Read the Gospels and it is clear that many first-century Jews believed other ethnic groups were inherently unclean. One of these groups was the Samaritans, who occupied part of the area between Judea and Galilee at the time of our Lord’s earthly ministry. The prejudice that many Jews held against the Samaritans is seen in stories such as the parable of the good Samaritan, where a Samaritan’s helping a wounded Jew was a scandalous idea (Luke 10:25–37).
The history of the Samaritans explains why many Jews rejected them. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and took most of its citizens into exile. Many of the Israelites who were left behind intermarried with the other peoples whom the Assyrians brought in to settle Israel after they took the Jews from their land (2 Kings 17; 2 Chron. 30:10–12). These peoples brought with them their pagan religious practices, and many Israelites adopted them, continuing the idolatry that prompted God to send Assyria after them in the first place. Later, during the intertestamental period, Jews in Judea who wanted to adopt Greek culture fled to the north because the Jewish authorities sought to purify the Jewish culture of Gentile influences.
Over time, the Samaritans moved closer to the worship of the God of Israel, but they were still of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry. Furthermore, the Samaritans adopted the Pentateuch alone as their canon of Scripture, but they made changes to it that located the one place of worship at Mount Gerizim in Samaria and not Mount Zion in Judea. Thus, many Jews saw the Samaritans as unclean and would not travel from Judea to Galilee via the straight route that passed through Samaria; instead, they took a longer circuitous route around the region. Thus, it is easy to see why the Samaritan woman at the well was surprised when Jesus, a Jewish rabbi, met with her (John 4:7–9).
At their meeting, Jesus revealed truths about the woman and about Himself. But while Jesus confronted her on her adultery, He continually brought the focus back to Himself as the One who gives everlasting spiritual refreshment, explaining that God seeks people even from the Samaritans who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (vv. 10–26).
Our Lord’s meeting with the Samaritan woman shows us that our deepest need is not for water to quench our physical thirst but for water to satisfy our spiritual thirst. Only Jesus can provide that living water, and those who receive it cannot help but tell others about Him.