We are continuing through the Gospel storyline, still early in Jesus' prophetic career. At this point, we are in the book of John. Prior to this study, Jesus had a discussion with Nicodemus where He told him that he must be born again, and that Jesus is like the bronze serpent from the Old Testament. Then Jesus went for a walk, where, upon seeing Him, John the Baptist again proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah to one of his own disciples. Now, Jesus heads back to Galilee via Samaria, where Jesus meets a woman at a well.
It is important to know what Samaria is. Quickly, let us review the Biblical account. Jacob (who was renamed Israel by God) had 12 sons. These sons multiplied their families through generations into large tribes of Israelites.
In the process of taking over the Promised Land (which became known as Israel), the land got divided up by lot to each of the tribes except for the Levites, who lived in 48 towns scattered throughout all of the tribal lands. They were all one big nation until after King Solomon.
Soon after King Solomon died, a power struggle resulted in the northern tribes breaking off from the three southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon. The northern tribes retained the kingdom name of Israel, but also took on the name Samaria, which was the capitol city of that kingdom. Samaria broke off religiously too, instating pagan shrines.
The southern kingdom became known as the kingdom of Judah, also known as Judea, whose capitol city was the old capitol of the united Israel; Jerusalem.
When Is a Jew Not a Jew?
There are some passages in the Bible which are notable simply for their philosophical complexity. These cases spawn more questions than answers when their implications are pondered in detail. The shaky ground is not well suited for either believer or skeptic to claim a foothold with one hundred percent confidence. The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is just such a case.
We find the story of the Samaritan well woman in John 4:4-29, and the story continues on briefly after a short interlude in John 4:39-42. After running into John the Baptist again in Judea, Jesus makes His way back to Galilee where He stops near Sychar (Shechem), a city in Samaria and the site of Jacob's well. Jesus sends His disciples into town for supplies while He waits at the well.
A Samaritan woman stops by the well, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water. The Samaritan woman replies in John 4:9:
"You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" NIVFrom this response you can derive two things. First is that the Jews and the Samaritans were not generally friendly to one another. Second is that there was some other reason why Jesus should not be asking her for a favor: she was a woman. Why else would she have added “woman” in her reply?
Jesus, ever humble, replies to her in John 4:10 that if she knew who He was (how important He was), she would have asked Him for “living water.”
The Samaritan woman replies in John 4:11-12. She cannot believe that Jesus can draw any water because He has no equipment. Then she asks Him if He is greater than her ancestor Jacob, who originally owned the well.
OK, stop there for a moment. This Samaritan woman is related to Jacob, as in THE Jacob, as in the one to whom God made promises... promises about his offspring... his offspring being the Israelites... the Israelites with whom God made a covenant... as in God's chosen people... the Jews.
Stepping back a couple lines in the dialog, it seems rather strange that when the woman said “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan...” that Jesus did not feel the urge to correct her, to say something to the effect that “no, you are a Jew too, and God made a covenant with you through Jacob.” Instead, it seems as though Jesus believes that not all Jews are Jews, but let us continue on in the story for more insight.
(Note that some commentators suggest that this woman was not actually a descendant of Jacob. They cite 2 Kings 17 where the king of Assyria conquered Samaria, exiled the Israelites from Samaria, and replaced them with people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim. However, Assyrian records of the exile, archeological evidence of the region, and DNA evidence of the populous all suggest an incomplete exile, leaving Israelites still in Samaria.)
Cruising through John 4:13-18, Jesus tells the woman that He gives water for eternal life. The woman says she wants this living water. Jesus tells her to get her husband, as if He needed to deal with her husband instead. The woman says that she has no husband. Jesus says that indeed she is five-times divorced and living unwed with a man now.
Next Jesus and this woman have a brief and odd discussion about where and how to worship in John 4:19-24.
The woman recognizes that Jesus is special to know such things, so she calls him a prophet, and then oddly remarks that her forefathers worship on Mount Gerizim, but Jews worship in Jerusalem (John 4:19-20). It is odd because it would have been so plainly evident to them; roughly equivalent to saying that the United States is on the North American continent, while Argentina is on the South America continent.
Anyway, Jesus seizes the opportunity in John 4:21-24 to say that soon it will not matter where you worship God, because you will worship God in spirit and truth. Stuck in the middle of this passage is this odd verse in verse John 4:22:
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we [Jews] worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” NIVJesus gives us the impression that the Samaritans have a different religion, one where they do not know what they worship, but the Jews know God. Jesus goes on to exclude the Samaritans as if they were a foreign nation, saying that salvation is from the Jews. Jesus' attitude is probably consistent with the cultures at that time. However, His attitude is not consistent with God's attitude in the Old Testament.
In the Biblical record, the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) broke off from the Kingdom of Judah in 1 Kings 12. The Samaritans began idol worship immediately at that time, but God did not let them get away with it. God clearly considered the Samaritans under the Israelite covenant, and quite often punished them for their sins. You can tell that God still claims the Samaritans as Jews by how often He is angered by the sins the Samaritan leaders caused the Israelites to commit; as in 1 Kings 14:16, 1 Kings 15:26, 1 Kings 15:30, 1 Kings 15:34, 1 Kings 16:19, 1 Kings 16:26, 2 Kings 3:3, 2 Kings 10:29, 2 Kings 10:31, 2 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 13:6, 2 Kings 13:11, 2 Kings 14:24, 2 Kings 15:9, 2 Kings 15:18, 2 Kings 15:24, 2 Kings 15:28, and 2 Kings 17:21, not to mention all of the prophets and their prophesies pertaining to Samaria.
Back to the story at hand, the woman replies to Jesus that she knows that when the Messiah shows up, he will explain everything (John 4:25). Jesus then claims that He is the Messiah (John 4:26). So this woman is awaiting a Messiah from God, just like the Jews, and Jesus is the Messiah she was waiting for, but somehow according to Jesus she does not know what she worships? That just does not make sense.
In John 4:27-29, Jesus' disciples get back, and are surprised to see Jesus talking to a woman! (Note, they were not surprised that He was talking to a Samaritan, just that He was talking to a woman.) The woman leaves, goes into town, and tells everyone about Jesus.
Closing out the story, John 4:39-42 has Jesus stick around a couple days talking with the Samaritans. Because of this, many of them believed that Jesus was the “Savior of the world” they were expecting as the Messiah. Again, it is odd that these disowned, mystery-worshiping Samaritans somehow had the same vision of a Messiah as the Jews. Odd, if they were not Jews anyway.
In summary of this long and complicated study, it seems that there are four peculiar dynamics in the story of the Samaritan well woman if it is supposed to be true; the strained relationship between Samaritans and Jews, the customs of men talking to women, the Samaritans not knowing God and yet knowing Him and having the same prophesies, and the Samaritans being Jews and yet not being Jews. The former two dynamics can be explained as cultural mores of the era, and is even recorded in history. The latter two dynamics are sticking points because it simultaneously paints an image that the Samaritans know and worship God and yet they are not accepted by God and are no longer in His covenant relationship.
If we permit ourselves to consider if this is fiction, then these sticking point all gets easier to understand because inconsistencies in plots are nothing new to fiction. We can then observe the story as a whole as simply creative writing set to bolster and edify Jesus' image as the true Messiah. Plus, there is support to the theory that it is fiction within the story itself. After all, if Jesus' disciples had left Him by Jacob's well alone, who was there to record His conversation with the Samaritan woman?