“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour” (John 4:1-6).
When I was an adjunct professor at Grace College, I taught a class entitled Scripture & Interpretation. I covered the basics, with some 50 freshmen students, of the proper principles of interpreting the Scriptures. The class began at 8:00 a.m. For me, what a glorious way to begin the day. I’m not so sure my students felt the same. Most of them wanted to be sleeping in their dorm room. Several continued sleeping in the classroom.
Included in this course were four basic rules of not only knowing what the Bible says, but also what it means and how it may therefore be applied. The four basic rules, or more accurately questions, were: (1) What did the text mean to the biblical audience; (2) What are the differences between the biblical audience and us; (3) What theological principle(s) or truth is in the particular text; and (4) How is the particular text to be applied in believer’s lives today? With these principles in mind, let us begin examining John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with a woman at a well.
Regarding the first question of what did the text mean to the biblical audience, John 4 reveals the various levels of hatred and prejudice which existed in first century Israel. Let’s begin to unpack the text.
There was already a growing animosity by the religious leaders toward Jesus (John 2:18-22), along with Jesus’ reticence to reveal too much about himself to the people (John 2:23-25). There was also Nicodemas’ visit by night in John 3. One of the reasons he may have chosen that time of the day was because he did not want any of his fellow Pharisees to know he visited Jesus. This is why, with the growing animosity that Jesus decided to return to the friendlier region of Galilee (John 4:1-3).
However, John 4:4 says that “And he had to pass through Samaria.” What may appear to be a rather insignificant statement is instead revealing. For you see, aside from the growing hated towards Jesus, there also existed an historical hatred by the Jews towards the Samaritans. One commentary provides us with some valuable insight.
“In order to get to Galilee, Jesus and the disciples passed through Samaria, the region between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north (v. 4). Samaria had been part of the northern kingdom of Israel, which fell to the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC (2 Kings 17:7–41). Per Assyrian custom, the Assyrians took most of the Israelites away from their land and into exile, leaving only a few of them behind. Then, they resettled the northern kingdom with peoples from other lands that they had conquered. The Israelites who were left behind intermarried with these pagan peoples and adopted many of their religious practices.”
“By the first century AD, the Samaritans were a people of mixed Jewish-Gentile ancestry who followed a compromised form of the Old Testament religion. Consequently, first-century Jews considered them unclean. The Jews who interpreted the ceremonial purity laws in the strictest fashion viewed the region and its people as so defiling that they would take a circuitous route around Samaria as they traveled to Galilee instead of the straight road through the area. Jesus and the disciples, however, took the straight and shortest road through Samaria, resting in the town of Sychar at about the sixth hour, that is, noon (John 4:4–6).”
Why, you may ask, did Jesus decide to do this? It was providentially because Jesus would engage in a conversation with a woman as unlike the Jewish religious leader Nicodemas as you could find. Nicodemas was a man. The unnamed woman was a degraded woman. Nicodemas was respected. The woman, as we will see, was an outcast. Neither one had a thing in common. Except, their need for Jesus.
Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God the Father (John 14:1-6). It does not matter what social class position you presently possess. It does not matter how many friends you have or how much money and property you own. We are all beggars in need of God’s grace (Matthew 5:3).
Soli deo Gloria!