Just before sunrise at Passover each year, a group of men and boys dressed in white robes and maroon hats climb a hill in the West Bank to pray and sacrifice sheep. They are Samaritans, and the hill is Mount Gerizim, just south of Nablus. Not far from this mountain, a tired Jewish rabbi sat down many years ago around noon. A woman from a nearby village stopped to draw water. Their conversation and its aftermath are the primary events of John 4.
The Lord’s encounter with “the woman at the well” can teach contemporary Christians important lessons about worship, eternal life, interfaith witness and the Incarnation, but another more significant point is central to this story. Jews and Samaritans had a hostility toward one another that lasted for generations (John 4:9). Although they had similar beliefs about God and the Scripture, the Samaritans’ version of Scripture had key differences, and they believed that Mount Gerizim was the mountain God had chosen for His temple instead of Jerusalem (see John 4:20). John Hyrcanus, a Jewish leader, had destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim a few generations before Jesus’ conversation.
John says that “it was necessary” for Jesus to go through Samaria (4:4). Samaria was a region in-between the two Jewish areas of Galilee and Judea. To go to the temple, Jews from Galilee could travel through Samaria, but they often traveled a different route to avoid Samaritans, since traveling through Samaria could be dangerous. A few years after John 4, Samaritans massacred a caravan of Galileans going through Samaria. The “necessity” of Jesus going through Samaria was to do His Father’s will and to reap a harvest (4:34-35).
Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans. Many Jews considered it impolite, moreover, for a Jewish man to speak to a woman in public (even a wife!). This Samaritan woman was coming in the middle of the day instead of the morning with the other women, and she had been with at least six men. All these reasons would have kept Jewish men silent in the presence of this woman, yet Jesus started a conversation. What made matters worse is that He was asking to drink out of her vessels — an act many Jews would have considered unclean.
In one of His first “I am” statements in this Gospel, Jesus tells her that He is the Messiah they had been waiting for. The woman is so startled that she leaves her pots at the well to tell the people in the village about this Jewish stranger who surely couldn’t be the Messiah … could He? The whole village believes; they confess that He is indeed “the Savior of the world” (4:42).
This event is central to the message of John. Jesus comes to Jerusalem numerous times in this Gospel, and they reject him. “His own received him not” (1:11). The coming of Jesus changes the lines that divide people. Ethnicity and background fade into the distance. What matters more than anything else — both then and now — is how one responds to the word of the Word (4:41). John is telling us that Jesus had — and has — the power to bring Jews and Samaritans together, but it is only through believing in Him that these walls can be torn down. To all who are thirsty, John says to come and see (4:29).