A Samaritan at the time of the New Testament was considered a heretic to be avoided… but Yeshua builds stories around them, knowing very well how they were perceived, and radically reaches out to them in a way that shocked his disciples. He also made it clear that his mission was first and foremost to the lost sheep of Israel. Are there lessons we can learn from these passages today?
As we can see in John chapter 4, the Jews and Samaritans were not on good terms. In verse 19 the woman Yeshua is speaking to asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans). The point was emphasised when the disciples came back to find him talking with a Samaritan and were aghast with shock. Why? The Samaritans had a wildly different narrative. They thought that THEY were the chosen ones, holding onto the true Torah, and that the Jews had gone astray. In fact, the word in Hebrew, Shomronim, means “Keepers”. Jews and Samaritans had totally contradictory versions of history, and both believed themselves to be right, and the other group to be in religious error of a very grave nature.
The Samaritan version of events
The Samaritans believe (to this day) that they are the true Israelites, the descendants of Joseph, and the only ones who are still faithfully following the Torah properly. They hold that as a result of being taken into exile in Babylon, the Jews compromised their faith and added to the word of God. The Samaritans do not accept the writings of the prophets, or the historical books of the Bible we read today. They think the Jews are wrong in their obsession with Jerusalem as the spiritual centre, and hold that God wants to be worshiped on Mount Gerazim instead. They think the Jews had fallen away into compromise and had twisted the word of God. They believe themselves to be the true keepers of God’s law, given to Moses at Sinai.
The Jewish version of events
The Jews on the other hand, believe that it is the Samaritans who are in error, and that far from being true descendants of Israel they were brought from Assyrian regions and were planted in Israel during the first exile of the ten Israelite tribes; the Northern kingdom. 2 Kings 17:24-40 teaches that the Samaritans were brought to Israel by the King of Assyria as part of his military strategy to dominate the peoples of the area, and that because they were still worshiping idols, lions would come and attack them until they asked for priests to come and teach them how to follow the Law of Moses. So the people groups learned to follow the Laws or Torah of the people of Israel, but still kept some of their old ways and practices. The Jews also believe it was these people, left in the land, who opposed Nehemiah when they were trying to rebuild the temple on their return from exile.
The animosity remained for generations, both believing the other to be in serious sin.
What does Jesus do?
Of course, if we believe that the Bible is true, then it is the Jewish narrative that is closer to the truth than the Samaritan version of events, so it is challenging, given that fact, to see how Yeshua interacts with this people group.
Yeshua of all people knows all the historical events and all of the truth. After all, he IS the truth! Yet he does not argue with the Samaritan woman about these things in John chapter 4. He avoids that argument without avoiding her as a person.
And he offers her what her soul is longing for. The Water of Life. Acceptance, forgiveness of sin, and a loving relationship with the Messiah. More than that, he recognises the good in this despised people group – appreciating the one leper who came back to thank him, who was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16), and of course telling the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which the only one to offer help and mercy was from this heretical bunch.
Yeshua wasn’t so concerned with correcting people as accepting them and bringing them into God’s presence. There the truth then can pierce hearts and bring transformation.
Sometimes we think that we must start out with an agreed version of events before we can proceed but Yeshua loves right from the get-go. Jews and Palestinians also have extremely different narratives and versions of history, and Yeshua knows very well exactly what has happened. But he calls us to be like him and to go and love our enemies regardless.
The Jews are chosen and unique, but chosen specifically to be a blessing to the whole world. That is the point which Yeshua understood very well. He was following his Father’s plan exactly without deviating at all. He knew the path that the gospel must flow, and he knew how to accomplish his mission. He knew that the gospel was “to the Jew first, and then the Greek” (Gentile) Romans 1:16, but he also commanded the disciples to take the good news from “Jerusalem, to all of Judea Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). He is not leaving anyone out. The good news is for everyone!
While most of Israel is not following their Messiah or following his instructions to pray for her enemies, we can stand in the gap and love them on Israel’s behalf. Let us pray for those who hate Israel, and also for Israelis to open up their hearts to their Messiah, and come to share his radical love for all peoples.
Who are your “Samaritans?” Who are the ones in error that you prefer to avoid? Does the example of Yeshua spur you to be good to them too?