Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

In Jewish Jesus by Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

Samaritan lands were sandwiched between Judea and Galilee, though not exclusively. They were situated within the borders of the land allotted to the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe. (Today most Samaria and large parts of Judea constitute the disputed/occupied territories located in the Palestinian Authority). Given Judeo-Samaritan tensions, which are similar in many ways to today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both groups tried to avoid passing through each other’s territories when traveling.

The way around Samaria for Judeans traveling to Galilee took twice as long as the three-day-direct journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, since avoiding Samaria required crossing the river Jordan twice to follow a path running east of the river. (Vita 269) The way through Samaria was more dangerous because Samaritan-Jewish passions often ran high. (Ant. 20.118; War 2.232) We are not told the reason Jesus and his disciples needed to go through Samaria. John simply says that Jesus “had to go,”[1] implying that, for Jesus, just as it was for all other Jews, this was unusual.

It is of course possible that Jesus needed to reach Galilee relatively quickly. But the text gives us no indication that he had a pending invitation to an event in Galilee for which he was running late. The text only states that he left when he felt an imminent confrontation with the Pharisees over his popularity among Israelites was unavoidable. This was coupled with Jesus’ understanding that the time for such a confrontation had not yet come. In the mind of Jesus, the confrontation with the religious powerbrokers of Judea at this time was premature, and more needed to be done before going to the Cross and drinking the cup of God’s wrath on behalf of his people.

The way Jesus viewed Samaritans and his own ministry among them may surprise us as we continue looking into this story.

Jesus’ journey through hostile and heretical territory has a meaning beyond any surface explanation. In a very real sense, God’s unfathomable plan and mission, from the time His Royal Son was eternally conceived in His mind, was to bind all of his beloved creation in redemptive unity. Jesus was sent to make peace between God and man, as well as between man and man. The accomplishment of this grand purpose began with the mission to unify Samaritan Israelites with the Israelites of Judea. Jesus’ movements and activities were all done in accordance with his Father’s will and leading. He only did what he saw the Father do. (Jn. 5:19) This being the case, we can be certain that Jesus’ journey through Samaria at this time was directed by his Father, and so too, was his conversation with the Samaritan woman.

The Encounter

In describing the encounter, John makes several interesting observations that have major implications for our understanding of verses 5-6:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

John mentions the Samaritan town named Sychar. It is not clear if Sychar was a village very near Shechem or if Shechem itself is in view. The text simply calls our attention to a location near the plot of ground Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Whether or not it was same place, it was certainly in the same vicinity, at the foot of Mt. Gerizim. While this is interesting and it shows that John was indeed a local, knowing the detailed geography of the place, it is no less important, and perhaps even more significant, that the Gospel’s author calls the reader’s attention to the presence of a silent witness to this encounter: the bones of Joseph.[2] This is how the book of Joshua relates that event:

Now they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for one hundred pieces of money; and they became the inheritance of Joseph’s sons. (Josh. 24:32)

The reason for this reference to Joseph in verse 5 will only become clear when we see that the Samaritan woman suffered in a manner similar to Joseph. If this reading of the story is correct, just as Joseph endured unexplained suffering for the purpose of bringing salvation to Israel; likewise the Samaritan woman endured suffering which led to the salvation of the Samaritan Israelites in that locale. (4:39-41)

6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.”

 It has traditionally been assumed that the Samaritan woman was a woman of ill repute. The reference to the sixth hour (about midday) has been interpreted to mean that she was avoiding the water drawing crowd of other women in the town. The biblical sixth hour[3] was supposedly the worst possible time of the day to leave one’s dwelling and venture out into the scorching heat. “If anyone were to come to draw water at this hour, we could appropriately conclude that they were trying to avoid people,” the argument goes. We are, however, suggesting another possibility.

