John 4 Jesus and Race part 1: The Samaritan Woman at the Well
Updated: May 22, 2019
John 4 is one of the most critical passages in the New Testament addressing race, and it is exposited superbly by Tony Evans in his 2011 book, Oneness Embraced. One page 60, he gives a good summary of the historical reasons that Jews and Samaritans disliked each other so profusely.
In 722 BC, the Jews living in the Northern Kingdom were taken captive by the
Assyrians. An interracial exchange followed. Some Jews were deported to
Assyria and some Assyrians were imported into the Northern Kingdom. The
Jews who remained did not entirely relinquish their true worship of God, despite
the introduction of Assyrian cults. Intermarriage, however, destroyed the purity
of the race, giving birth to a new ethnic group of people called Samaritans.
During the Persian period, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to
rebuild the temple and the walls. This attempt was resisted by the Samaritans,
who were now a mixed race of Assyrians and Israelites and did not want to see the
city of Jerusalem successfully rebuilt because of their racial hatred of the Jews
(Nehemiah 2:19; 4:1; 6:1-6). The Jews, meanwhile, desired to maintain the purity
of the Jewish race and thus would not allow the Samaritans to participate in the
rebuilding process (Nehemiah 2:10; 6:14). A feud developed that continued into
Christ’s day and served as the historical backdrop to the confrontation between
Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
Part 1 covers verses 3-30 where we find Jesus intentionally traveling through Samaria (vs 4) something few good Jews would do. All though it was longer, Jews traveling north would often go around Samaria--that’s how much the Jews hated the Samaritans. Jesus needed to go through Samaria because He needed to minister to the Samaritan woman. He met her at Jacob’s well--the well dug by the Patriarch Jacob who was Patriarch to both Jews and Samaritans. As Dr. Evans points out, Jesus met her at a place of commonality to facilitate his opportunity to reach her. John tells us in verse 6 that “Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour.” Jesus being fully God knew to meet the woman there and being fully man needed the rest and the water the site provided. The sixth hour was noon and so was indeed hot.
When the woman arrives, Jesus asks her for a drink--utterly unheard of. A Jewish Rabbi would never speak to a woman, and a Jew would never talk to a Samaritan which explains the woman's shock at Jesus request. She says in verse 9, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” But, this was Jesus initiating conversation with her while affirming her personhood and value. He was willing to drink from her cup, her unclean, Samaritan cup. Also, she clearly recognized Him as a Jew. Now that He has her attention, He offers her “living water.” Living water in this context could mean water that flowed as opposed to stagnant water (literal), but it could also mean salvation and eternal life (metaphorical). Clearly, the metaphorical meaning is implied by the text. That is the “gift of God” in verse 10. In verses 11 and 12, she debates Jesus, but in verses 13 and 14, He explains to her that the living water leads to everlasting life. Still not understanding, she then asks Him for a drink.
Knowing her greater need was spiritual, not physical, Jesus proceeds to shock her again. He asks her to bring her husband, and she admits she has no husband. Jesus then responds to her “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that, you spoke truly.” She then recognizes Him as a prophet. Interestingly, Samaritans recognized no prophet after Moses except the coming Messiah. She is not born again here but is clearly moving in that direction. In verses 21-24, Jesus preaches to her, and in verse 26, He proclaims Himself to be the Messiah. In verses 28 and 29 we read, “The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, ‘Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’” She has received the free gift of salvation by faith in Christ. Her phrasing this as a question reflected her position as an immoral woman to the men--she could not tell them; it was not her position to do so in that culture.
Two principles Dr. Evans pulls from this passage as it relates to building racial unity (what he calls oneness) are worth reviewing here. The first is that to reach this person from a different race and culture, Jesus found common ground. In this event, the common ground was actual ground--the area around Jacob’s well. The commonality was not just physical; it represented a shared past and provided a conversation starter. When reaching out to someone of another race and/or culture in North America, we have that. We live on the same continent and most likely the same country. We can find commonalities and shared experiences to help us build biblical oneness. The second principle is that Jesus did not allow culture to “interfere with His higher priority of representing God’s truth.” When the Samaritan woman wanted to debate Him in verses 19 and 20, Jesus flatly corrected her. Once God is in the conversation, His truth must take priority.
Next week, we will examine the remaining verses in this story and see what results when true oneness is achieved.