Samaritans, and Jesus’s living water.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 May

A bit about the woman Jesus met at the well, and her people.

John 4.1-15.

To give you a better sense of how the ancient Judeans felt about Samaritans, you gotta think about how the average Evangelical in the United States feels… about Muslims.

Yeah, there y’go. Distrust. Uncertainty. Fear. The assumption that because some terrorists claim to be Muslim, all Muslims are terrorist. The assumption that because Muslims in various countries live under strict interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, they wanna implement those customs in this country, and inflict their commands upon us. (Never mind the fact a number of Christians wouldn’t mind inflicting our strict interpretations of the Old Testament upon everyone as well.)

Samaritans had a similar reputation in ancient Judea. The Judeans figured they were right, and Samaritans wrong. Really wrong. Dangerously wrong. They considered them pagans and foreigners, and had nothing to do with them.

And Samaritans believe (yeah, they still exist) precisely the same thing right back at Judeans then, and Jews today. They consider themselves the real descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the real successors and keepers of Moses’s teachings, the real servants of God. The Pharisees and Jews were the heretics, who’d added all these extra books to the bible (the books from Joshua to Chronicles—or in Christian book-order, from Joshua to Malachi) and a whole bunch of rabbinical loopholes which the Samaritans found offensive. Worse, they had all this wealth and political power—and heretics with power is frightening, innit?

Oh, there are parallels aplenty between Judeans and Samaritans then, and Christians and Muslims today. And let’s not forget the hate crimes: Some Judean would get a little political power, and decide to go into Samaria and slaughter a bunch of Samaritans. Some Samaritan would get vengeful and attack Judeans as they traveled through Samaritan territory. Not for cause; solely because they were different from one another, and had old grudges. By Jesus’s day this sort of behavior had been going on for the past 400 years. Like the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but without explosions.

Gotta remember that animosity, fear, and rage they had towards one another, whenever we read about Jesus visiting Samaria.

John 4.1-9 KWL
1 Once Jesus knew the Pharisees heard, “Jesus has many students and baptizes, like John”—
2 though Jesus himself wasn’t baptizing; his students were
3 he left Judea behind and went to the Galilee again.
4 He needed to pass through Samaria.
5 Hence he came a Samaritan town called Sykhár,
near the field Jacob gave his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s Well is there.
Jesus, tired from walking the road, was sitting there by the well the sixth hour after sunrise.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water.
Jesus told her, “Give me a drink,”
8 for his students had gone into town so they could buy food.
9 The Samaritan woman told him, “How can you be near me, Judean? I’m a Samaritan woman.
You ask me for a drink?—Judeans have no use for Samaritans.”

Many translations have “Judeans have no use for Samaritans” as the author’s commentary on the situation, not something the Samaritan said. The KJV puts it “no dealings with Samaritans,” but I rendered synhróntai/“make use of” more literally.

Obviously this woman didn’t recognize Jesus’s Galilean accent, and assumed he was Judean. Not that Samaritans and Galileans got along any better. But as we already know about Jesus, he did have use for Samaritans; he came to save everybody. Jn 3.16-17 Samaritans included. Jesus doesn’t do racism.

And as a result of Jesus’s attitude, Christians have a very different view of Samaritans. Thanks to Jesus’s story of the “good Samaritan,” Lk 10.25-37 we Christians tend to think of anyone who does good deeds for strangers as a “Samaritan”—and they’re all good. (Heck, I myself was born at Good Samaritan Hospital.) Thanks to this story in John, and how receptive the Samaritans were to the evangelist Philip, Ac 8.4-25 we feel no cultural animosity towards the label “Samaritan.” We sure do towards “Pharisee,” though.

Samaritan history.

Where’d Samaritans come from? If you remember your Old Testament, the tribes of Israel split in the 9th century BC between north and south. Southern Israel’s capital was Jerusalem, and northern Israel’s was Šomrón/“Samaria.” After two centuries of pagan or apostate kings, God let Sargon of Assyria conquer Samaria in 722BC. The Assyrians carried off the people of the major cities into exile, then repopulated them with people Assyria had conquered from Iraq and Syria. Not, complained the writer of Kings, for the better.

2 Kings 17.24-34 KWL
24 Assyria’s king brought people from Babylon, Kutha, Imma, Hama, and Sippara.
He set them in the Samarian cities, instead of Israel’s sons.
They possessed Samaria, and lived in its cities.
25 At first, when they lived there, they didn’t fear the LORD.
The LORD sent them lions, which were killing them.
26 They told Assyria’s king, “The gentiles you exiled to live in the Samarian cities
don’t know the laws of the land’s god.
This god sent lions to kill those who don’t know the laws of the land’s god.”
27 Assyria’s king said, “Send one of the priests you exiled from there.
He’ll go live there, and show them the land’s god’s laws.”
28 One of the priests exiled from Samaria came to live in Beth El.
He was teaching them how to fear the LORD,
29 but each gentile made their old gods, to house in the shrines the new Samarians made,
each gentile in the cities where they lived.
30 Those from Babylon made Benót of Sukkot.
Those from Kutha made Nergal.
Those from Imma made Ashima.
31 Those from Hama made Nivkhaz and Tartaq.
Those from Sippara burned their children in fire to Sippara’s gods, King Adram and King Anam.
32 They feared the LORD: They made their leaders shrine-priests,
who served them in shrine-houses, 33 and feared the LORD
and also served their old gods,
and served the laws of the nations they were exiled from.
34 To this day they follow their old laws. They don’t really fear the LORD.
No one follows his orders nor laws,
the commands the LORD commanded the sons of Israel, whom he renamed Israel.