The popular theory views her as a particularly sinful woman who had fallen into sexual sin and therefore was called to account by Jesus about the multiplicity of husbands in her life. Jesus told her, as the popular theory has it, that He knew that she had five previous husbands and that she was living with her current “boyfriend” outside the bonds of marriage, and therefore she was in no condition to play spiritual games with Him! In this view, the reason she avoided the crowd was precisely because of her reputation for short-lived marital commitments. But there are problems with this theory:

First, midday is not the worst time to be out in the sun. If it was 3 pm (ninth hour) the traditional theory would make better sense. Moreover, it is not at all clear that this took place during the summer months, which could make the weather in Samaria altogether irrelevant. Secondly, is it possible that we are making too much of her going to draw water at “an unusual time?” Don’t we all sometimes do regular things during unusual hours and could it be possible that this is such a case? This does not necessarily mean we are hiding something from someone. For example, we read that Rachel came to the well with her sheep probably also at about the same time. (Gen. 29:6-9)

There are also other problems with this reading of the text:

When we try to understand this story with the traditional mindset, we can’t help but wonder how it was possible, in this conservative Samaritan Israelite society, that a woman with such a bad track record of supporting community values could have caused the entire village to drop everything and go with her to see Jesus. (4:30) The standard logic is as follows: She had led such a godless life that when others heard of her excitement and newfound spiritual interest, they responded in awe and went to see Jesus for themselves. This rendering, while possible, seems unlikely to the author of this book, and seems to read much later theological (evangelical) approaches into this ancient story, which had its own historical setting. I am persuaded that reading the story in a new way is more logical and creates less interpretive problems than the commonly held view.

Let us take a closer look at John 4:7-9:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For the Ioudaioi do not associate with Samaritanoi/Samaritans.)”

 In spite of the fact that, to the modern eye, the differences were insignificant and unimportant, Jesus and the nameless Samaritan woman were from two different and historically adversarial people, each of whom considered the other to have deviated drastically from the ancient faith of Israel. As mentioned above, a modern parallel to the Judeo-Samaritan conflict would be the sharp animosity between Shia and Sunni Muslims. For most of us today Muslims are Muslims, but within Islam this is not an agreed upon proposition. Both parties consider each other as the greatest enemy of true Islam. So, too, for the people in the ancient world. These two warring people groups were Israelites and were both part of the same faith. However, they were bitter enemies. This was not because they were so different, but precisely because they were very much alike. Both Israelite groups considered the other to be imposters. While we don’t have Samaritan sources to tell us their official position, we do know that a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, referring to the views and practices of the distant past, states: “Daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from the cradle” (bNidd. 31b) and therefore any item that they handled would be unclean to the Judean.[4]

The Samaritan woman probably recognized that Jesus was Judean by his distinctive Jewish traditional clothing and his accent (It is highly likely that the conversation took place in the tongue familiar to them both.) Jesus would have most certainly worn ritual fringes (tzitzit) in obedience to the Torah/Law of Moses (Num. 15: 38 and Deut. 22:12), but since Samaritan Israelite men observed Torah as well, this would not have been a distinguishing factor (Samaritan means the “keepers” of the Law and not the people who lived in Samaria). The difference between these two groups was not whether the Torah of Moses must be obeyed, but how it should be obeyed.

Jesus continues:

10“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.’ 11‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’13 Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’ 16He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ 17‘I have no husband,’ she replied. Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’ 19‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Ioudaioi claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’

 This passage has often been interpreted as follows: “Jesus initiates a spiritual conversation. (vs. 10) The woman begins to ridicule Jesus’ statement by pointing out his inability to provide what he seems to offer. (verses 11-12) After a brief confrontation in which Jesus points out the lack of an eternal solution to the woman’s spiritual problem (verses 13-14), the woman continues with a sarcastic attitude. (vs. 15) Finally, Jesus has had enough and he then forcefully exposes the sin in the woman’s life – a pattern of broken family relationships. (verses 16-18) Now, cut to the heart by Jesus’ all-knowing x-ray vision, the woman acknowledges her sin in a moment of truth (vs. 19) by calling Jesus a prophet. But then, as every unbeliever usually does, she tries to avoid the real issues of her sin and her spiritual need by raising doctrinal issues, (vs. 20) in order to avoid dealing with the real issues in her life.” Though this may not be the only way this text is commonly understood, it does follow a generally negative view of the Samaritan woman.

