Have you ever had an argument with someone, a small argument, or a real clang dinger? How can we deal with such conflicts? We will find some wisdom as we look at the background of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well.
Jesus in John 3 was becoming hugely popular, so much so that even John’s disciples were going up the River Jordan to Jesus’ ‘revival rally’. But Jesus’ popularity was becoming a threat to the Pharisees and the ruling Judean authorities, and Jesus felt a confrontation coming on (John 4:1-3).
Jesus did of course have a confrontation with the ruling authorities, and we know the outcome: Jesus died on a cross where he drunk the cup of God’s wrath for the sins of His people and the whole world (John 1:29). But at this stage Jesus knew that His hour had not yet come (see John 2:4 cf John 13:1). So instead of facing the Pharisees He left Judea and went back once more to Galilee (John 4:3).
One of the best ways of dealing with conflicts is not to get into them in the first place. For Jesus it would have been quite wrong to face up to the Pharisees at this early stage in His ministry. Jesus said, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does (John 5:19). Therefore though the Pharisees were looking for a fight Jesus did not comply, and he set off again for Galilee.
We must choose out battles carefully. Some things in life aren’t worth fighting for. Other things are worth fighting for, but we have to remember the battle is the Lord’s (2Chr 20:15). We should ask ourselves if this is the Lord’s battle or me just wanting to get my own way (James 4:1-3).
John 4:4 says, now he had to go through Samaria. Why is the text so insistent Jesus had to go through Samaria? Well, we could surmise that he needed to get to Galilee quickly, and going through Samaria was the quickest route. But there was a problem, identified in John 4:9, the Jews did not associate with the Samaritans. To say the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t get on was an underestimate. It was dangerous for Jews to travel into Samaritan territory, rather like it is dangerous for Israelis to travel into Palestinian territory today. Modern day notices read, This road leads to area A, under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden. Dangerous to your lives. And is against Israeli law. I don’t think there was a law forbidding Jews to travel through Samaria, but it was dangerous because the kind of animosity that exists today between Israelis and Palestinians today also existed between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day (as people groups through not necessarily every individual.) It is also interesting to note the Samaria was located in the same area as the present day West Bank.
So usually Jews would travel to Galilee by a different route via the Jordan River, which took three times as long. But Jesus had to go through Samaria. In everything He did He was directed by His heavenly Father (John 5:19). So we know Jesus was being directed by His Father to go through Samaria for a reason. To us it looks like He was jumping out of the frying pan (conflict with the Pharisees) into the fire and asking for trouble. But something amazing happened in Samaria so that by the end of chapter 4, the Samaritans came to him, [and] they urged him [a Jew] to stay with them, and he stayed two days. (John 4:40) – which was just not the done thing!
Jesus’ journey into hostile Samaria represents God’s unfathomable plan and mission to send His Only begotten Son into the world to reconcile man to God and man to man. Jesus came to bring peace on earth and good will towards men (Isaiah 9:6, Luke 2:14). Paul writes about the purpose of Jesus’ coming,
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2Corinthains 5:18-19).
Who were the Samaritans? I believe they were Israelite Samaritans, and not to be confused with Gentile Samaritans. They exist today even though they are a very small community. They had and have four principles of faith: One God (the LORD); One Prophet (Moses); One Book (Torah); One Place of Worship (Mount Gerizim). Although the Jewish (Judean) Israelites believed in Moses they also accepted the prophetic writings, as did Jesus. The main point of contention was the location of true worship, Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion (Jerusalem) – since it was the Prophets and not the Torah which identified Jerusalem as the place the LORD chose for worship.
The Samaritan Israelites believed they were the remnant of the northern kingdom of Israel, descended from Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The mention of the field Jacob had given to his son Joseph (John 4:5) is therefore highly significant. The northern tribes of Israel (also called Ephraim) and the southern tribes of Judah split after the reign of King Solomon. By Jesus’ day the Samaritans regarded the Judeans as a heretical sect and vice versa, and they didn’t associate! This conflict was at root an inter-Israelite religious conflict and the tensions ran deep. We usually fight with those closest to us, our brothers and sisters! Just think of the Shia-Sunni or Protestant-Catholic divide.
