All of us have two deep-seated, God-given longings. The first longing is to be truly and completely known and accepted, to be fully understood and loved. Imagine a relationship in which every emotion, every issue, is important and treated gently, with warmth and respect. A relationship in which your own love is also fully received with joy and delight.
The other longing is to know that our lives are worth something, that we have meaning and purpose in the world, that who we are, and what we do, matters.
In this week’s series of posts, the woman at the well had these same needs all of us have. Jesus would come to her specially to offer her the way to fulfill both of those life needs.
Jesus leaned over and kissed Nicodemus’ cheek in the ancient gesture of friendship, while the Pharisee wiped his eyes of tears. As he rose, Jesus offered his hand to help the elderly statesman to his feet. Nicodemus then gathered his robes and began his careful descent down the darkened staircase, lighted only by the moon’s soft glow. He had much to tell his friend Joseph, a man he trusted like no other.
Later the next day, the Sanhedrin had once again convened to continue their discourse on the Baptist’s and Jesus’ ministries.
“The prophet John and his disciples fast weekly,” said one of the teachers of the Law, and they all nodded approvingly. “He preaches repentance, and the coming kingdom,” as prophets should. “But he does not treat Judeans as more special than others,” called out another. “I hear he told a soldier simply to be a better soldier.”
The room stirred in agitation.
The Roman occupation was not to be borne! Several shouted in outrage. The Baptist ought to preach conversion not compliance! No, cried out a Sadducee, the prophet speaks truly! We serve Caesar, like it or not.
And Jesus steals the hearts of the people, where John does not do this. The Baptist pushes the people back to Jerusalem, once he has plunged them in the Jordan. Jesus does no such thing, the people have begun to follow him from town to village.
More voices began to rise, some stood to make their point, jabbing their fingers in the air in an unconscious pose of the Roman orator (or was it calculated, after all?). Others stroked their prayer shawls in a show of piety, and called on the wisdom of God to guide them. “The Baptist has followers as well,” noted a scribe, “I have kept count of his disciples.”
“We know that,” came an irritated retort. “Jesus has more. Not even just talmidim, but pilgrims follow him right out of the city, especially on days when he heals. He places himself in the Court of the Women, where everyone goes to make their offerings, to teach and to perform miraculous signs.”
The mood in the room was becoming angrier, low voices rumbled, some spat in disgust, others pounded a hand onto the table to show disapproval. Nicodemus had said nothing so far. He looked up to exchange a meaningful glance with his close friend and confidant, Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph gave a terse shake of his head. Keep your own counsel, he silently warned.
The growing controversy drove Jesus to leave God’s holy city, John explained.
As therefore Jesus realized that the Pharisees heard that Jesus makes and baptizes many more disciples [than] John—even though Jesus himself had not baptized but rather his disciples—he forsook Judea and departed again into the Galilee.John 4:1-3
It was not Jesus’ time, to be swept up into the tinderbox controversy igniting over him. Instead, as Jesus began his walk to Galilee, he headed straight through to Samaria to get there.
Ordinarily, for most Judeans of Jesus’ day, if they wanted to get to Galilee they took the long way around, six days on foot instead of two, so they would not have to go through Samaria. Nearly a thousand years before Jesus’ time, the ten northern tribes of Israel had revolted and started their own government, leaving only the two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin as the “real Israel,” loyal to King David’s grandson. The northern tribes summarily rejected the Jerusalem temple worship and set up golden calves in their own shrines at Bethel and Dan.
Three hundred years later the Assyrians had swooped in and wiped out the northern kingdom, taking many people captive, and sending in their own people mixed with captives of other lands to repopulate the devastated area. Centuries later, when some of Jewish descent returned to Judah to rebuild the temple, they would not let the Samaritans help them because they represented a mixed people, and a mixed religion. Even intermarriage with Samaritans was forbidden.
For the next 450 years the Judeans and the Samaritans were opposed to each other, with an active antipathy. The Samaritans built their own temple on their own mountain, Mt. Gerizim, in the historic area of Shechem, where Abraham had originally pitched his tents and Jacob had later dug his well. The Samaritans (not unlike the Sadducees) accepted only the first five books of the Bible as scripture, and they also worshiped five other deities besides Yahweh. Their culture drew from their Hebrew ancestors who had been deemed unnecessary to deport, as well as the Assyrian interlopers, and the forced immigration of conquered peoples from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim.
Imagine the disciples’ growing alarm as they realized the route Jesus was taking. Did he not know? Was he not concerned?
When Jesus and His disciples got to Jacob’s famous well, they decided to take a break. Jesus sat down to rest, and the disciples went into the nearest town to go buy some food.
It would be one of many unusual, unsettling, even unnerving experiences they would have with Jesus. Today, they would have to navigate the uncomfortable social situation of entering a potentially hostile environment.
How would they be treated at a Samaritan food stall?
How should they act?
What should they say?
Would the interaction make them ritually unclean?
What would the repercussions be, if others in Judea, or even Galilee, discovered where they had been?
That they had eaten food prepared by Samaritans?
That not only had they not avoided walking through Samaria, nor shaken Samaritan dust from their sandals, but they had even stopped there awhile, had eaten there, rested there, interacted with the people there?
Their minds swirling with questions and apprehensions, they probably passed by—without even noticing—the woman with her water jug, as they walked into the town of Sychar. Archeologists have determined there was another well in town, but this woman was walking the extra half mile out of town to go to Jacob’s well, a notable detail. . .
Jacob’s well | The LUMO Project, wwwfreebibleimages.org