Samaritan Stories

[Texts:  Matthew 10:5-6; Luke 9:51-56; 10:25-37; 17:11-19; John 4; 8:48]

It’s rather odd that we always refer to her as “the Woman at the Well,” as if, like the Oracle at Delphi, this was where she could regularly be found, just in case an itinerant rabbi cared to drop by for a chat.  Same goes for the fictional “Good Samaritan,” whose traditional handle implies that he is the sole exception to the racist rule that “nothing good can come out of Samaria.”  These are the two most familiar Samaritan figures from the Gospel writers’ stories, but there’s more to the intersection of this people group with Jesus’ path and his imagination than this memorable pair.  Taken collectively, the Samaritan stories hint at the role God’s Messiah would have in reconciling ancient enemies, and fixing what had been broken.

The first-century Samaritans had no doubts about who their neighbors were.  Bordered on the north by the Jewish region of Galilee and on the south by Judea, they occupied what had been the allotments of Manasseh and Ephraim in ancient days.  To the Jews, who alternately avoided and insulted them, the Samaritans were like so much ethnic debris from Assyria’s resettling of the neighborhood.  They had their own mount of worship, Gerizim, although it no longer held a temple; and while their religion was rooted in the Pentateuch, they were considered by the Jews to be an unclean people.  Neighbors, perhaps, but not good ones.

Jesus used this inevitable antipathy to his advantage as a storyteller, riveting his audience’s attention to his point with the unpredictable identity of the hero in his exemplary tale of bad and good neighbors.  It seems that the Pharisees also harnessed this common attitude in order to more deliberately insult the rabbi from Nazareth:  “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48).

All of this may explain why, of the ten lepers, only one returned to give thanks – “and he was a Samaritan” (Lk. 17:16).  Whatever solidarity there had been in sickness, with health it vanished; only the nine healed Jews would have been accepted in the Temple to make sacrifices for their cleansing.  Significant, then, that Jesus faults the nine for not turning back as well.  Had they recognized him, nine Jews and one Samaritan would have been united in worshiping him, in gratitude and health.

It was early days yet for such unity, though.  That the breach between these peoples would eventually be healed through the Christ is an unspoken possibility suggested by his conversation at the well in Sychar – “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you (pl.) worship,” but rather “in spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23).  But the time was not yet, as indicated by Jesus’ instructions when sending out the Twelve:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt. 10:5-6).  Perhaps it was this consciousness of the proper order of events that led him to rebuke the Sons of Thunder for their drastic response to an inhospitable Samaritan town along their road (Lk. 9:51ff.); at the time, they needed to know that it was the Jewish towns who would bear the fires of judgment for their rejection of him (Matt. 10:15).

Meanwhile, no harm in keeping an appointment at a well, and leaving living water behind for everybody in the neighborhood.

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Filed under Gospel of John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Parables, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

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