We have a number of lectionary readings on a regular basis that make reference to the people called Samaritans. It seems to me that there is a lot of background that we don’t always get, and this background is a lot of the social context of the passages that refer to the Samaritans. For example without understanding a good deal of the depth of this in reading the account of the woman at the well in John Chapter 4, the real point of the account is lost. So I decided I should put together some of the background understanding of the Samaritans, so that maybe a few more people will get a few more things.
Perhaps the first thing that should be said is that Samaria is a place. We seem to use words like Judea, Israel, Holy Land, Galilee as if they were interchangeable. Perhaps they are to us, however to the people who heard these stories first these places all had meaning. As you can see on the Map Samaria is somewhat west of the main route between Galilee and Jerusalem. The most direct route passed through Samaria, but common practice if you were travelling to Jerusalem was to cross the Jordan and so not pass through Samaria. Effectively they did not like each other a whole lot, and yet they had a lot in common.
The Samaritan region has been inhabited for a very long time, and their ancestors were similar to the tribal folk of the rest of the land. The Samaritans took to themselves to count Abraham as their Father, and enjoyed as canonical scripture the Torah, the first five books of the the Bible. They rejoiced that God had led Abraham to this point and Jacobs well on the Holy Mountain they celebrated as the place to worship God. They were children of the Exodus, and they celebrated Passover.
The Northern Territories where often referred to as Israel, and the Southern areas as Judah, and their was considerable rivalry, Around 1000 years BC there arose David, whose unique contribution was to unite the unruly tribes of the North and South and establish the Federated Kingdom of Israel, and they captured Jerusalem which David made the capital, and proceeded to build the temple there, and brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, and God who had happily lived in the tent had to take up residence in a temple.
The Samaritans had no time for this, for they held that they had been told to worship on the Holy Mountain, the place decreed by God to their forefather Abraham. This meant of course that the Jews had much in common with the Samaritans, though they preferred to focus on the differences.
2nd Class Citizens
This failure to recognise the supremacy of Jerusalem led to the Samaritans being despised. They were after all hill folk. They had no great architecture, and were basically treated as second class. The Samaritans did not take the rest of the writings of the prophets for they were largely focussed on Jerusalem. Samaritan women of course where down another notch.
The Samaritans, as do the Jews looked for their eschatological redemption.
Whilst the Jews looked for the Messiah, The anointed One, ‘Great David’s Greater Son’, the Samaritans looked for a redeemer, the restorer, a liberator like Moses, who would bring forth springs of water at his side. The place of water for the Samaritans was very important. Firstly they lived in dry and arid hills, so water was very important. The place of Jacobs well (which apparently never went dry) on the Holy Mountain where God led Abraham, meant that the Samaritans where quite clear of the provision of God and associated it with water. This story played out again in a slightly different way as Moses led the people out of slavery through the waters of the Red Sea.
Waters of Life
In the depths of an abundant spring is the life of the world.
Let us rise with understanding to drink from its waters!
We thirst for the waters of life.
There are great rivers here before us.
Blessed be God who brought into being (all) kinds of creatures
for the sake of Adam.
Worthy is the form which is in the Image of God!
The form of the heart is not the form of the appearance!— Marqah, Memar 2.1
So How does this Help.
This background helps us understand the context (social context) that the passages are written in, and the purpose nd meaning that was intended to be understood
The Woman at the Well (John 4:1-42)
This passage has lots of surprises. Jesus is in Samaritan heartland. This was a return from, not a journey to Jerusalem, The conversation, which seems cheeky, is in fact cheeky that it happened at all. For a Jew to ask anything of a Samaritan was unthinkable, and a Samaritan Woman only underlined the issue. The conversation quickly turns to the big issue between Jews and Samaritans, was worship to be offered on the Holy Mountain or in Jerusalem? Jesus answer here is amazing – ‘neither’. The context of the discussion is the well, and there is a lot of water in the story, however the point here is that Jesus is not simply the Jewish Messiah, he is also the Samaritan Redeemer, and the passage concludes with the declaration that he is the Saviour of the World.
The problem for the Jews was that they did not want God to save the Samaritans, after all they were hill living peasants who did not recognise the importance of Jerusalem.
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:35-47)
The problem with this story is what do we do when the person we don’t want to help us is the one who comes to or aid, especially when those we might expect to be our salvation pass us by. Your salvation may well come from the wrong place. Sometimes what we need is neither rules nor religion, but an actual helping hand. The trouble with this story is that we know it so well we don’t always get the surprise, and the difficulty that the story presented to the first hearers. This is the person whom you would not help, helping you. It is uncomfortable, but true, and requires a radical re-shift in our thinking.
The Peter Visit – (Acts 8:4-25)
This is where the early Church was beginning to recognise that the good news was not for the Jews alone. This was a massive mind shift and this is part of the working out of the repercussions of the day of Pentecost. These first Christians were Jews, and they were looking gentiles as bother and sisters, and not only gentiles, but even Samaritans. This of course did not come easily and needed them to go again and again. Jesus taught about Samaritans, reached out to Samaritans, and Samaritans were undoubtedly part of the proclamation on the day of Pentecost. Yet here again in acts they need to learn this lesson again. I think that one of the problems is that we are still learning this lesson.
The Samaritans again and again appear in the New Testament as the Black Swan. Not possible, not thought of, but this is how God chooses to act. Something unexpected that causes us to radically re-think our understanding.