Jesus of Galilee
Galilee was somewhat cut off from Judea, in that one had to traverse across the area occupied by the Samaritans, a people unfriendly to the Jews -- and not without cause. This hostility was still strong in the days of Jesus, and there was some danger of violence when passing through Samaria on the road to Jerusalem. Many Galileans went out of their way to avoid it, skirting Samaria by passing instead through the valley of Jordan on the east, or across the plain of Sharon near the Mediterranean on the west.
Samaria had been settled by foreigners imported in an earlier day by the Assyrians, and these became mixed with the Israelites of the land. Originally worshipping foreign gods, they had gradually fused with the Israelites and joined them in worshipping Yahweh. When the Temple came to be built in Jerusalem around 500 B.C., following the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, the local Samaritans offered their services to help with the building, being part Jew and considering it would be their Temple of worship as well.
But the Jews contemptuously spurned their offer, and after that the Samaritans began to retaliate by heckling their building efforts and even had the efforts temporarily halted by complaining to the Persian government which was then ruling over Palestine; so a schism grew between them. The Samaritans eventually built their own Temple to Yahweh on Mt. Gerizim where they then worshipped instead of at Jerusalem, but this Temple was destroyed and the area ravaged in 108 B.C. by Jews under John Hyrcanus. The ruins of the Temple were still extant and the mountain, stripped of its sanctuary, was still a place of prayer to the Samaritans, for survivors of the religious sect called it holy and blessed.
The Samaritans also awaited a Messiah, and in 35 A.D., after Jesus' crucifixion, a false Messiah offered to show them the sacred vessels on Mt. Gerizim and precipitated a massacre which brought about the dismissal of Pontius Pilate from office, since the tragic affair was by his unauthorized plan.
Meanwhile, the Jews looked down on the Samaritans and would have nothing to do with them, despising them even more than the pagans. So it is no wonder the Samaritan woman was surprised when Jesus spoke to her. It was around noon ("the sixth hour" since dawn), when Jesus and his companions reached a place forty miles north of Jerusalem, at a crossroads near the town of Sychar (which means "folly"). It was located at the southeast entrance to a pass between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, where the main highways converge. This fortunate situation near the two routes of communication between east and west, north and south, gave it a great commercial importance. Many persons passed here traveling from Egypt to Mesopotamia, or from the Mediterranean to points beyond Jordan. The disciples went off to the nearby town to buy food for their meal while Jesus, wearied by the journey, sat down by the well to rest.
The place was venerable with memories of the past, and as he relaxed, a faint scent of the mixed odors of centuries touched his nostrils, and there flashed before him some of the historied memories of this spot, for here was the well of his ancestor Jacob and close by was the field which Jacob had given to his favorite son, Joseph, for an inheritance and where Joseph's remains were eventually brought from Egypt to be buried. There have been several towns in the same area during the course of history, but Sychar was near Shechem and may have been later called Balata- Sichem, or Tell Balata, about one and one-half miles from the well. The well is still there today, 75 feet deep, its water cool and refreshing, though now housed inside a structure.
Jesus remembered the scriptural passages:
Years later as he was dying, Jacob said to his son Joseph, "I have given to you one mountain slope which I took from the hand of the Amorites." And in the Book of Joshua also, this place was mentioned: "The bones of Joseph which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried at Shechem, in the portion of ground which Jacob bought . . . which became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph."
Jesus put the past behind him and became one with the midday sun, having no other thought. A woman of that area approached to draw water and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink." This startled her that a Jew should condescend to speak to a Samaritan, and a woman at that, for the Jews have no dealing with Samaritans and do not use vessels in common with non-Jews. So she asked, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman?"
Jesus with the woman at the well.
Here was another symbolic act of Jesus. Just as he had asked John to baptize him before he himself went forth to baptize others -- so now he asked this woman for a drink of traditional water before himself going forth to give the living waters of Spirit to others that spiritual refreshment might always be on tap within each being. The "waters" of heaven are a feminine symbol, so it was proper he should ask it of a woman.
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks a drink of you, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
This was mystifying, but she could only approach it factually, so she said, "Sir, you have no leather bucket to dip with, and this well is deep. How can you give me 'living water'? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself, he and his sons and his cattle, too?"
Jesus said, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water that I shall give him will never suffer thirst any more. The water that I shall give him will be in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." The well of Jacob had sustained the human bodies of many, but the well-spring of the Lord brought everlasting refreshment to sustain man's spiritual rather than his physical life. It was a secretly fed spring which none could find except through the Christ.
"Sir," said the woman, still practical, "Give me that water that I may not thirst and need not come here any more to draw water." Jesus told her then, "Go call your husband, and come here." -- knowing what she would say.
She answered, "I have no husband," and Jesus said to her firmly, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly." She stared at him, stunned but impressed by this sign and by his direct, vigorous speech. So she replied, seeking his wisdom, "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our Fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem."