Bear in mind the “priests you exiled from there” 2Ki 17.27 had gone wrong centuries before, after King Jeroboam ben Nevat had established two shrines to the LORD in Dan and Beth El. Despite God’s command against making images to worship, Ex 20.4-6 Jeroboam’s shrines represented the LORD with gold calves. 1Ki 12.28-30 None of the Samarian kings had corrected this error, which is why the writer of Kings considered none of these kings any good.

Basically the Samaritans were just the same as the Samarians before them: They worshiped God wrong, and worshiped all their other pagan gods alongside him. The only reason they bothered with the LORD was ’cause they didn’t wanna get killed by his lions. But they didn’t love him, and had no relationship with him.

Various Christians describe Samaritans as “half-breed Jews.” That’s partly true. Though the Assyrians took away Samaria’s city-dwellers, they largely left behind everyone else. Many of those Samarians migrated to Judah. And many stayed—and intermarried with the Iraqis and Syrians. That’s what happened to the “10 lost tribes of Israel”: They’re not lost. There’s just fewer of ’em.

Judah didn’t seem to have much problem with the Samaritans till they returned from exile. When the Babylonian Jews tried to rebuild Jerusalem, they quickly got pushback from the Samaritans. By this time, the Samaritans had lived there for three centuries, got settled in, considered themselves native… and suddenly a bunch of Babylonians moved in and acted like they owned the place. Kinda like the way Palestinians considered the European Jews when they started settling Israel in the early 20th century. More history repeating itself.

In Jesus’s day, Judeans considered the Samaritans worthless; a bunch of half-pagan heretics, a blot of gentiles taking up space in their homeland, people they’d rather drive out or wipe out. And would, if only the Romans would look the other way.

Samaritan religion.

Though the Old Testament describes Samaritans as a bunch of pagans who barely followed the LORD, things have changed a lot in the centuries since. Clearly the LORD got to work on them: Samaritans have got rid of their paganism, and exclusively follow the LORD. Not the same way Jews do, which is why Samaritanism is considered a different religion.

Just like the Muslims believe Arabs are ethnic Hebrews descended from Abraham, Samaritans likewise believe they’re ethnic Hebrews. They dismiss any Assyrian or Mesopotamian ancestry they might have; they believe they’re full descendants of Israel. And therefore they do so have a covenant with the LORD—who rescued them from Egypt and settled them in Israel.

The Jews, they insist, are the ones who’re wrong. They figure the head priest Eli and his sons, whom God condemned for their sins, 1Sa 3.11-14 are the ones who corrupted it. These false priests took the tabernacle to Jerusalem and turned it into the temple. But a proper temple of the LORD needed to be established—and the Samaritans did, at Mt. Gerazim in Shechem. King John Hyrcanus of Jerusalem had it knocked down in 110BC, but the Samaritans still worshiped at its ruins—both then, and today.

Like the Judeans, the Samaritans had denominations. There were orthodox Samaritans; like Sadducees, they ran the temple and limited the bible to the Law. There were the Dositheans, followers of the Samaritan prophet Disitheus; like the Pharisees, they ran synagogues. These groups didn’t appear to have too many differing beliefs. Most of their disagreements were about who held power—the priests, or the rabbis.

The main things they believed were:

  • God’s real temple was at Mt. Gerazim.
  • The Law is scripture. The rest of the bible is just prophetic commentary.
  • There’d be a second coming of Moses. Not literally; he’d be like Moses. Dt 18.15 Nonetheless they called him the Taheb/“returning one.”

Arguably, the Taheb was who the Samaritan meant when she talked about how Messiah was coming. Jn 4.25 ’Cause Messiah means king, and Samaritans had never had their own king. They’d always been ruled by foreign kings—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Jews, and Romans. So, no real concept of a Messiah. But they had a Taheb. And Jesus fulfills that prophecy too. Ac 3.22-26

Jacob’s Well.

Round the 19th century BC, Jacob’s employees had dug a well just outside Shechem, the city his family camped by. Ge 33.18 It’s the city where Shechem ben Hamor raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah… so Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi wiped out the entire city in retaliation. Ge 34 But that’s beside our story.

Why’d Jacob dig a well? If you have a lot of kids and slaves and livestock, you need a water source as nearby as possible. Would’ve been impractical to go into the local towns for water on a daily basis. Plus the ancients would deny water rights to people in order to drive them off. Ge 26.12-22 Jacob might’ve tried to use the other water sources, and been refused. We don’t know the details. But the Samaritans likely had a whole bunch of folk tales about it. If you know anything about Jewish mythology—and Samaritan mythology was likely no different—betcha there was a whole struggle between the moral, godly Jacob and the immoral, pagan Canaanites. Plus a happy ending, where Jacob finally dug this well and drank from it, he and his children, in quiet victory.

