I’m not going to tell you today’s Scripture yet. First, I want to tell you something about Samaritans – their place, their race, and their religion.
We’ll start with the place. A city, to be precise. 1 Kings 16:24 tells us that Omri, King of Israel, bought a hill and named it Samaria after its original owner. That hill becomes a capital city, which might sound confusing if you remember Israel under King David – what about Jerusalem, right? But this all takes place after the death of David’s son, Solomon, after the split of the ten northern tribes from Judah. So it was Jerusalem in the south, but Samaria in the north. By the time of Roman occupation in Jesus’ day, “Samaria” was no longer an official, separate territory but was still a distinct place in the eyes of Jews.
A place born from division.
In 722 BC, something happens to bring race into the picture. The mighty empire of the Assyrians conquers Samaria, and many of the Israelite residents of the Northern Kingdom are removed to make room for Babylonian immigrants (see 2 Kings 17:6). The exile is not ended until 539, when the Persians come to power and their ruler, Cyrus, allows the Jews to return home if they like. But that’s almost 200 years later; generations have passed, and many of the remaining Israelites have married some of those immigrants. Eventually, “Samaritan” comes to infer a people born out of this intermarriage.
In the area of religion, there is much common ground. After all, the roots of Samaritans are as Israelites of the united monarchy under David. Samaritans, like Jews, believe strongly in only one God. Samaritans, like Jews, read the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). Samaritans, like Jews, celebrate festivals such as Passover and Pentecost and Booths. Sounds pretty much the same, right?
But pretty much doesn’t cut it, especially in our human religious system. The difference here: the Holy Place. For Jews that is the Temple in Jerusalem, but for Samaritans it is Mount Gerizim, just southeast of the city of Samaria. This may be one difference among many similarities, but it’s a huge difference. It’s a deal breaker.
Samaritans are not Jews.
In Jesus’ day, they lived in a different place, a region that included Mount Gerizim, located (roughly) between Jerusalem and Galilee. They were a different race, descendants of intermarriage. They had a different religion. They were, in short, “those people.”
You know “those people.” I know you do. They’re the folks that are too different from us. Their skin is a different color. They spend their free time doing things we don’t do. They believe things that we don’t like. Their food smells strange to us. They’re so different that we don’t know them by individual names – that would make them friends or acquaintances. We know them by their group name, or sometimes, simply “all of them.” Those people.
Samaritans were “those people” to Jews in first century Palestine. Jews avoided travelling through Samaria. They tried not to interact with Samaritans. They looked down on them.
Those people – the Samaritans.
With that in mind, let’s hear the Scripture for today; how Jesus interacted with and talked about those people.
How did Jesus treat “those people”?
He offered them water. He talked with them. He used them as positive examples. He healed them.
But first, he went to them.
John 4:4 tells us that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria on his way from Judea (in the south) and Galilee (up north). There’s debate about this, though – some evidence indicates that the best route was actually not through Samaria. Remember, Jews didn’t like “those people,” so the slightly-longer but better road may have been around Samaria. What if Jesus didn’t really “have to” go through Samaria?
Instead, he “had to” because of the way he loves all of us.
So Jesus goes there, on purpose, and while he’s there he has a conversation with a woman at Jacob’s well. He offers her living water, which she doesn’t understand at first but eventually understands enough to see who Jesus really is: the Messiah.
Jesus “had to” go there, because if he hadn’t, he never would have met this woman. Right? She was a Samaritan, living in Samaria. How else would he have crossed paths with her?
As an adult in American society, this makes solid sense to me. When I was a kid, growing up in public school, I spent much of my time with people different from me. I had classmates who were Jewish. I knew kids whose parents made much more or much less money than my parents. I sat in class every day with students whose skin was darker than my skin.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve noticed that I don’t get that same exposure. I gravitate toward people who are like me, because we have stuff in common. I collect friends who have kids, or have been to similar schools, or come from similar backgrounds, because that gives us plenty to talk about. This isn’t a horrible thing except that, over time, I’ll find myself only in the company of people who look and believe and live a lot like me.
I could be ok with that, if that’s the kind of company Jesus kept.
But it was not.
