In this week’s post, Jesus spends time in Samaria. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the woman at the well, then you have undoubtedly heard about the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. But I think it’s worth taking a broad look at this region.
But first, let’s start with John’s account of Jesus’ visit:
Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself didn’t baptize, but his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed into Galilee. 4 He needed to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son, Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being tired from his journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. (John 4:1-8)
Let’s start with geography. The region of Samaria was between Judea in the South and Galilee in the North. The region largely aligns with the tribal allotments of Ephraim and the half of Manasseh that was west of the Jordan, (the two half tribes of Joseph).
The Jewish historian Josephus describes Samaria this way:
Now as to the country of Samaria, it lies between Judea and Galilee; it begins at a village that is in the great plain called Ginea, and ends at the Acrabbene toparchy, and is entirely of the same nature with Judea; for both countries are made up of hills and valleys, and are moist enough for agriculture, and are very fruitful. They have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit, both that which grows wild, and that which is the effect of cultivation. They are not naturally watered by many rivers, but derive their chief moisture from rain-water, of which they have no want; and for those rivers which they have, all their waters are exceeding sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do those in other places; and, what is the greatest sign of excellency and of abundance, they each of them are very full of people.
When traveling between Judea and Galilee, most Jews would take one of two routes. Many would take the road along and to the east of the Jordan River in order to avoid Samaria, but the faster route often was along the Patriarch’s Way straight through the heart of Samaria. The Via Maris is a third route, largely along the Mediterranean coast, but this did not pass near Jerusalem, so for most travelers, this would be the longest route. It appears that Jesus often took the Patriarch’s Way, as He did on this journey, and that brought Him and His disciples to Jacob’s Well near the town of Sychar, which brings us to the history of Samaria.
In Genesis 12, we read: Abram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan. They entered into the land of Canaan. 6 Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:5-6)
So, when Abram first entered the Promised Land, he came to a place called Shechem. Shechem is very close to the location of the town Sychar in Jesus’ day. God spoke to Abram and made Him a promise: “I will give this land to your offspring.” In response, Abram built his first altar to God in the land here (Genesis 12:7).
Later, Jacob came to Shechem when he returned to the Promised Land with his wives and his children (Genesis 33:18). At some point, he must’ve dug the well referenced in John 4. Joseph also passed through Shechem on his fateful journey that ended with him as a slave in Egypt (Genesis 37:13). Centuries later, Joseph’s bones were buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32). So, this area was prominent in the lives of the Patriarchs.
Shechem was in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Through Moses, God commanded that, when Israel entered the promised land, that half the tribes should stand on one mountain to pronounce the blessings of the law and half on the other to pronounce the curses (Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:11-15). And that they did (Joshua 8:33). Joshua set Shechem apart as one of the cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7). At the end of his life, Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem (Joshua 24:1) where he gave his great “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” speech (Joshua 24:15) and in response the people made a covenant with Joshua to serve God (Joshua 24:25).
Much later, after Kings David and Solomon died, Solomon’s son Rehoboam came to Shechem to be made king of Israel (1 Kings 12:1), but there he was confronted by Jeroboam. Rehoboam chose bad counsel, responded poorly, and as a result, 10 of the 12 tribes were torn from his hand, as God had promised (1 Kings 11:31,35) — the kingdom was split in two. The southern kingdom, ruled by David’s descendants was known as Judah and the northern kingdom, ruled by a long line of ungodly kings, starting with Jeroboam, was known as Israel or Ephraim. The first capital of this northern kingdom was Shechem (1 Kings 12:25), but later it moved to a new city called Samaria (1 Kings 16:24,29). From that point on, Shechem became unimportant. In time the name Samaria at times was used to describe the northern kingdom.
Jeroboam feared that the people would return to Rehoboam when they went to Jerusalem to worship God, so he set up false gods for worship, one in Bethel (a little south of Shechem) and one in the far north in Dan (1 Kings 12:28-29). He chose his own priests and his own worship rituals, not as God had revealed through Moses. This began the false worship that the woman at the well identified as separating the Samaritans from the Jews. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:20)
In time, God brought judgment on the northern kingdom. Most of the people were carried away by the Assyrians, but some were left. They also brought in people from the other nations they had captured (2 Kings 17:24). The people intermarried and they mixed the worship of God with worship of the false gods of these other nations (2 Kings 17:41).
Later, God also punished the unfaithfulness of the southern kingdom and the Jews of Judah were carried away by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. But later after Persia conquered Babylon, Cyrus sent Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-3). The Samaritans tried to join with them (Ezra 4:1-2), but the Jewish leaders would not allow them to pollute the pure worship of God, and so the Samaritans did all they could to stop the restoration of the pure worship of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:4-5).
It is this enmity that caused the woman at the well to be astonished that Jesus would speak with her (John 4:9).
But Jesus quickly focused the discussion on what really matters — not the physical state of things, but rather the spiritual.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” … Jesus answered her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13-14)
The woman saw her sin, knew her need for a Savior, believed in Christ, and told her neighbors. Jesus led a great revival in that place.
From that city many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman, who testified, “He told me everything that I did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42)
The apostle Paul would later explain how, in Christ, the walls of this world that formerly separated us have been demolished when we trust in Christ and are reconciled by Him.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Hallelujah! Praise God!
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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.