By Murray D. Gow
John chapter four is one of the most interesting texts in the New Testament for showing Jesus’ attitude towards women and foreigners. Failure to understand the cultural background may cause modern readers to miss some of the vibes in this story and fail to see just how radical Jesus was for his time.
It is worth noting the difference between Jesus’ two conversation partners in John chapters three and four. In chapter three Jesus talks with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a theologian, a man, respected, powerful and orthodox. In chapter four Jesus talks with a woman from a despised race, with little influence, very likely illiterate, heterodox by Jewish standards, and possibly a moral outcast in her own society. Yet his dialogue with her is one of the most profound discussions about the nature of true worship in the Gospels. The point to note is that both the theologian and the woman needed a new relationship with God.
Jesus crosses barriers
Jesus arrived at the town of Sychar around midday, hot, tired and thirsty. The disciples went in to the town to look for a takeaway bar and while they were gone, along came a Samaritan women. Jesus does what would have seemed quite unacceptable in his day.
7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) [NRSV text used unless stated otherwise]
For a male Jew, especially a Rabbi, to talk with a Samaritan woman was scandalous. Jesus does even more; he asks her a favour, so in a sense making himself her guest, and further he discusses theology with her. Two points need to be noted:
(1) She was a Samaritan. Jews were hostile towards Samaritans and Samaritans returned the compliment. The hostility dated from ancient times. After the death of king Solomon, the country was torn apart by revolution – the north came to be called Israel or sometimes Ephraim after the dominant tribe. Later it was also referred to as Samaria after the capital city built by Omri. The southern kingdom was known as Judah and its capital was Jerusalem. In 721 BC Samaria fell to the Assyrians (the Nazis of the Ancient Near East) who deported many Israelites and replaced them with people from other parts of their empire. One result of this was that the Israelites intermarried and so from the Jewish viewpoint the Samaritans were half-breeds. When the Jews started to rebuild their temple after the return from exile c. 536 BC the Samaritans offered to help but the Jews refused their offer. The Samaritans then set out to block the project and building was stopped and did not recommence until c.520 BC. The Samaritans later built their own temple on Mt Gerizim c.400 BC which was then destroyed by John Hyrcanus, ruler in Judea towards the end of the Second Century BC. Nevertheless, the Samaritans continued to regard Mt Gerizim as the right place to worship. Moreover, they had their own version of the Bible consisting of only the five books of Moses. They did not accept the rest of the Old Testament.
At best the Jews regarded the Samaritans as former brethren who were now heretics – at worst they regarded them as unclean apostates. So the first problem was that the woman was a Samaritan.
(2) Worse she was a Samaritan woman. Although there were some exceptions, Jews of the time did not usually discuss theology even with Jewish women. For instance, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos said, “he who teaches his daughter the law teaches her foolishness”. But to discuss with a Samaritan woman was right over the top. In Jewish law a woman was deemed ritually unclean at the time of her period. From the Jewish perspective, any Samaritan woman was considered likely to be ritually unclean. In 65 or 66 AD a regulation was passed stating that “The daughters of Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle.”