In the Gospel of John, Jesus, on his way to Galilee from Jerusalem, encountered a Samaritan woman at a well. There she asks him an unusual question, “How can you being a Jew ask me for a drink when the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans?” (John 4:3-7). The Samaritans are mentioned in the Gospels several more times. In one parable, a Samaritan is described as being compassionate and elsewhere as the only one who thanked God out of 10 that Jesus healed. The Pharisees accused Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a devil. Jesus instructed his disciples not to preach in any of the Samaritan cities. (Luke 10:33; 17:16; John 8:48; Matthew 10:5)
Nowhere in any of these records does it describe who exactly the Samaritans were. To find the answer to that question and the question the woman at the well asked, we have to go back 1,000 years to the time of
When Solomon died, his son, Rehoboam, became King of Israel. The ten northern tribes rejected Rehoboam because he refused to lessen their workload and lower the taxes his father, Solomon, had put in place. They rebelled and formed a second kingdom called Israel and made Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s administrators, their king. The two tribes in the South that Rehoboam continued to rule over were called the Kingdom of Judah. God had warned Solomon that the united kingdom he inherited from David would split because at the end of his life, he allowed his many pagan wives to turn his heart away from the true worship. (1 Kings 11:1-13, 29-39,
Shortly after establishing his capital in Shechem in the north (later the capital would be moved to Samaria), Jeroboam began to worry he would lose people to Rehoboam if they continued going south to the temple in Jerusalem to worship. He devised a plan to build two altars at the northern and southern borders of his kingdom. He erected a golden calf at each end and instructed his people to worship there. He also picked his own priests instead of properly choosing them from the tribe of Levi. He changed the dates of feasts requiring attendance in Jerusalem, while encouraging people to stay in the north to celebrate. A prophet warned Jeroboam that his actions angered God and would bring him death and despair as well as the destruction of his kingdom. However, he continued in his idolatrous ways causing Israel to sin greatly. (1 Kings 12:26-33; 13:1-3, 32-34; 14:1-20)
There were 18 more Kings of Israel after Jeroboam. For the most part, they followed Jeroboam’s example of evil. Even after warnings from prophets like Elijah, Amos, and Hosea, they mostly led the nation into depraved idolatry. After about 200 years because of Israel’s continued disobedience and sinful ways, as prophesied the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Nation. The Assyrian king bought colonists from several foreign tribes into the land of Israel which he had depopulated and devastated. These foreigners brought with them their own form of idolatry. The Israelites that remained in their desolate country associated and intermarried with the heathen colonists and produced a mixed race. Over time, this mixed race of people developed their own form of counterfeit worship that allowed them to think they honored God while sacrificing to foreign idols at the same time. Eventually they were known as the Samaritans after their new capital city in the north of Samaria (2 Kings 17:6-23, 24-41; 18:11-12).
There was much enmity and mistrust between the two nations that had once been brothers. The southern nation of Judah despised the Northern Kingdom. Its people had become idol worshippers and allowed themselves to be conquered, exported, and consumed by the Assyrians. However, the southern nation of Judah, after repeated cycles of idolatry and reformation, themselves were conquered and defeated by King Nebuchadnezzar 130 years after the Assyrian captivity of Israel. Unlike the 10 northern tribes who had been scattered all over and lost their identity forever, a remnant of Judah was allowed after 70 years of captivity, because of God’s promise to David, to return to their own land (2 Kings 17:24-41; 18:11-12; 24:10-14; 25:8-13; Jeremiah 29:10-11).
The exiled Jews returned from captivity in several waves, restoring Jerusalem over a period of about 100 years. The Samaritans who had remained in Israel during the exile at first offered to help them rebuild. The Jews who had returned with a renewed zeal of strictly adhering to the Torah rejected their help, accusing them of being unclean pagans. The Samaritans angrily responded by writing slanderous letters to the King of Persia and succeeded in halting the work. They also succeeded in frustrating and prolonging the process of rebuilding the city walls and the temple with threats and intimidations. They further angered the Judeans by building their own temple on Mt Gerizim close to Jeroboam’s old capital city of Shechem in the north and declaring Jerusalem not to be the place of God’s holy mountain and true place of worship. To the Jews who had learned their lessons from the prophets and wept for joy at being back in Jerusalem which they believed to be God’s holy city and place of worship, this was the final insult. The contempt was passed on from generation to generation becoming indelibly etched into the hearts of each Jew and each Samaritan. It still existed on that day that Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well. (Ezra 9, 10; Nehemiah 6:15-19)
Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman opened the doors, after one thousand years, for the historically despised race to become part of God’s Kingdom. His portrayal of Samaritans in a positive light in the Gospels showed that even the most unlikely people can be forgiven and redeemed. There are many people today like the Samaritans who think they have a relationship with God, but their belief system is far from the truth. Jesus provided a great example to us. No matter what prejudices people might have to their culture, ancestry, or values, all are invited to be saved.