The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of the most beloved stories in the gospels, and the Samaritan woman, herself has become a treasured figure of faith and devotion in several Christian traditions throughout the world. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, she is called Saint Photine or Photini, and is regarded as equal to the apostles. Their tradition says that after her meeting with Jesus she continued to make disciples for Jesus and was eventually martyred at Carthage. The Roman Catholic Church calls her Saint Photina and asserts that she was martyred at Rome after convincing Emperor Nero’s daughter to become a follower of Jesus. In the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox traditions, she is called Svetlana, which means “shining one” or “luminescent one.” In Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico she is called La Samaratina, and on her feast day, which they celebrate on the fourth Sunday in Lent, churches, schools and businesses give sweet fruit drinks or sweetly flavored water to people passing by on the street in memory of the drink of water she gave to Jesus and the living water he became for her.
As beloved as this story is, though, it begins with something of a mystery: Why did Jesus suddenly decide to leave the Judean countryside to return to Galilee? And why did he go through Samaria?
At the beginning of chapter four we read that when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was attracting and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptist, Jesus suddenly decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee. You get the sense that he is worried that he and his disciples are suddenly a little too prominent on the Pharisees’ radar. Some think that this was about the time when Herod had had John the Baptist arrested—the Gospel of John isn’t clear about that—and Jesus may have thought he would be next. For whatever reason, Jesus decided rather abruptly to withdraw to his home base in Galilee.
“He left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” That’s how it reads in the NRSV. There is an implication in the Greek text that for some reason it was necessary for him to go through Samaria, that something compelled him to go that way. It adds to the feeling that he was under some kind of pressure, but we’re not told what that was.
Going through Samaria was the shortest and most direct route to Galilee from Judea, but most Jews avoided taking that road if at all possible, preferring instead to take the long way around Samaria through Perea, the region that’s often referred to in the gospels as “beyond the Jordan.”
Perea was a Jewish territory with a fairly significant Roman presence. The road through Perea was heavily patrolled and more travelled, so even though it was a much longer route, it was usually considered a safer way to go. But the primary advantage of this route for most Jews was that you did not have to go through Samaria. Instead, you skirted along the eastern side of it. Which was good. Because no decent Jew wanted to go through Samaria or deal with Samaritans if it was at all possible to avoid it.
Jews hated Samaritans. And Samaritans hated Jews. Their feud had been going on for more than 900 years when Jesus decided to take the Samaritan road to Galilee. It had all started with the death of King Solomon. Jeroboam led the northern territories of Israel in a revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. The end result of the brief civil war was that the kingdom which had been united under David and Solomon became two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
Two hundred years later, the Assyrians attacked Israel and Judah refused to come their aid. The Assyrians quickly conquered the northern kingdom and renamed it Samaria after the region’s capital city. The Assyrians took many of the Israelites into captivity, divided them into small groups, then exported them to resettle other conquered areas. At the same time, they brought in conquered peoples from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim to resettle the territory of Israel. That is why the Jews of Judah sometimes called Samaritans “the people with 5 fathers.” It was a kind of racial slur. You can read all about it in 2 Kings 17.
Two centuries and two empires later, when the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah in 538 BCE, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back, but the Jews despised the Samaritans for their lack of ethnic purity. Remember that racial slur about the 5 fathers?
The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple, but the Judean leaders rejected their help because they weren’t “pure” enough. You can read about that in Ezra 4. That rejection turned a potential reunification into bitter political opposition and outright hostility. As a response to the rejection of their help in building the Jerusalem temple, Sanballat, the Persian-appointed governor of Samaria, decided to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim. And that’s when the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans became the unbridgeable Grand Canyon of feuds.
When Alexander the Great conquered all of Palestine, relations between Jews and Samaritans continued to deteriorate. The Samaritans tended to cooperate with their Greek overlords while the Jews tended to resist them. Then in 108 BCE, when the Jews had finally won their independence in the Maccabean revolt, John Hyrcanus, the high priest and new ruler of the Jews, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and ravaged Samaria as a punishment for having allied themselves with the Seleucid Greek rulers.