Because this popular interpretation presupposes that the woman was particularly immoral, it sees the entire conversation in light of that negative viewpoint. I would like to recommend a wholly different trajectory for understanding this story. Though it is not an airtight case, this alternative trajectory seems to be a better fit for the rest of the story, and especially for its conclusion. At the very least, it deserves your attention and evaluation.

Rereading the Story

As was previously suggested, it is possible the Samaritan woman was not trying to avoid anyone. But, even if she was, there are explanations for her avoidance other than feeling guilty about her sexual immorality. For example, as you well know, people don’t want to see anyone when they are depressed. Depression was present in Jesus’ time, just as it is present in people’s lives today. Instead of assuming that the Samaritan woman changed husbands like gloves, it is just as reasonable to think of her as a woman who had experienced the deaths of several husbands, or as a woman whose husbands may have been unfaithful to her, or even as a woman whose husbands divorced her for her inability to have children. In ancient Israelite society, women did not initiate divorces. Any one of these suggestions, and others, are possible in this instance.

 The book of Tobit (2nd century BCE), for example, speaks about a Jewish woman named Sarah who had seven husbands who, with the help of demonic forces, each died on the day of his wedding. She was scorned by the community, looked upon as cursed and guilty of their deaths. Depressed to the point of suicide, Sarah prayed to God to end her shame, insisting on her purity to the end. (Tobit 3:7-17) People behaved harshly toward Sarah. No doubt the social standing of the Samaritan woman brought her great anguish as well. My own Great Aunt had four husbands and she outlived them all. So I know this happens.

Jesus stated that she lived with a man who was not her husband. Many assume this meant the woman lived with her boyfriend, but that is not stated. Perhaps she needed help and lived with a distant relative, or in some other undesirable arrangement, in order to survive. Jesus was not nailing her to the cross of justice, but instead was letting her know that he knew everything about the pain she endured. This is certainly more in keeping with the Jesus we know from other instances in his life.

If I am correct in my suggestion that this woman was not a “fallen woman,” then perhaps we can connect her amazingly successful testimony to the village with John’s unexpected, but extremely important, reference to the bones of Joseph. It is worthy of note that for the Samaritan readership of this Gospel, the reference to the place of Joseph’s bones and Jacob’s well would be highly significant. When we understand that the conversation took place next to Joseph’s bones, we are immediately reminded of Joseph’s story and his mostly undeserved suffering. As you may remember, only part of Joseph’s suffering was self-inflicted. Yet in the end, when no one saw it coming, the sufferings of Joseph turned into events leading from starvation and death to salvation.

Now let us consider the connection with Joseph in more detail. Shechem was one of the cities of refuge where a man who had killed someone unintentionally was provided a safe haven in Israel. (Josh. 21:20-21)[5] As inhabitants of Shechem were living out their lives in the shadow of the Torah’s prescription, they were no doubt keenly aware of the unusual status of grace and God’s protective function that was allotted to their special city. They were to protect people who were unfortunate, whose lives were threatened by avenging family members, but who were not actually guilty of any intentional crime deserving the threatened punishment.

Joseph was born into a very special family, where grace and salvation should have been a characteristic description. Jacob, the descendent of Abraham and Isaac, had eleven other sons, whose actions, (apart from Benjamin) instead of helping their father raise Joseph, ranged from outbursts of jealousy to a desire to get rid of their spoiled but “special” brother forever. But there was more. It was in Shechem that Joshua assembled the tribes of Israel, challenging them to abandon their former gods in favor of YHWH and, after making a covenant with them, he buried Joseph’s bones there. We read in Josh. 24:1-32:

“Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God… But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. …On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD… Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel. And Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants.”

