By the time Jesus came along, the Samaritans had lived in the land for more than 700 years. They developed their own narrative of the region’s history and considered themselves the true Israel and rightful heirs of the land, claiming descent from Ephraim and Manasseh. The temple in Jerusalem was considered an apostate shrine and its worship blasphemous to God. During the time of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built an alternative temple on their holy mountain of Mt. Gerizim—the biblical “Mountain of Blessing” overlooking Shechem.
Meantime, the Jews did not recognize the Samaritans as part of their people and would not allow them to enter the temple in Jerusalem. Yet when Jesus was a child, around 6-9 A.D., Samaritans reportedly forced their way into the temple during Passover and desecrated it by throwing bones into the sanctuary. Indeed, for centuries it was a relationship characterised by tension and disdain. Jewish writings from 200 B.C. called Samaritans “the foolish people.”
Thus, during the time of Jesus, both Jews and Samaritans refused to mingle (John 4:9). Jewish pilgrims who were on their way to worship in Jerusalem were harassed (Luke 9:51-55). The Jewish historian Josephus reports that in 52 A.D., Samaritans even massacred a group of Jews making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For Jews, the name Samaritan became a curse word (John 8:48). Even the disciples of Jesus were not fond of the Samaritans and were anxious to call down fire on their heads (Luke 9:54).
Jesus Crosses the Border
Amid this hostile, complex relationship, Jesus sets a refreshingly different tone toward the Samaritan populace. The Gospels surprisingly record that Jesus healed them (Luke 17:15-16) and reached out to them individually and as a community (John 4). In fact, Jesus rarely shared such deep thoughts on worship, his own Messianic identity and the Spirit of God as He did with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The encounter eventually led to revival in the entire village, and it was there that Jesus spoke about the fields being white for harvest (John 4:35ff).
Then there is the legendary parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Surely, it was offensive to Jewish listeners when Jesus described the Samaritan and not the Jewish priests as being the true neighbour to the man in need.
Thus, Jesus would not allow Himself to be drawn into the negative stereotypes of His time. When His disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village for not allowing their master to pass, Jesus rebuked them harshly, saying, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56).
So Jesus did not consider the Samaritans as enemies, but reached out to them with compassion and love. He healed them, ministered to them, used them as examples to His Jewish brethren and even envisioned them as part of the harvest.
Jesus and the Samaritan Narrative
Still, while Jesus may have displayed an unusually kind attitude toward the Samaritans, He did not buy into their version of history. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers, the only one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan, to which Jesus replied, “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18).
Jesus had reached out to the man with compassion and healing yet still considered him a “foreigner.” The Greek word used here is allogenes, and it is used in the Septuagint translation to mean the “stranger” who dwelt within the land. This person would have many rights and privileges but would still be excluded from the covenant promises and privileges of Israel. It was the same Greek word used in the inscription around the temple courts, allowing access only to Jews but not to allogenes—foreigners.
So Jesus reached out to the Samaritan people but also maintained a clear distinction between them and the Jews. He once instructed His disciples not to “enter a city of the Samaritans” (Matt. 10:5), but to focus rather on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 6).
Finally, when Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well, she confronted Him with her people’s own narrative, saying, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (John 4:20).
In other words, she wanted to know whose narrative was correct. And Jesus answered, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23).
Jesus portends that a new era in salvation history was soon coming when the place of worship would become secondary and each believer would become a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus did not conclude that Jewish tradition would become irrelevant. On the contrary, He strongly challenged the Samaritan belief system, saying, “You worship what you do not know.” At the same time, He identified Himself with Jewish tradition in a manner rarely found in the Gospels, saying, “We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.”
In a way, Jesus underscores with the Samaritan woman what He also stated to the healed leper—that they were foreigners to the covenants of God with Israel. The only way for them to become truly part of the household of God would be through the covenants and revelation given to the Jewish nation.
Note that Jesus did not say salvation is received by becoming Jewish, but rather that the woman should reconsider her theological and personal attitude toward the Jews. Decades later, the apostle Paul would make the same point: “What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2; see also Rom. 9:4-5).
Jesus thus affirms to the Samaritan woman the ancient Abrahamic calling of Israel, that through them “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This covenant relationship with Abraham’s natural descendants remains even if they reject Jesus as their Messiah (Rom. 11:28).
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