1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 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 ESV
Chapter 3 featured Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, who was a well-respected member of the Pharisees, an extremely orthodox sect of Judaism. This learned man, who also happened to be a member of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin, was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, with special knowledge of the Mosaic Law. Yet, with all his knowledge and wisdom, he had been unable to comprehend the words of Jesus. In fact, Jesus exposed Nicodemus’ surprising lack of understanding when He somewhat sarcastically asked, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10 ESV).
Nicodemus prided himself in his knowledge of both the written and oral traditions of Israel. But he had been unable to understand what Jesus meant when He said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV). Nicodemus’ wisdom had proved insufficient because his mind was stuck on a horizontal plane, and incapable of comprehending the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words.
Now, John shifts the scene of the story as he describes Jesus’ departure from Judea to the northern region of Galilee. Jesus is vacating the confines of Jerusalem because the Pharisees have gotten wind of His growing popularity.
…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. – John 4:1-3 ESV
Jesus had come to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover, but He had found the temple of His Father being desecrated and profaned by those who were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation. Rather than encouraging the people to “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23 ESV), they had turned the house of God into “a house of trade” (John 2:16 ESV). They were using the God-ordained sacrificial system as a means for making money, rather than making atonement for the sins of the people.
So, John describes Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, as turning His back on the city of Jerusalem and heading for Galilee. But to get there, Jesus was going to have to journey through the region of Samaria. And this seemingly insignificant geographic detail is far more important that one might realize.
The seismic nature of the shift in location is easily overlooked by modern readers. But John’s original audience would have recognized the fascinating juxtaposition between chapters 3 and 4 that John was creating. To understand what is going on, you have to know the historic significance of Samaria and its inhabitants. The land of Samaria had originally belonged to the tribe of Ephraim and the half-tribe of Manasseh. It had been part of the land of Canaan that God had promised as an inheritance to the nation of Israel. After God had divided the nation in two, due to the sins of Solomon, Samaria had become part of the northern kingdom of Israel. But when the people of Israel had continued to rebel against God and had refused His repeated calls to repent, He had brought the Assyrians against them as punishment for their sin. The book of 2 Kings describes what happened as a result.
The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. But since these foreign settlers did not worship the Lord when they first arrived, the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.
So a message was sent to the king of Assyria: “The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.”
The king of Assyria then commanded, “Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria returned to Bethel and taught the new residents how to worship the Lord.
But these various groups of foreigners also continued to worship their own gods. In town after town where they lived, they placed their idols at the pagan shrines that the people of Samaria had built. – 2 Kings 17:24-29 NLT
These foreigners ended up intermarrying with the Jews who had been left in the land. And 2 Kings describes how these “Samaritans” practiced a syncretistic brand of religion that combined the worship of Yahweh with the worship of false gods.
These new residents worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed from among themselves all sorts of people as priests to offer sacrifices at their places of worship. And though they worshiped the Lord, they continued to follow their own gods according to the religious customs of the nations from which they came. – 2 Kings 17:32-33 NLT
To the Pharisees and other orthodox religious groups in Israel, the Samaritans were considered “half-breeds” who had refused to maintain the purity of the nation’s bloodline. Not only that, but they were also guilty of idolatry and, therefore, in violation of the Mosaic Law. And to make matters worse, they had established their own place of worship on Mount Gerazim, refusing to recognize the temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God. And much to the chagrin of the Pharisees, the Samaritans rejected all the writings of the prophets and the Jewish oral traditions, which the Pharisees held near and dear.
So, when John describes Jesus as having “to pass through Samaria,” there is an intentional tension in his words. It was impossible for Jesus to travel from Judea to Galilee without having to make his way through this land occupied by “half-breeds” and heretics. And any self-respecting, God-honoring Jew would pass through this region as quickly as possible, making certain to avoid any interaction with the inhabitants. To the Jews, the Samaritans were considered unclean and of no more value than a dog. They were to be avoided at all costs.
All of these details are essential if one is to understand the significance of all that John is about to describe. Jesus’ transition from Jerusalem to Galilee takes on a special significance because He must pass through the region of Samaria. And the intense animosity between the Jews and Samaritans would have been well-documents and fully understood in John’s day. A contemporary reader of John’s gospel would have expected Jesus and His entourage to expedite their passage through Samaria, spending as little time in the region as was physically possible.
But John describes Jesus as arriving at the town of Sychar, located in the heart of Samaria, at about Noon. The inference is that Jesus has only a few hours left before darkness falls, so He should have been in a hurry to complete His journey to Galilee. But instead, He decides to take an unscheduled and highly unrecommended rest stop at the base of Mount Gerazim, where the Samaritans practiced their syncretistic brand of religion.
Again, the details are critical to understanding what follows. Sychar, also known as Shechem, was located in the valley between Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal, and this spot held a special significance for the Jewish people. It was there, during the initial conquest of the land of Canann, that Joshua had instructed the people to build an altar to the Lord, to recommit themselves to the covenant, and to give thanks for their recent victories over Jericho and Ai.
Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal. He followed the commands that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of Instruction: “Make me an altar from stones that are uncut and have not been shaped with iron tools.” Then on the altar they presented burnt offerings and peace offerings to the Lord. And as the Israelites watched, Joshua copied onto the stones of the altar the instructions Moses had given them.
Then all the Israelites—foreigners and native-born alike—along with the elders, officers, and judges, were divided into two groups. One group stood in front of Mount Gerizim, the other in front of Mount Ebal. Each group faced the other, and between them stood the Levitical priests carrying the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant. This was all done according to the commands that Moses, the servant of the Lord, had previously given for blessing the people of Israel.
Joshua then read to them all the blessings and curses Moses had written in the Book of Instruction. – Joshua 8:30-34 NLT
Notice the reference to “all the Israelites – foreigners and native-born alike.” Here, centuries later, the Messiah of Israel was making His way to this very same spot, accompanied by native-born Jews, and He would encounter a woman who was considered a foreigner and a violator of the covenant of Israel. But the message Jesus had to share with her would be similar to that which He had shared with Nicodemus, a native-born Jew, a Pharisee, and a so-called keeper of the law.
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New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
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