 It is interesting that the place for this encounter with the Samaritan woman was chosen by the Lord of providence in such a beautiful way: an emotionally alienated woman, who felt unsafe, ironically lived in or near a city of refuge and is having a faith-finding, covenant-renewing conversation with God’s Royal Son, Jesus, who has come to reunite all Israel with her God. She does so at the very place where the ancient Israelites renewed their covenant in response to God’s words, sealing them with two witnesses: 1) the stone (Josh. 24:26-27) – confessing with their mouths their covenant obligations and faith in Israel’s God, and 2) the bones of Joseph (Josh. 24:31-32) – whose story guided them in their travels.

In a sense, the Samaritan woman does the same thing as the ancient Israelites – confessing her faith in Jesus as the Christ and covenant Savior of the world, to her fellow villagers, as we read in John 4:29-39:

“Come, see a man who told me everything. Could this be the Christ?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him… Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony…”

 The connection between Joseph and the Samaritan woman does not end there. We might recall that Joseph had received a special blessing from his father at the time of Jacob’s death. It was a promise that he would be a fruitful vine climbing over a wall. (Gen. 49:22) Psalm 80:8 speaks of a vine being brought out of Egypt, whose shoots spread throughout the earth, eventually bringing salvation to the world through the true vine. In John 15:1 we read that Jesus identified himself as this true vine. Like Israel of old, Jesus was also symbolically brought out of Egypt. (Matt. 2:15) In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus – the promised vine in Jacob’s promise to Joseph – was in effect climbing over the wall of hostility between the Judean and Samaritan Israelites to unite these two parts of His Kingdom through His person, teaching and deeds. In a deeply symbolic fashion, this conversation takes place at the very well that was built by Jacob, to whom the promise was given!

Now that we have reviewed some of the relevant Hebrew Bible/Old Testament symbolism, let us now reread this story through a different lens. It may have gone something like this:

Jesus initiated a conversation with the woman: “Will you give me a drink?” His disciples had gone into town to buy food. The woman felt safe with Jesus because, not only is he not from her village, but he didn’t know about her failed life or even how depressed she may have felt for months. In her view, he was part of a heretical, though related, religious community. Jesus would have had no contact with the Israelite Samaritan leaders of her community.

“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,” says Jesus.

 It is important that we picture the woman. She was not laughing; she was having an informed, deeply theological and spiritual discussion with Jesus. This was a daring attempt to ascertain truth that was outside her accepted theological framework and surely would not pass the test of cultural sensibilities of “faithful” Samaritans. She took issue with Jesus, precisely because she took the word of God (Samaritan Torah) seriously:

“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘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 the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’ Jesus answered: ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’”

 This theme of water[6] will be repeated many times in John’s Gospel, but even at this point, we can see Jesus’ and John’s preoccupation with water as being related to Temple imagery. We will return to this theme in the coming chapters.

After the above interaction, which strikes a familiar chord for the Christian who has experienced the life-giving power of Jesus’ presence and spiritual renewal, Jesus continued the conversation. He let the nameless Samaritan woman know that He understood her troubles much more fully than she thought. He did this by showing her that he was aware of the pain and suffering she had endured during her life.

“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ ‘I have no husband,’ she replied. Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’”

 We must try and disconnect from the usual view of this passage and allow for another interpretive possibility. Do you recall the seemingly obscure reference to Joseph’s bones, which was very meaningful to first century Israelites, being buried near this very place where the conversation took place? At the beginning of the story, John wanted us to remember Joseph. He was a man who suffered much in his life;[7] but whose suffering was ultimately used for the salvation of Israel and the known world. Under Joseph’s leadership, Egypt became the only nation that acted wisely by saving grain during the years of plenty and then being able to feed others during the years of famine. (Gen. 41:49-54) It is highly symbolic that this conversation took place in the presence of a silent witness: the bones of Joseph. God first allowed terrible physical, psychological and social injustice to be done to Joseph; He then used this suffering to greatly bless those who came in contact with him. Instead of reading this story in terms of Jesus nailing the immoral woman to the cross of God’s standard of morality, we should read it in terms of God’s mercy and compassion for the broken world in general, and for marginalized Israelites (Samaritans) in particular.

