The antipathy between Jews and Samaritans was so strong that the most zealous Jews would take an alternate route around Samaria if traveling between Judea and Galilee. When Jewish children in Jesus’ day would ask their parents, “Why don’t we save time and walk through Samaria?” their parents might have responded with something like “That’s not what our people do” or “It’s best just to leave the Samaritans alone” or “They’re not like us.” Maybe they perpetuated far-worse falsehoods. After all, some Jews traced the Samaritans’ origins back to Shechem, the man who raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah in Genesis 34. Some Jews also gave the Samaritan city of Shechem the epithet of “City of the Senseless.”
All of this serves as the backdrop of John 4 where we’re told Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” (v. 4). Even with the necessity in mind, Jesus’ disciples would have expected their party to stay to themselves and pass through Samaria as quickly as possible. Jesus, however, had other plans. He stopped. He was tired from traveling and needed a drink of water. So Jesus approaches a woman at a well and asks her for a drink. Stunned, the woman asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” In case the reader is not familiar with the sentiments of the day, John 4:9 states, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Jesus’ request is even more shocking in that it involves the transfer of a drink of water. According to the Jewish religious traditions of Jesus’ day, receiving a drink from an unclean Samaritan would make the recipient unclean as well. This would exclude the person for a time from observing certain religious ceremonies and make one an outcast among Jewish brethren.
Upon seeing the interaction between Jesus and the woman, his disciples were also aghast (John 4:27). They thought to themselves things like, “Why is he raising a ruckus?” and “Why doesn’t he leave ‘well enough’ alone?” Such challenges didn’t concern Jesus, and he certainly was never swayed by the prevailing thinking of his day. Instead he demonstrated the depth of agape love, tore down walls of discrimination, and demanded of his disciples, “Follow me.” Follow Jesus they did into the villages of the Samaria in Acts 8, declaring the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection. In doing so, they brought together two peoples who had unnecessarily hated one another for centuries.
We who are disciples of Jesus must ask ourselves if we’re willing to follow him into the Samarias of today. Do we speak out against prejudice and racism when it is easier to be silent? Do we serve as ministers of reconciliation when it is easier to disappear? Do we sacrificially and counter-culturally love those we were once taught to avoid, look down upon, or even hate? Yes, it is easier to maintain life as it is. But Jesus never called us to that which is easy (Matthew 7:13-14).
Jesus said “the way is hard that leads to life.” He traveled the hard way through the roads of Samaria into the streets of Jerusalem and up to the cross of Calvary. His hard way led to eternal life for all of us. And one day we will see “a great multitude that no one [can] number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).