Who are the Samaritans?

This coming weekend is the 3rd Sunday of Lent. In the previous post we refreshed our understanding of the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus as a prelude to the encounter with the Samaritan Women. In John 4:4-42, Jesus’ ministry enters a new stage. He leaves the confines of traditional Judaism and turns to those whom his Jewish contemporaries reckoned as outsiders and enemies: the Samaritans. The breach between Jews and Samaritans can be traced to 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel withdrawing from the throne of David in Jerusalem upon the death of King Solomon. They formed a competing confederation building a new capital city and a new temple (Mt. Gerizim), claiming that this was the true place of worship of God. To the people of the south (Judah) they were traitors and heretics.

When the Assyrian Empire conquered the north some 200 years after the division (721 BCE; see 2 Kings 17), there was likely little sympathy in the south. But it was 500 years later that the rivalry intensified when the armies of Judah marched north and destroyed the Temple at Gerizim. It did little but to deepen and inflame the divisions as witnessed in John 4:9: “For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.”

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, he meets someone who stands in marked contrast to all that has come before in this gospel. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus (3:1-21), he spoke with a named male of the Jewish religious establishment, a “teacher of Israel.” When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, he speaks with an unnamed female of an enemy people.

This long passage of the encounter at the well consists of two main blocks of conversation (vv.7-26, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and vv.31-38, Jesus and his disciples) surrounded by their narrative frames. The structure of the text can be outlined as follows:

  • 4:4-6 Jesus’ arrives at the well
  • 4:7-26 Conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman
  • 4:27-30 The woman leaves; the disciples arrive
  • 4:31-38  Jesus and his disciples in dialogue
  • 4:39-42 Jesus and the Samaritan townspeople

Image credit: Samaritan Woman at the Well,  Rudall30 | Dreamstime.com -ID 191658499 

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