According to the popular view, it is at this point, convicted by Jesus’ prophetic rebuke, that the woman seeks to change the subject and avoid the personal nature of the encounter by engaging in unimportant theological controversy. The problem is, although these matters may be unimportant to the modern reader, they were of very real concern to the ancient readers, especially those who lived with the Judean-Samaritan conflict. Therefore, let us consider an alternative interpretation: Having seen Jesus’ intimate knowledge of her miserable situation and his compassionate empathy, the woman felt secure enough to also break tradition and climb over the wall of forbidden associations. She makes a statement that invites Jesus’ commentary on the subject of the key theological difference between the Ioudaioi and the Samaritans.

“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Ioudaioi claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’”

 The Samaritans were Mt. Gerizim-centered Israelites in their understanding of the Pentateuch (Torah), while the Jews were Mt. Zion-centered[8] in their interpretation of essentially the same body of literature, admittedly with occasional variations. This question seems trivial to a modern Christian who usually thinks what is really important is that one can confess: “Jesus is in my life as a personal Lord and Savior.”  But, while the Samaritan woman’s question may not concern us today, it was a major issue in the first century. Indeed this deeply theological and spiritual conversation was a very important intersection on the road of human history, because of the tremendous impact it has had on the entire world, ever since this encounter took place.

With fear and trepidation, the Samaritan woman, putting away her feeling of humiliation and bitterness towards the Judeans/Jews, posed her question in the form of a statement. What she received from Jesus, she definitely did not expect to hear from a Judean:

“Jesus declared, ‘Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Ioudaioi. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.’”

She must have been stunned by his statement. Jesus challenged the main point of the Judean-Samaritan divide – the Mt. Gerizim vs. Mt. Zion controversy – arguing that the time had come for another type of worship altogether. In English we can say “we will worship on that mountain,” but when we are talking about the city we say “we will worship in that city.” This is also the case in Greek, but in Hebrew, in which no doubt this conversation took place, Jesus would literally have said: “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither “in” this mountain nor “in” Jerusalem. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father “in” spirit and truth. The third “in” therefore suggests that the enigmatic phrase: “to worship God in Spirit and in Truth,” should be understood in the context of three mountains, not two (Mt. Gerizim, Mt. Zion and the Mt. [of] Spirit and Truth.) Jesus is saying to the Samaritan woman that she must look up to another mountain. The choice was not between Jerusalem and Shechem (Mt. Zion and Mt. Gerizim). The choice was between Mt. Gerizim and the Mountain [of] Spirit and Truth.

The stunning phraseology that Jesus used in his next statement: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Ioudaioi,(4:22) spells the end of the idea that this Gospel is Samaritan, as some scholars (noting in-depth Samaritan interest) have erroneously concluded. Jesus could not have made this point any clearer. When it came to the Judeo-Samaritan conflict, he was with the Judeans. “We (Judeans) know” and “you Samaritans do not know” what we worship. The most striking statement in the entire Gospel, however, given its overabundance of anti-Judean rhetoric, is – “Salvation is from Ioudaioi/Judeans.” What could Jesus possibly mean here? Certainly it cannot be seriously entertained that he was saying that the sub-group that sought his death and, at least in its leadership, decisively rejected him, was going to lead all Israel to salvation. What then did he mean? The preliminary question to ask is whether, upon hearing this statement of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, who we now realize was well versed in Torah and Torah-observance, would hold her peace. What must Jesus appeal to in order for the Samaritan woman to be convinced? The answer is: the shared Torah tradition between Judeans and Samaritans. There is one text in Torah that fits this perfectly.

In Genesis 49:8-10, a passage that is in both the Judean and Samaritan versions of the Torah, we read:

Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

Domination of enemies and guarantee of security were the essential elements of the ancient concept of salvation. No one at that time had thought of salvation in Western individualistic terms. Judah would lead and rule all others until someone comes, whom even the nations will joyfully serve. When Jesus referred to this text, the Samaritan woman silently agreed.

