Photograph by Jackson David via Unsplash

Jesus and Samaritans 2.0

January 31, 2024

“The Samaritan woman, taken aback, asked, ‘How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’ (Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.)” – John 4:9, The Message

The Revised Standard Version translates this verse: “for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” The Contemporary English Version translates it “Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other.”

Against this backdrop of a longtime conflict, Jesus told some of his most important stories and in each case, he lifted up the Samaritan as the hero. Jesus was a Jew, and his audience were Jews. As soon as he mentioned the word Samaritan, his listeners might have booed or hissed, because Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. And yet, Jesus stood the world’s way on its ear and turned the villain into the hero. We might wonder if his family or friends might have cautioned him, “Jesus, do you have to make waves? Why do you throw dry hay on top of burning embers?” 

Grouping Jesus’ stories about the Samaritans together provides us a glimpse that he and his teaching about God’s Kingdom and God’s way favor the oppressed. Jesus’ people had been oppressed before, in Egypt under Pharaoh, and his people would be oppressed again, under Hitler and others. And yet, he leads us to consider that Christians should always favor the oppressed, and if the oppressed become free from oppression and become the oppressors, we should favor the new oppressed.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) begins with a teacher of the Hebrew law confronting and testing Jesus. Jesus mentions the two great commandments, concluding with the one from the teacher of the law’s own scripture – Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Pressing further to trip up Jesus, the teacher of the law asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. A man was beaten and robbed. Who stopped to help? Not the priest of the Temple. Not the Levite, a Temple official. The one who stopped to help the person in need was a Samaritan. By the time Jesus got to this part of the story, his hearers heard him say that their own leaders did not help, but their despised villain did. Jesus lifted up the despised and oppressed and made him the hero… which probably did not endear him to his hearers. Neighbor has evermore been redefined.

The Samaritan woman at the well. A second famous Samaritan story is when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. Having sent the disciples into town, he walks up alone to this famous well known as Jacob’s well. It’s high noon, hot, dusty, and he’s thirsty. At the well is a woman. She’s got a bucket with a rope. Jesus doesn’t. He asks her for a drink. In a land noted for hospitality, even towards strangers, that’s not too much to ask. The woman replies “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Then comes one of the most profound and important theological conversations in the gospels, revealing some of the greatest truths of God’s kingdom. At the well, Jesus explains that he is the living water, and whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst. Then he reveals a fact not to be overlooked. He tells her that “God is spirit, and those who worship [God] must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Consider all of Christianity’s battles over gender issues, and here it is: God has no gender, because Spirit has no gender. We tend to anthropomorphize God and recreate God in our own image, but God is bigger than that. God is spirit, and we are invited to encounter a spiritual realm. And then, she brings up the Messiah, and to this nameless Samaritan woman, Jesus reveals what everyone wanted to know: “I who speak to you am he.” I am he. The Christ. The Messiah, The Anointed One. God’s son. Ironically, it was not to the Jewish leaders that Jesus announced that he was God’s chosen. It was to a Samaritan, one with whom Jews have no dealings and have nothing in common.

Jesus embraced the Samaritans—who were despised by his people—and lifted them up as heroes in many of his stories. His message: Let us, people of faith, embrace those who are despised. Let us live like Jesus and the Samaritans 2.0.

The healed leper who said thank you. A third famous Samaritan story is about a leper who was healed by Jesus and who returned to say thank you. Jesus healed ten lepers. Only one bothered to come back to thank him. Luke 17:16 says: “He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.” The fact that the story makes an extra effort to point out that he was a Samaritan presumes the other nine were not, that they were Jews. Only the Samaritan returned to say thank you. That was to Jesus like a slap in the face: the ingratitude of the others, their forgetting a simple polite gesture to say thank you. It stunned him. Have you ever felt the sting of another person’s ingratitude… sort of expecting them to say thank you but it never comes? The Bible says: Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? So where are the other nine? Did none of them return to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18). Nine out of ten did not even turn around to say thank you. Only the Samaritan. The message of the story first makes us think about whether we have been ungrateful to God. As we dig deeper, we see that Jesus again lifted up a despised person and made him the hero of the story, with nine others portrayed as ungrateful people.

Only the nameless Samaritan leper gave thanks. Only the nameless Samaritan woman heard him announce he was the Messiah. Only the nameless Samaritan traveler stopped to help the beaten man. These despised, hated, intermarrying, impure “villains” were lifted up as the heroes. This says to me that Jesus’ followers ought to get this message and, like him, lift up the Samaritans of our world and become champions for the marginalized, the weak, the despised, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the powerless, the nameless, and the ones people don’t like… the ones the majority labels “not one of us.”

Jesus favors the oppressed. Who would they be today? Those who live in Gaza. (His own birthplace, Bethlehem, was in Palestine). Ukrainians. Refugees from Central America. LGBTQ people. Syrians. Muslims in Myanmar. South Sudanese. Jews. The list grows, and it hurts, and we are not sure how to help or what to do. And yet, taking our cue from Jesus of Nazareth, we are well-placed to favor the oppressed, and should the oppressed become freed from oppression and become the oppressors, we shall favor the new oppressed. Jesus embraced the despised Samaritans. His message: Let us, people of faith, embrace those who are despised.

Let us live like Jesus and the Samaritans 2.0.

Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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