I have long been intrigued about 3 words in the beginning of John 4. The intrigue centered on geography for one thing, but more importantly on Jesus again defying universally respected cultural bias and doing the unthinkable, at least to observant Jews. “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2(although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria.”
In Jesus’ day there were three regions stacked on top of one another. There was Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea in the south. The easiest and quickest way to get to Galilee from Judea was to go due north right through Samaria. John 4:4 says that Jesus “had to pass” through Samaria. Now why did he have to do that? The answer is, he didn’t. There was another route he could have taken. (Granted, Jesus and his traveling companions were tired and the shorter route would be a convenience. Besides, who would know?) Some pious Jews would go east, cross the Jordan River, enter the region of Perea, then go north, re-cross the Jordan River, and they would be in Galilee. This was out of the way but it meant they wouldn’t have to go through “off-limits” Samaritan territory.
A bit of history here. The Jews and the Samaritans disliked each other. Intensely disliked. It all went back to 722 B.C. when the Assyrians conquered Israel and took the northern ten tribes into captivity. They brought in Gentiles from other areas to settle in that same region. Eventually those Gentiles with their pagan ways intermarried with the Jews who had been left behind. Over the generations those people were called the Samaritans, and they developed their own religion that was partly based on pagan ideas and partly based on Judaism. Calling them half-breeds would be complimentary.
That brings us back to verse 3. Why did Jesus “have to pass” through Samaria when the Jews either didn’t go there at all or passed through as quickly as possible? I choose to believe the answer is simple and profound: Jesus went because he intended to meet the woman at the well. He knew she would be coming to the well at precisely the moment he was sitting there weary from his journey. Nothing happens by chance in this story. Every detail is part of the outworking of God’s will. And that, I think, is a hugely important point. The woman isn’t looking for Jesus. All she wants is water. But Jesus is looking for her. You have to go to Samaria if you want to reach Samaritans. (Get the subliminal message?) He doesn’t avoid Samaria and he doesn’t hurry through it. Though she did not know it, this woman had a “divine appointment” with the Son of God.
Now, as for you and me, I don’t believe as a follower of Jesus there are any places or people who have been placed on a taboo list. It seems quite the contrary. “Go into all the world and make disciples” were some of Jesus’ last words and they were meant to be timeless. Current day “Samaritans,” who would they be? Perhaps people spiritually far from God or with no apparent interest in him? Maybe “religious” people who have their own “hodge-podge” of religious belief with just a bit of “Bible” in it? We all probably know some folks like that. They don’t appear to be looking for our beautiful Jesus, do they? But like the Samaritan woman, would you consider that unbeknownst to them, Jesus is looking for them?
Come to think of it, prior to my coming to faith, I believe God could draw some parallels between me and that woman. He might have seen you in a similar light. And yet he “came to seek and save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:10) Whether we appreciate it or not, that same Spirit with a mission and yearning to save resides in everyone who calls Jesus Lord. Not just in evangelists.
While I don’t presume you and I have intentionally built walls to keep us from rubbing shoulders with our personal “Samaritans,” I’m not sure we make it a priority to create intentional pathways to them either. As with Jesus’ choice of itinerary, the pathway to unsaved people is shorter than we may be experiencing. I have found through personal experience and sadly even more-so in ministry, my exposure to people far from God is greatly limited. That may sound weird to you but most ministers’ time is spent with believers and helping them on their path and through their perils. It takes intentional planning and prioritizing to have access to people who need to hear, perhaps for the first time, that God loves them and that his grace, not their “goodness” or rule keeping, opens the door to a beautiful and fulfilling relationship with him.
Could we agree to think about this, about how we can make some relational headway with people who haven’t experienced our good Jesus? For starters, just one person will do. Moving them an inch closer to a real relationship with God. I’ll do it. Will you? Think about it.