You will recall that Jesus had already stated that the center of earthly worship was to be relocated from physical Jerusalem to the heavenly, spiritual Jerusalem, concentrated in Himself, when he spoke to Nathanael. (1:50-51) He had invoked the great Torah story of Jacob’s dream of the angels of God ascending and descending on the Holy Land of Israel where he was sleeping. (Gen. 18:12) He said to Nathanael that very soon the angels would be ascending and descending, not on Bethel (in Hebrew – House of God), which Samaritans identified as Mt. Gerizim, but upon the ultimate House of God – Jesus himself. (Jn. 1:14; Jn. 2:21)

The official Samaritan religion, at least as far as we know from much later sources, did not include any prophetic writings, which means the Samaritan woman would have only Torah to rely upon in her definition of a Messiah-like figure.

The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain/teach everything to us.’” We read in Deuteronomy 18:18-19, that is perfectly consistent with what the woman said: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.

Though a later Samaritan text speaks of a Messiah-like figure (Taheb, Marqah Memar 4:7, 12), the Samaritans of Jesus’ time only expected a great teacher-prophet. The “Messiah” as King and Priest was a Jewish Israelite, and not a Samaritan Israelite concept, as far as we know. For that reason, the reply of the Samaritan woman shows this was not an imaginary or symbolic conversation (“he will explain everything to us”). In view of this, it seems that now the woman graciously used distinctly Jewish terminology to relate to Jesus – the Jew. Just as Jesus was choosing to climb the wall of taboos, so now was the Samaritan woman.

25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26Then Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he.’

 The story quickly switches to the return of the disciples, their reaction and commentary-like interaction with Jesus. This interchange is sandwiched between the encounters with the Samaritan woman and the men of her village. The disciples were surprised at seeing him conversing with the Samaritan woman, but no one challenged him about the inappropriateness of such an encounter.

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”  28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”  30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”  34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” (John 4:27-34)

 While it is possible that the disciples were surprised that he was alone in conversation with a woman, the general context of the story seems to indicate that their response had more to do with him conversing with a woman who was a Samaritan. It is interesting that none of the disciples could even imagine that Jesus would partake of the food from the nearby Samaritan village (once again due to the issues of variant purity requirements among Samaritans and Judeans). Instead, they wondered if some other disciples had gone to bring him food. (The Gospel does not say that all the disciples went to buy food in the nearby town.) Later on, Jesus would show his disciples that he had no problem with the purity laws the Samaritans followed. Later in the story, we see that he lodged with them for two days. (Jn. 4:40) But before that happened, Jesus had a lot to explain.

Leaving behind her jar, the woman rushed to town to tell her people about Jesus, posing an important question to them: “Could this be the one whom Israel has been awaiting for so long?” Speaking as he did in the context of the encounter, Jesus pointed out to his disciples that what he was doing was purely and simply God’s will. Doing the will of his Father gave him his divine life energy. This divine energy enabled him to continue his work. We continue reading:

35“Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest?’ I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36Even now the reaper draws his wages; even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.”

 In these verses, Jesus challenged his disciples to consider the crop that was ready for harvest. It is almost certain that Jesus’ disciples thought the spiritual harvest pertained to the Jerusalem-affiliated Israelites alone. Jesus challenged them to look outside their box, to the neighboring heretical and adversarial community, for the harvest – a harvest field they had not considered until this encounter. The significance of Jesus’ commentary on the encounter was not to highlight the importance of evangelism in general, but rather to bring attention to fields that were previously unseen, or thought of as unsuitable for the harvest.[9]

He, the King of Israel, will unite the North and the South as part of his restoration program for Israel. We read in Amos 9:11-15:

‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the Lord who does this. ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the lord, ‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,’ says the Lord your God.