The Jews and Samaritans were not just separated by politics and racism, though, but also by religion, even though they both claimed to worship YHWH. The Jews of Judah continued to insist that sacrifices could only be offered in the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had never really accepted that idea even in the time of Solomon. During their history they had had altars at Shechem, Bethel, Shiloh and other places but they regarded Mt. Gerizim as the holiest site. The Samaritans had their own version of Torah that differed in several places from the Jews’ version. The Samaritans had their own version of Messiah, whom they call the Taheb, the restorer, a prophet who will carry the staff of Moses as a sign of his authority. They believed that the Taheb will come from the tribe of Joseph. The Jews, on the other hand, believed that Messiah would come from the tribe of Benjamin and the line of David.
Even under the iron fist and enforced peace of the Romans, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans continued. As an example of revenge being served cold, around the time of the birth of Jesus, a band of Samaritans profaned the Jerusalem temple by scattering human bones across the floor of the sanctuary.
All of that history and animosity is in the background when Jesus sits down at Jacob’s well in the middle of a hot afternoon.
When Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water at Jacob’s Well he is crossing just about every line imaginable in their world, lines of sexism, racism, political hostility and historical animosity. That’s why she responds to him with some surprise and asks, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman for water to drink?” The NRSV then adds in parentheses, “For Jews have nothing in common with Samaritans.” That translation is a monument to understatement. The translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message may not be as accurate, but it captures the feeling a lot better when it says, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.”
Jews wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans, and Samaritans would be caught dead talking to Jews. Men wouldn’t be caught dead talking to unaccompanied women, and an unaccompanied woman wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a man. But there they are, both of them crossing the lines. And talking to each other.
“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am,” said Jesus, “you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you living water.” It sounds almost like flirting.
“Okay, Mister,” she says, playing along, “but this well is deep and you don’t have a bucket, so where does this ‘living water’ come from? Are you better than our ancestor, Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it and watered his cattle from and handed it down to us?”
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” said Jesus. “Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will be a spring within, a gushing fountain of endless life.”
Blaise Pascal said that there is a God-shaped hole in every human heart, an emptiness that only God can fill, a thirst that only the Spirit can quench. Whether we know how to name it or not, there is a yearning for the living water of Christ in the arid wells of our souls, a cistern waiting to be filled by the love and life of God.
Jesus and Photina talked some more about her living situation. Jesus knew all about her and told her the facts of her life but he didn’t judge her. He just continued to talk with her and in the midst of their conversation she realized that he was a prophet. So she asked him the big question, the question that had separated Jews from Samaritans for hundreds of years.
“I see you’re a prophet!” she said. “So tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”
“Believe me, woman,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when that won’t matter. You will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews. But the time is coming—it has already come—when genuine worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. That’s the kind of people the God is seeking. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”
I think of Jesus saying this every time I hear someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know. What matters in the end is that we are connecting with God and with each other in spirit and pursuing truth.
When the disciples came back they were shocked to see him talking to this Samaritan woman because he was crossing all the lines and breaking all the rules. For her part, the woman ran back to her village and invited all her neighbors to come hear Jesus and talk with him. She wanted them to meet the prophet who knew everything about her but didn’t judge her, the man who was willing to cross all the lines and break all the rules for a conversation, the man told her that God doesn’t care which mountain you’re praying on as long as you’re putting your true heart and your true spirit into your prayer.
It’s easy to fall into the rhythms of old beliefs and assumptions. It’s easy to get stuck in old, unexamined patterns of hatred and antagonism. In our world today we have all kinds of ways to separate ourselves from each other. We have no shortage of isms that draw hard lines and build daunting barriers between us. We have religious commitments that keep us looking at each other with suspicion. We have all kinds of political commitments that keep us glaring at each other as opponents. But in the end, the only way we’re ever going to move forward is to cross all the lines and have a conversation. That’s the only way we’re ever going to get anywhere.
Jesus took the road through Samaria. He walked right past the old wounds of politics and racism and religious separatism and sexism to sit down beside an ancient well where he and the Samaritan woman could drink deeply from the sweet water of respect and conversation.
And the end of the story is the best part. At the end of the story, the Samaritans of that village, the ancient enemies of his people, asked him to stay so they could talk some more. In spirit. And truth.