The "mountain" was the site of their ruined Temple. For centuries their outcast state had kept the Samaritans strangers to the religious development of Israel, so they had received only the teachings of Moses and the older prophets. The prophet they awaited was in the nature of a religious reformer, a spiritual messenger, whereas the Jews awaited one of universal dominion, the deliverer who God promised would rise out of the land of Judah.
"Believe me, woman," Jesus said, "the time is coming when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will they worship the Father. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; but we worship what we do know, for salvation comes from the Jews. But the time approaches, indeed is already here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father also desires worshippers such as these. For God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth."
His words came true in the literal sense (of worshipping in Jerusalem or on the mountain) not too long after he spoke them, for the Arabs and others took over Palestine after the Jews fled. The spiritual prophecy is only now coming into recognized reality. How far mankind had come from such true worship in the Spirit, having fallen into outer forms of worship and forgetting the inner truth. But they must eventually all come to that high state of which Temple ritual is only a pattern.
The woman said, "I know that the Messiah (Christ) is coming; when he is come, he will teach us everything." This simple statement of direct faith impelled Jesus to reveal to her what he would not tell the Pharisees later on. This, in fact, is the first record of his having revealed to anyone that he was the Messiah. For he spoke just as simply as she, "I am he who is speaking to you."
At that moment his disciples returned and were astonished to find him talking with a Samaritan woman, but no one said to him, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?" Despite their surprise, they showed sufficient respect and tact toward their teacher not to question the reason for his conversation. They were surprised because this was not only a despised Samaritan, clearly not a person of high honor, but besides that it was not customary for a Jewish man, especially a rabbi, to engage publicly in conversation with any woman, not even his wife.
The rabbis, with bitter pride, would not even teach a woman, saying, "Throw the words of the Law into the fire, rather than to communicate them to women." Since the ministry had only begun, this was probably the first woman who had queried him, or to whom he had given any teaching, and they were not as yet taught concerning his stand on this.
Here Jesus began his custom of picking up those who had the greatest need of consolation and help. Throughout his ministry it would be the lost sheep who would listen to him out of their need. In the act of talking to her, he cut through several barriers of centuries' duration in the sight of his disciples, showing them that none of their prejudices could remain in this work.
Among the despised and rejected they would find the ground mellowed and prepared to receive his word. And besides that, he had "broken down the middle wall of partition" between the Jews of northern and southern Palestine, melting a way through and "making both one."
Too excited at the Messiah's marvelous revelation to continue her task, the woman put down her water jar there and ran off to the town crying out to everyone she met, "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?" Eagerly they grasped at the news, and coming out of town, they made their way toward him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, have something to eat," for all had been famished from their journey. But he said, "I have food to eat of which you know nothing." At this the disciples said to one another, "Can someone have brought him some food?"
But Jesus said, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work." He was about to feast on the harvest of souls.
The two incidents which took place here, the one of living water which precluded thirst, and the other of food which is performance of the Will of God, show the relative importance and duration of earthly food and drink, as compared to the heavenly.
"Do you not say, 'There are yet four months more, and then comes the harvest?' But look, I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for the harvest." They looked to behold the Samaritans hurrying toward them from the town and glimpsed what he meant by the swift ripening of the harvest.
Jesus was referring to an old farmer's custom, when one had planted his crop, he would sign with relief, saying, "Another four months and the harvest will be ready." For that is about the length of time required for the growth and maturing of a crop. But though Jesus and his disciples had only just begun their planting, they need not wait even one day for the harvest. The example was before them: it was instantaneous. Indeed, others had already planted much here, so there was always fruition from the work of those gone before. For the patriarchs and prophets had cast God's word on earth as divine Seed, where it had slumbered for centuries, but now at his Voice, it would awaken into swift action and was to become a harvest ripe for the sickle of his disciples.
"He who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."
The Samaritans gave him an enthusiastic reception and begged him to abide with them. Their hostile prejudices quickly vanished; Jesus yielded to their request, he went to Shechem and remained there two days. And many Samaritans of that town came to believe in him, because of the woman's testimony.
Many more became believers because of what they heard from his own lips. They told the woman, "It is no longer because of what you told us that we believe, for now we have heard him ourselves; and we know that this is in truth the Saviour of the world."
They had been impressed at the woman's testimony to Jesus' sight, that he could see all her life without being told. Prophets are always wondrous persons, above nationality, and they welcomed him warmly, knowing no boundaries of spirit. But after two days, they needed no longer the testimony of another in order to believe in him, for the riches of his teaching and talking to them during that time fully convinced them. He lifted them out of the contempt of ages, under which the Jews had overwhelmed them; and as they believed in Moses, they believed in this prophet whom Moses had foretold, and they saw in him the Saviour of mankind.
Jesus knew that his kingdom was to be opened to the humble and disinherited, the weak and poor, those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness. For unless a man has thirst, how shall he be seeking something to satisfy it? And if he be satisfied with earthly drink, how shall he be empty enough to seek the heavenly? The more a man is pleased with himself, his power, his science, and his false virtue, the more opposed he becomes to the influence of Christ. It is when false pride has been thrown down, often by misery, that the soul opens to any hope and can receive the greatest good of all.