In the book of Acts, we read of a significant move of God’s Spirit among Samaritans and the openness that the Judean Jesus-following communities had for these new-found brothers and sisters in the faith. (Acts 8)

While Jesus was no doubt conversing with his followers about the suitability of teaching the Samaritans God’s ways, he heard voices from the crowd approaching him from a distance. The faithful witness of this Gospel describes it like this:

“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.’” (verses 39-42)

 Interpreting the Bible is a difficult task. We bring our past, our preconceived notions, our already formed theology, our cultural blind spots, our social standing, our gender, our political views, and many other influences to our interpretation of the Bible. In short, all that we are in some way determines how we interpret everything. This does not imply that the meaning of the text is dependent on its reader. The meaning remains constant. But the reading of the text does differ and is dependent on many factors surrounding the interpretive process. In other words, how a reader or listener understands the text can differ greatly from person to person.

One of the biggest handicaps in the enterprise of Bible interpretation has been an inability to recognize and admit that a particular interpretation may have a weak spot. The weak spot is usually determined by personal preferences and heartfelt desires to prove a particular theory, regardless of the cost. I consider that, having an awareness of our own blind spots and being honestly willing to admit problems with our interpretations when they exist, is more important than the intellectual brilliance with which we argue our position.

One opportunity to exercise an honest approach is when commentators recognize that there is something in their interpretation that does not seem to fit with the text and they do not quite know how to explain it. What I feel can be legitimately suggested as a challenge to our reading of the story of the Samaritan woman, are the words the Gospel author places on her lips when she tells her fellow villagers about her encounter with Jesus. She says: “He told me everything I ever did.” It would have matched the traditional interpretation perfectly, if her words had been: “He told me everything that happened to me” or better yet “was done to me.”

I think, once again, we are so preconditioned to think in Christian terms (“we are all fallen people, but especially the Samaritan woman” kind of approach) that we are unable to read this sentence positively. In other words, everything I ever did, may be just that – a simple statement that the entire life of the woman was known to Jesus (not necessarily a life of sexual immorality). In other words, this verse should be understood differently – “he knows everything about me.” Indeed, she would hardly have gone bragging to the townspeople that “this stranger told me all the sinful acts I have done in my life.” When we think of it, that would hardly have sent them running to meet him, but rather sent them running in the other direction! But I realize that getting over preconceived notions and interpretive preconditioning is not easy. It was Krister Stendahl who said “Our vision is often more abstracted by what we think we know than by our lack of knowledge.”

 43 After two days he departed for Galilee 44for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown. 45So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast. 46 So he came again to Cana in Galilee, where he had made the water wine. And at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way. 51 As he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 The father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” And he himself believed, and all his household. 54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.

 As the reporting of the events connected with Jesus’ stopover in Samaritan Shechem finishes, we come to John 4:43-45. Here we see that Jesus does not return to Judea but continues his journey to Galilee. In addition to the absence of the incident with the Samaritan woman from the Synoptics, there is another significant feature in which the Synoptics and John part company. John states the reason Jesus did not return to Judea, but went on to Galilee, was because “Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own homeland.” (Literally: “fatherland” in the sense of “motherland” in the English language). (4:44) What is of course striking here is that John names Judea as Jesus’ homeland, his fatherland, and not Galilee as do the Synoptics. (Mt 13:54-57, Mk. 6:1-4, Lk. 4:23-24) It is likely that the Synoptics treat Galilee, the place of Jesus’ upbringing, as his fatherland. For John, however, Jesus is Judean because of his birth in Bethlehem of Judea. To John, Jesus lived in Galilee because of God’s mission and not because of his Galilean identity. To John he was a Judean (but more about this later).

Together with this alternative reading of Jesus’ identity, John paints a picture for his readers of Jesus’ rejection and acceptance, which is also very different from the picture in the Synoptics. Galilee and Samaria were very responsive to Jesus. People there welcomed him with very few exceptions; while everything he did in his homeland of Judea seemed to meet significant opposition.

