It sounds odd to say that Jesus was in the wrong place, doesn’t it? It sounds like Jesus stumbled down a dark side street and was confronted by a group of unsavory hooligans. When I say that Jesus was in the wrong place in John 4, I simply mean that this narrative puts Jesus in a place where no good and respectable Jew would ever want to find themselves, Samaria.
At first glance we might shrug our shoulders and wonder what this bit of information has to do with Jesus being in the wrong place. It might not mean much until we begin to understand the animosity and bigotry between the Jews and the Samaritans.
The reason for this animosity can be traced back to the time following the fall of the northern kingdom around 722 B.C. It was during this time that the Jews who had not been deported by the Assyrians began to intermarry with imported Assyrian settlers. The sons and daughters of the intermarried leftover Jews and Assyrian imports soon began to intermingle elements of Jewish worship with pagan worship practices forming a new religious system within Palestine.
When the exiles from the southern kingdom returned from captivity in Babylon to resume temple worship under the law more than 150 years had passed. During that time the religious corruption of the Samaritans had grown and solidified into a full-blown cultish system. The returning Jews found the Samaritan corruptions both religiously and ethnically reprehensible. As the centuries passed, the animosity and hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans increased until, in the time of Jesus, Jews generally considered the Samaritans heretical half-breeds who were worse than dogs.
Because of this engrained generational prejudice it was very common for good and pious Jews living in the northern region of Israel known as Galilee to take one of the longer routes around Samaria as they journeyed to Jerusalem for festivals or worship. One reason a longer route would be preferable to the northern Jews was ritualistic cleanness. The Jews were not permitted to have any contact with that which was “unclean” and still be acceptable for festival participation and temple worship. Since contact with a Samaritan would render them unclean they would avoid it if they could.
It is into this ethnically, socially, and religiously tense setting that the text tells us, “But He (Jesus) needed to go through Samaria.” Why would Jesus need to go through Samaria? As we ponder this thought it might confound us if we are thinking like religious people. The answer is only found as we recognize that Jesus was not thinking about His own ritualistic piety; He was thinking about the thirsty people living in Samaria who needed Him.
He needed to go through Samaria because He needed to meet this woman, He needed to preach in this village, and He needed to teach His disciples something about the harvest. Jesus needed to go through Samaria because it was the only way to minister to, and teach His disciples to minister to, a group of the people whom He had come to save. Meeting this woman, teaching in this village, risking ritual uncleanness and subsequently becoming ritually unclean was something Jesus had to do for the sake of His calling. He needed to go through Samaria. But where do I need to go? What prejudices do I need to get over? Whom do I need to forgive? What does the harvest look like in my world?