So when Jesus and the Samaritan had this discussion, it seems he pushed her buttons about the local civic pride, the significance of Jacob’s Well.

John 4.10-15 KWL
10 In reply Jesus told her, “If you knew God’s gift, who’s telling you ‘Give me a drink,’
maybe you’d ask him, and maybe he’d give you living water.”
11 The woman told Jesus, “You don’t have a bucket, sir.
The well’s deep. How do you have living water?
12 You’re no greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well.
He drank from it himself, along with his children and animals.”
13 In reply Jesus told her, “All who drink this water will be thirsty again.
14 Whoever would drink the water I give them, won’t be thirsty in the age to come.
Instead, the water I give them will become a water spring within them,
bubbling up into eternal life.”
15 The woman told Jesus, “Sir, give me this water,
so I wouldn’t be thirsty and needn’t come through here to draw water.”

In order to understand this passage, you gotta know ýdor záo/“living water” was the way Aramaic-speakers referred to running water—water from a stream, spring, aqueduct, or pipe. It’s moving, so it’s “living.” Jesus used the idiom to talk about water which doesn’t just flow, but gives life.

When Jesus initially offered the Samaritan “living water” instead of wellwater, her first response was understandably, “Hey, don’t dis my well. It’s Jacob’s well. He give us this well. He and his kids drank from it. You think you’re better than him? You’re not better’n him.” So no, the Samaritan referring to Jacob wasn’t some strange non-sequitur. It was her civic pride.

But it was also her personal justification for coming to Jacob’s Well for water. Y’see, this woman was from Sykhar, Jn 4.5 and Sykhar had living water. The town today is called Askar, and in the middle of it is the spring of Ain Askar—their primary water source. Yet instead of using the local water, this Samaritan walked a kilometer and a half to an out-of-town well. Apparently most days. Jn 4.15 Preachers do tend to notice she was drawing water in midday—the sixth hour after sunrise would be about noon—instead of first thing in the morning, when it wasn’t so warm. They like to speculate this woman was a bit of an outcast, or at least a loner. But they really underestimate the situation. She wasn’t just going to the well when no one else was. She was going to a well way out of her way, which nobody used but passersby, herdsmen—and today the Son of God.

So bringing up “living water” prodded the Samaritan in a whole other way.

Water in the age to come.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t speaking of literal water. Like he did with Nicodemus and being born again, Jesus was using metaphors about deep spiritual truths. The reference to living water was just to get her attention, as he knew it would. Now to the point.

This water—any water—will only slake thirst for a time. Jesus’s “water” would take care of thirst forever—eis ton aióna“in the [next] age,” Jn 4.14 the age to come, the kingdom of God. The words aión and aiónios tend to be translated “eternity” and “eternal” (KJV “everlasting”) because the age to come will last forever. But it doesn’t literally mean eternal. It only does in context: The kingdom lasts forever.

Both Pharisees and Samaritans believed in the age to come. The Pharisees believed it’d begin when Messiah came. The Samaritans, who were always ruled by foreigners and never had a king, looked forward to the Taheb, the prophet-like-Moses. Moses was no king, but ruled Israel on behalf of the LORD, Israel’s real king. But whatever you called the leader, Samaritans hoped he’d overthrow the Romans just like Moses helped free the Hebrews from the Egyptians. Then usher in God’s kingdom, and create a time of peace and propserity.

We Christians know the kingdom includes way more than the Pharisees or Samaritans ever imagined: Resurrection, eternal life, new heavens and earth, New Jerusalem. Regardless, we all know there’s an age to come. The ancient era, and the Christian era, aren’t the last ages of human history.

So Jesus’s water “will become a water spring in them, bubbling up into eternal life.” Jn 4.14 Our lives will be constantly renewed, refreshed, fed, healed. Christians speculate once we get resurrected, we’ll have indestructible bodies which’ll never be hurt, never need food nor water nor oxygen. And yeah, they’ll be indestructible, 1Co 15.52 but not because they can’t break. In New Jerusalem there are trees of life to heal people, Rv 22.2 and you might recall the only people in New Jerusalem have been resurrected already. In the age to come, people can still unintentionally hurt themselves. But there’s unlimited healing. There’s unlimited water of life, for everyone to drink.

If Jesus’s water is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, we experience some of that healing right now. The kingdom is coming into the world; to a degree it’s already here. So when we’re led by the Spirit, our spirits are constantly renewed, refreshed, fed, healed. Our lives become abundant.

Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan didn’t understand the metaphor. She came to the well to get literal water, y’know. So she requested Jesus give her this water: No matter how much civic pride she had in visiting Jacob’s Well, she wouldn’t mind never going to gather water again.

But Jesus intended to give her the water he was speaking about. In the next verses, he continued to guide her to it.