There is paradox and tension here. In Judea (Jesus’ motherland in John) Jesus faced persecution. He was born there and his Father’s house, the Temple of Israel’s God, was in Jerusalem (not in Galilee and not in Samaria), but it is from there that the real opposition to his ministry came. It is not that unbelief was found only in Judea, after all some Galilean Jewish disciples would leave Jesus after his statements about his body and blood. (Jn. 6:66)  But all in all, it cannot be denied that Samaria and Galilee were far more receptive to Jesus than was Judea. I suggest once again, therefore, that we should understand John 1:11 within this context of: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

Jesus departs Samaria and arrives in Cana. Why did Jesus return to Cana? This was the place where his first miracle was performed. (John 2:1–11) It is important, as we read in John 4:47, that his second miracle also takes place here. (vs. 46)  Cana was very likely a Judean settlement in Galilee. We remember when Jesus turned water into wine, there were vessels that were used for ritual purification according to the custom of the Ioudaioi. (John 2:6) In other words, Jesus went to continue his ministry at “a home, away from home.”

[1]  The word “it is necessary” (δεῖ) occurs 10x in John (3:7, 14, 30; 4:4, 20, 24; 9:4; 10:16; 12:34; 20:9). Cf. the use of δεῖ in Luke-Acts.

[2]  Josh. 24:32; Josephus, Ant. 2.8.2.

[3]  Hence the shock of the darkness at the sixth hour when Jesus died. (Matt. 27:45; Mk. 15:33; Lk. 23:44)

[4]  The Mishnah also explores the ritual and ethnic identity of Samaritans. (mDem. 3:4; 5:9; 6:1; 7:4; mShev. 8:10; mTer. 3:9; mSheqal. 1:5; mKetub. 3:1)

[5]  Cities of refuge: Num. 35:1-15; Shechem as city of refuge. (Josh. 20; 1 Chr. 6:67)

[6]  Cf. John 1:26-33; 2:6-9; 3:5, 23; 4:7-28; 4:46; 5:7; 7:38; 13:5; 19:34.

[7]  It is intriguing to think that, perhaps, there is also some connection to the rape of Dinah and the further violence that followed as a result (Gen.34) since these events too are associated with this location.

[8]  Mt. Zion as epicenter. (Ps. 2:6; 9:11, 14; 14:7; 20:2; 48:2; 48:11-12; 50:2; etc.; 1QM 12:13; 19:5)

[9]  We might recall Jesus’ post-resurrection instructions to the disciples not to leave Jerusalem. He told them “… you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) It has been traditionally assumed that Samaria was simply a geographical half-way point between Jewish Judea and the Gentile ends of the earth. As I will argue later, this was certainly not the case. We read that the apostles preached the Gospel in the Samaritan villages, actually implementing Jesus’ directive: “… they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” (Acts 8:25) We are told “the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God.” That is to say, in comparison to many others, the Samarian lands were very receptive to the gospel. (Acts 8:9-14) The Samaritan Israelites, unlike today, constituted a sizable number of people who claimed to have been a remnant of the Northern tribes of Israel. Some recent studies in reputable secular scientific journals on DNA research show that there is a genetic link between modern Samaritans and Israelite priests of old (see article by Oefner, Peter J. and others in the suggested readings list). It is very difficult to speak in precise numbers, but scholars who focus their research on Samaritans suggest that their first century population was roughly equal (or almost equal) to the size of Judean Israelites, both in the Land and in Diaspora. The other Gospels, especially Matthew, were too Judea-centered, and even anti-Samaritan, to be suitable for use among Samaritan Israelites. We read in Matt. 10:5-6: “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.‘” Matthew’s Jesus couples Gentiles with Samaritans and emphasizes the command (at least at this stage of the ministry) not to go to Samaritan villages. In his great commission (Matt. 28:19-20), Matthew again displays this view by having Jesus command his Jewish Israelite disciples to simply make disciples of all nations, without paying special attention to the Samaritan Israelites.

Your Journey begins here!