Jesus walks right into this hostile territory to exercise His ministry of reconciling His people, a reconciliation which was to extend to the whole world. This reconciliation is part of the new covenant, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah (Jeremiah 31:31). The new covenant was made with both houses of Israel (not the Gentile church). Unlike the old covenant the new covenant involves a supernatural change of heart by God’s Spirit: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jeremiah 31:33). It seems to me that in John 4 we begin to see an outworking of the new birth described in John 3. Reconciliation with God brings reconciliation with our neighbour. It’s Jesus who does it and he starts with those closest to us. Peacemakers are blessed, but it is Jesus who is the source of peace, not simply human ingenuity.
Sometimes conflicts and divisions run so deep that reconciliation is impossible. BBC Radio was asking this week, “How do you fix a split cabinet?” The commentator jokingly suggesting screwdrivers and screws were needed. But the real issue at hand was of course the government split at cabinet level over Brexit. The commentator concluded, “reconciling irreconcilable differences is by definition impossible.” This is why every Christian should be praying like never before (regardless of personal convictions over the issue) for a miracle from Jesus to avoid a national disaster. With God all things are possible.
But what about our personal lives? We need likewise to pray when conflict arises and bring the issue to Jesus. We need to act as peacemakers but know it is Jesus who brings the peace. What if we offer the hand of friendship and it is not received? As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). And we should put on Christian virtues (Colossians 3:12-13). And we should continue to pray for reconciliation while thanking God He has reconciled Himself to us (Colossians 1;22).
Corrie ten Boom was a Christian who hid Jews during WW2 and as a result was herself put in a concentration camp. She famously said, There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still. She was speaking about the pit of suffering. But we can imagine a wide pit, which the Samaritans Israelites on one side on Mount Gerizim and the Jewish Israelites on the other side on Mount Zion, with neither talking to each other. But Jesus bridged the gap.
The identity of the Samaritans is important for interpretation of John 4.
An evangelical commentary says,
The reasons (that Jews do not associate with Samaritans) were historical, dating from the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon (1Kings 12:1-24) and the annexation of the northern territory by the Assyrians in 722-721BC. The Assyrians resettled the area with foreigners (2Kings 17:24-41) which meant the loss of both racial and religious purity from the standpoint of the Judeans in the south (as they came to be called) built their own temple at Mount Gerizim around 400BC.
This points out that the Judeans regarded the Samaritans as racially mixed and their religion as syncretistic, combining aspects of worship of the God of Israel with pagan worship. But we should remember that the Judean view of the Samaritans was not exactly going to be complementary, so we should not automatically assume an objective assessment.
2Chronicles 30:1 and 31:6 both show that not all of the northern kingdom of Israel was deported to Assyria and some (if not most) remained in the land and were present in the reign of Hezekiah (post the Assyrian exile.) They preserved the ancient traditions of Israel. But these people did not accept the later innovations which came through the Prophets, and then the Exile, which resulted in the Judean/Jewish version of the faith in the time of Jesus. They did not develop their written language in the same way as Jewish Israelites, and by the time of Jesus they also had their own Greek version of the Torah called the Samaritikon (equivalent to the Septuagint.)
Although the Judeans had a dim view of the Samaritans as a kind of half-cast race with a syncretistic religion, this is not how the Samaritan Israelites (as opposed to the imported Samaritan foreigners) regarded themselves. Today, modern Samaritan populations are found to have “much greater affinity” genetically to Jews than to neighbouring Palestinian Arabs. This suggests that the Samaritans remained a genetically isolated population.
 See Appendix
 The Message of John, Bruce Milne, p83
 The Jewish Gospel of John, Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenbery, p44.