By Gena Duncan
A friend recently asked if I harbored any prejudices. I could not immediately recall any. But then an event occurred in my life. I encountered an alcoholic who was an acidic, calculating, and bitter man. I become aware that I had a prejudice against his type.
John 4 exposes a Samaritan woman against whom people were likely prejudiced.
Jesus retreated from Judea to Galilee. Samaria was located between the two regions. In 722 BC the Assyrian nation captured the northern kingdom, whose capital was Samaria, and took the Jews into Assyria. Through this captivity, the Jews intermarried with foreigners. The “pure” Jews considered the Samaritans as “unclean,” and animosity developed between the two groups.
John 4:4 says, “Now he had to go through Samaria.” Jesus could have taken the road along the seashore or the road east of the Jordan River, which was the preferred road Jews took to avoid the despised Samaritans. Jesus “had” to go through Samaria because he had a God-appointed meeting with a sexually immoral Samaritan woman. In tune with God’s plan, he disregarded the Jews’ ethnic prejudices.
On his journey through Samaria, Jesus came to Sychar, close to a plot of land where Jacob had dug a deep well. Mount Gerizim stood in the distance, and the Samaritan synagogue was on that mountain. Jesus came to this area around noon and, because he was tired and thirsty, sat down by the well to rest. He sent his disciples into the town to purchase food.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well at noon. Women usually drew water early morning or late evening to avoid the heat of the day. Perhaps she was coming at this time because of an urgent water need or to avoid rejection from the other women.
Instead of shunning this lonely, tainted woman, Jesus became vulnerable by asking for a drink of water. The woman was shocked that a Jewish man would speak to her, let alone ask for a drink of water. Normally a Jewish man would not speak to a strange Samaritan woman, especially one of ill repute. And because most Jews considered Samaritans as unclean, anything a Samaritan touched would become defiled for them. Yet here was Jesus, a Jewish man, asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water from a bucket that she would touch. That went against all Jewish-Samaritan social and cultural mores. Jesus rose above the biases to accept and reach out to this spurned woman.
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (v. 10). This thoroughly confused the woman, yet she responded. The woman only knew of living water that came from a spring, perhaps like this well. How could this man provide her water when he had nothing with which to draw water from the well? Was he greater than “our father Jacob” who dug the well, drank from it, and watered his flocks and herds (v. 12)? Was the man with whom she was speaking greater than Jacob, her ancestral father? Perhaps she was beginning to wonder who this Jew really was.
Jesus explained that anyone who drank the well water would get thirsty again, but one would never get thirsty again who drinks of the water he gave. In fact, his water becomes a fulfilling, gushing spring of eternal life within the person.
The woman, thinking on a physical level, requested his water so she would not “have to keep coming here to draw water” (v. 15). She totally missed that his gift was an inner flooding of spiritual water that would eternally fulfill her every need. She remained on the physical plane, and he was inviting her to a spiritual level.
Before she could move to a spiritual level, Jesus had to draw the woman’s attention to an inner problem. Jesus likely had two purposes in saying to her, “Go, call your husband and come back” (v. 16). It was not proper for a Jewish man to speak to a woman without her husband present and he wanted to reveal her inner spiritual condition.
This request bore into her chest-clutching secrets. She replied, perhaps bristly, that she did not have a husband. Jesus commended her for speaking the truth. He reminded her she had five previous husbands and the man with whom she was currently living was not her husband. Jesus knew about her bygone days. What was the look on the woman’s face when he revealed her painful past? astonishment? pain? shame?
We only know her response, “I can see you are a prophet” (v. 19). Perhaps Jesus was getting too close to her private life, so she redirected the topic of conversation. She asked where was the correct worship location—a long-debated question between the Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans worshipped on Mount Gerizim, but the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem. The Samaritans accepted only the Pentateuch as their inspired Scriptures and followed Moses’ guidelines for worship at Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy 11:26-29; 12:5-7). When the Israelites entered into the promised land, the Levites proclaimed God’s blessings from Mount Gerizim and his curses from Mount Ebal (Deuteronomy 27:1–28:68). The Jews accepted all of the Old Testament and followed David’s leading that God was to be worshipped at the temple built in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12:5; 2 Chronicles 6:6; 7:1; Psalm 78:67, 68).
Jesus desired to change her worship from where to who. Jesus explained that “salvation is from the Jews” and a time had come when worship was not dependent on a location, but on the heart (John 4:22). The Messiah was coming through the Jews and “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (v. 23). Those who want to accept the Messiah and worship the Father must worship in spirit (brokenness of heart) and pursue truth.
“The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us’” (v. 25). Jesus announced, “I, the one speaking to you―I am he” (v. 26). Suddenly she realized he was the Messiah and he had explained everything to her. Her heart broke and she saw him as her potential Messiah.
The disciples returned and were surprised to see Jesus talking with the woman, but they made no move toward her. Were they held back by their prejudices?
The woman left her water jar at the well. She had found the living water. She headed back into town and grabbed anyone who would listen to her and said, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v. 29). The end result was many of the Samaritans believed in Christ “because of the woman’s testimony” (v. 39).
What prejudices do we harbor openly or below the surface? Do we bypass the Samaritans in our lives—as I had bypassed the unbecoming bitter man in my life? Who are we more like—the disciples who ignored the Samaritan woman or Jesus who, rather than taking the road to bypass Samaria, bypassed the ethnic, cultural, social, and spiritual prejudices of the time?
Jesus rose above the prejudices and revealed to an outcast Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah. He sensitively revealed her need, thirst, and brokenness and supplied the fix―a spring of eternal water that made her soul alive. She was focused on father Jacob and the Samaritan worship location. He introduced her to the Father who sent the Messiah, the one who quenched her thirst, healed her wrecked heart, and gave her a fresh look at her present and eternal life.
What would happen if we exposed our prejudicial blinders to the Messiah who forgives? Could we bring the unlovely, the misfits, the ill-tempered, the emotionally broken, and the hurting people to the living water?
Gena Duncan is a Christian author living in Naples, Florida.