After He raised a ruckus in the temple at Jerusalem and then drew record crowds to big baptism services, things got a bit dicey for Jesus down in Judea, so he decided to make Himself scarce.
Jesus headed back toward Galilee, probably back to Capernaum, where he usually made his home-base while in that region. There were two ways to go: the direct route, which would take them through Samaria, or the long way, which involved crossing the Jordan River twice and travelling through the region of Perea. The direct route was 85 miles, and the long way was…well, even longer. Jesus chose the direct route.
To know why one’s route was even a question, you need to know the Jews hated the Samaritans and vice-versa. It was the kind of hatred reserved for that family member who betrays you, your mamma, and your family honor…the kind of blood-feud like the Hatfields and McCoys. In the eyes of the Jewish people, Samaritans already had three strikes against them.
Strike 1: They seceded from the nation (1 Kings 11-12). This was both political and personal. Shortly after Solomon’s death, ten of the tribes of Judah followed Jeroboam, son of Nebat, instead of Rehoboam, son of Solomon. Jeroboam had been one of Solomon’s officials. Thus, they rejected the hereditary line of King David, and “only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David” (1 Kings 12:20). The Levites didn’t own land, so they weren’t counted in this division. In rejecting David, the ten tribes also rejected their family ties and shared history. Imagine if all your cousins said they didn’t want to be part of your extended family anymore, leaving you and your siblings alone against the world. Ancient history, right? But it was still a sore spot for Jews.
Strike 2: They didn’t worship in the proper place. Jeroboam, afraid the people would rejoin Rehoboam if they kept returning to Jerusalem for feast days, set up high places for worship at Bethel and Dan. At some later point, the Samaritans also began worshipping on Mount Gerezim, which is a logical choice. Mt. Gerezim, along with Mt. Ebal, is where the Hebrew people stood to pronounce blessings and curses when they originally entered the promised land (Deuteronomy 11:29, Joshua 8:33). Still, the temple at Jerusalem was supposed to be the exclusive seat of worship for those who followed Yahweh. From the Jewish perspective, the Samaritans had corrupted the clear regulations of their religion.
Strike 3: Their bloodlines and faith were tainted by outside influences. Israel (the northern kingdom, consisting of those ten tribes who seceded) and Judah (the southern kingdom and the lone tribe still faithful to the line of David) went into exile at different times. In the region of Israel, the conquerors left a few poor farmers to take care of the land when most of the people were deported. Consequently, foreigners moved into the area and intermarried with the few remaining Israelites, introducing other gods, religious practices, and everyday habits that were unacceptable—if not repugnant—under Mosaic law. By the time we get to Jesus’ appearance on earth, the Samaritans were monotheistic again, but their history was suspect. (In Potter-ese, they were “mud bloods.”)
What I want you to see here is that the dislike and distrust between Jews and Samaritans went far deeper than the UNC/Duke or Barcelona/Real Madrid rivalries and lasted longer than the Packers/Bears rivalry has. (Random free endorsement: Fascinated by sports rivalries? Check out Love Thy Rival, by Chad Gibbs.) Jesus and his disciples weren’t in any extra physical danger (unlike some sport rivalries!), but they faced huge social and religious pressures, as we will see next.
While the Roman Empire already had indoor plumbing in Jesus’ time, it would be hundreds of years before backwater places like Samaria saw the first water pipe. (Some places in the world still don’t have running water in their homes. Have you thought to thank God for your hot water faucet or your toilet recently?) Consequently, daily trips to the nearest well were a necessity of life.
For people who lived in the town of Sychar, in Samaria, that well was nearly a mile away. It was a special well near the field Jacob bought (back in Genesis 33) and where Joseph was buried (Joshua 24:32). Nevertheless, that’s a long way to walk every day, especially the return trip with a big jug full of water!
Carrying water was usually women’s work, and the women would head out early each morning, while it was still cool, and/or in the evening when the sun wasn’t beating on their faces and shoulders. Now this is where the story gets personal. One woman chose to visit the well at the hottest, driest part of the day, when most people were eating lunch or taking a little siesta (John 4:6-7). Why?
Well, it seems that peer pressure and bullying were already present in those days. We learn later in the story that our heroine (because she does become the secondary hero of this story, after Jesus) had been married five times and was now living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. That’s a lot of husbands regardless of your religion! So one of two things was going on here:
- She was unwelcome. The other women bullied her so badly that she avoided them.
- She was uncomfortable. Ashamed of her past and hating how people talked about her, she didn’t want to show her face among “decent women.”
We don’t know if she was divorced or widowed those five times. If divorced, then she was a terrible wife. If widowed, then she was unlucky, if not cursed. Maybe it was a combination of the two. Regardless, living with a man out of wedlock made her situation and reputation far worse.
After her long, hot, dusty walk, I think she was surprised to see someone sitting by the well. I wonder what she thought as she approached. Modern day comparison: Imagine you’re at work, and you sneak out to the break room, which should be empty at this time of day. To your surprise, there’s a stranger hanging out by the Coke machine. What would you think or say? I would think he was some kind of creep. Then, as you reach to put your quarters in the machine, he asks you to buy him a Sprite! The nerve! You’re too polite to say ‘no,’ so you hand him a Sprite, at which point he sits down and starts talking to you…and not just about the weather. Surely, this woman at the well was at least a little suspicious of Jesus, maybe even afraid.
Add to her apprehension the cultural conditions of her time. No one would think it weird or wrong for you to have a conversation in the break room with a man you didn’t know (except maybe your boss because you’re supposed to be working), but in her very conservative culture, it was poor form for a man to talk to a woman to whom he wasn’t related, and if she responded, she was very forward. (In strict Muslim countries, this is still true today.) On Jesus’ side, He initiated a conversation with a woman who had a bad reputation. How did that make him look? Some people probably thought he was asking for a date.
Don’t get all up-tight on me here. I’m just telling you how it may have looked. You and I both know that wasn’t Jesus’ agenda. But just think of the risk he was taking—and asking her to take—simply by having a conversation!
There’s more. Her water jug wasn’t ceremonially clean, according to Jewish laws. When he drank from it, he made himself unclean. The food brought back by the disciples wasn’t kosher either. “Good” Jews wouldn’t touch a Samaritan or anything belonging to him/her. They wouldn’t dream of eating in their homes or sleeping under their roofs! Jesus and his disciples stayed here for two whole days, which “meant eating Samaritan food, dwelling in Samaritan dwellings and continuing to teach Samaritans, all of which would be offensive to most Jews” (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on John 4:40).
Finally, you can visit that same well today! (At least people think it’s the same well.) They’ve built a church around it, so it doesn’t look like it did back then, but here’s a picture (sorry it’s so big).
Now that we have everything set up and you understand the situation a little better, come back next week to dig into Jesus’ conversation with this unnamed but famous woman.
Note: Unless otherwise hyperlinked, this information comes from my memory/previous study/logical thought or from the notes and articles in my NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. I’m loving that book!
Learn anything new? How does your knowledge of the context impact your understanding of this story? I ask because it’s #NotAboutMe spouting off a bunch of facts but about you grasping a more thorough understanding of the Bible! Let me know in the comments below.