Of all the encounters with Jesus that are mentioned in the Bible, one of the most unusual began with a simple request for a drink of water. Here’s the story, which better known to us today as Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well of Samaria…
“The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:1-5 NIV).
The leading religious authorities of Jesus’ day were an organization of men known as the Pharisees. These men represented a political and religious group that was known for strictly following the traditions that had developed in following the rules and regulations of the Old Testament. When Jesus learned that these men had become aware of His growing popularity as a teacher, He made the decision to leave the area of Judea and return once more to the region of Galilee.
Now someone who is unfamiliar with Jesus’ life might presume that He made this decision because He was afraid or anxious about the way these powerful religious leaders would feel about His teachings. However, it’s clear from Jesus’ later encounters with the Pharisees that this was not the case at all (see John chapter 8).
So why did Jesus make this decision to move on? Well, it’s likely that this decision was a strategic move on Jesus’ part to prevent an untimely conflict with these religious leaders. You see, Jesus was surely aware that His message would be seen as a threat by these men and this later proved to be true (see John 11:47-54).
Since Jesus’ main focus at this point involved traveling from place to place to teach the Word of God, any conflict with the Pharisees would have made it very difficult for Him to get His message out. While the Pharisees were aware of Jesus’ growing influence as a spiritual leader, it wasn’t the right time to openly confront these representatives of the religious establishment. Unfortunately, that time would come soon enough.
But for now, we find Jesus in a town called Sychar while passing through the region of Samaria. Now the most direct way to get to where Jesus was going involved traveling through this area of Samaria (or the “West Bank” as it is known today). However, many people of that time deliberately chose to avoid that route. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the Jewish people and Samaritans of that day did not get along.
To understand how this came to be, we need to go back to an event that occurred hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth. About 700 years before Jesus was born, the nation of Israel was defeated in a war by the armies from the land of Assyria. After they had conquered Israel, the Assyrians took away all the people who had lived in Samaria except the very poorest people. Over time, the people who were left behind lost their full Israeli heritage by marrying non-Jewish people and eventually turned away from God by following other religions.
Many years later, God allowed some of His people to return to Israel. After this occurred, many of the people who came back felt some prejudice towards the people who had remained in the area of Samaria because they had intermarried with others. In fact by Jesus’ day, some people were so prejudiced against the people of Samaria that they chose to travel extra distances when taking trips just to avoid going through that area. So the same kind of prejudicial attitude that we unfortunately sometimes see in our own day also existed in the first century.
The interesting thing is that -unlike some others of His day- Jesus apparently had no problems traveling through Samaria…
“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)” (John 4:6-9 NIV).
The time was about 12 noon (or the sixth hour as it says above) and Jesus was tired and thirsty from His trip. After taking a seat near a well, He asked a woman who had come to draw water from the well to give Him a drink. While this might not sound like much of a request to us today, it was actually a pretty big deal in that culture.
Besides the fact that the Jewish people and the Samaritan people didn’t get along, it was highly unusual for a Rabbi (or Teacher) to speak with a woman in public, much less a Samaritan woman. This explains why this woman responded by saying, “You are a Jew… and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?” (CEV).
So this lady is obviously surprised that a man like Jesus would even speak with her- but there’s more to come…