he gets taken care of. The Good Samaritan is the hero of the story.
It’s a spectacular picture of selflessness and love for your fellow man.
But when you understand that parable in the context of the hatred that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans, it makes the story all that much more striking.
I go into those details because the tensions will also color our passage this morning in John 4.
Give me a drink
So we return to the passage. The woman is coming to the well in the middle of the day. Unusual for her to be coming to the well alone and also at the hottest point of the day.
It was generally women who would come for water in the morning. The fact that she’s going at an off time alone suggests that she possibly doesn’t want to interact with others.
Jesus speaks to the woman at the end of verse 7 and says “give me a drink.”
Verse 8 adds the note that Jesus was by himself as his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.
So Jesus asks for a drink. A Jew speaking to a Samaritan. Verse 9, the woman is taken aback. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”
The verse ends with the parenthetical comment that Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
These are two groups who do not get along. As he often does in the gospels, Jesus is unconcerned with social customs or taboos.
We see Jesus touch lepers. We see him associating with sinners, with those on the margins.
Even within his band of disciples, he picks someone like Matthew who was a tax collector, a profession hated by Jews in the Roman world.
And here we see Jesus openly conversing with a woman in an ethnic group who was looked down upon.
So the woman asks how it is that he could ask her for a drink. But Jesus will flip the conversation.
Because the matter of ultimate significance in the story is not about her giving a drink to Jesus, it’s about the water he can provide.
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