Jesus went to “those people,” those different people, and we are called to do the same. Most of the time, this does not just happen on its own. We have to decide that we’re going to take the route through Samaria, or go into that neighborhood, or walk across the room to talk to that person, or get a little brother.
I have a friend I’ll call Mark. He laughs a lot and does spontaneous things, which makes him a fun friend to have, but the best part about Mark is that he has such a big heart.
When Mark was in college, he got his first “little brother” – you know, the program where an adult mentors a young person, giving them a positive role model. He says he did this just because his older sister told him to, but still – how many college students give up hours of time each week to hang out with a kid?
Mark says he wasn’t a perfect “big brother” in college, but it prepared him well to do a better job once he graduated and moved back home. Then he was paired up with a young man that I’ll call Andrew. Andrew was the same race as Mark, but had a different background. Where Mark had grown up in a stable house with two parents who held down decent jobs, Andrew’s dad was in jail, and his good-hearted single mom struggled to finish college while supporting Andrew financially and emotionally. Which is why she signed Andrew up for a big brother.
While Mark and I lived in the same town, I remember him bringing Andrew to all sorts of places. Some of these were no-brainers, like children’s activities at church. But sometimes Mark would come over to hang out with a group of our friends and I’d be surprised to find Andrew in tow, just riding around doing things together for a couple of hours.
Mark explained to me this week that this is actually encouraged by the program. Do special things together sometimes, sure, like a trip to the zoo. But not all the time. Pick up your “little” and go run errands. Let him see you and how you interact with people in the grocery store or pumping gas or wherever.
So for six years, as Andrew made his way from elementary to middle to high school, Mark went to him, picked him up, and did life with Andrew.
To make the point clear: Mark never would have met Andrew without this kind of intentionality. Mark had to make a choice to be a part of this program. He literally and figuratively went to Andrew, when there was a more-travelled and easier route leading elsewhere.
Jesus went to “those people.” If we are truly his followers, then we will follow him over there, to be with “them.”
And once we get there, what do we do? Well, we act as their neighbors of course.
Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? A man is robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. The “religious” folk – a priest and a Levite – pass right on by, despite his desperate need for help. Then one of those Samaritans comes by and stops to help. The man – Jewish, we might assume – does not refuse the help, even though it’s coming from one of “those people.” (How could he? He’ll die otherwise.) Jesus asks a pointed question at the end of this parable: “Who was the neighbor?” The matter-of-fact answer is obvious; it was the Samaritan who stopped to help. But the implied answer is that even “those people” can become neighbors through an act of loving kindness.
There is no shortage of these acts of loving kindness in Mark’s relationship with his “little brother.” All those hours and days, generously and freely spent together, might be the best gift. But a more dramatic, recent example, is the truck Mark bought Andrew when he turned 15. He bought him a truck! To me, this is the equivalent of the Good Samaritan not just stopping to help someone on the side of the road, but on top of that paying for his care as long as he needs it.
You would think that all this would put Andrew into Mark’s debt, creating a heavily lop-sided relationship of mentor and mentee. But here’s something cool: When I talked to Mark this week, he reminded me that Andrew and his mom had recently moved to another state. Mark laughed, saying how much he and his wife missed Andrew. He said when they went to parties or big functions at church, Andrew would work the room and talk to people, bringing the party to them. Now, they almost felt out of place – where was their socialite? I could hear the smile in Mark’s voice telling me that Andrew was coming in a couple weeks so they could spend their spring break together.
This relationship started as a middle class guy taking an intentional, altruistic interest in a kid facing several disadvantages. What Mark talks about now, though, sounds more like friends, or siblings. It’s family.
Acts of loving kindness change “those people” into neighbors.
If we are following Jesus, he is leading us over there, to “them.”
If we are listening to Jesus, he is telling us to do good works for “them” when we get there.
Just in case we might want to shirk this responsibility, don’t forget that Jesus makes it clear just before he leaves the disciples in Acts 1:6: “And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.”
Now that we know all that “Samaria” meant to first-century Jews, we know that this is a call to go to “those people.”
So the next questions are: Where do we need to go? Who do we need to visit?
Take a moment and think:
About the places you might need to go. What countries seem beyond God’s love to you? What cities always make for bad news? What neighborhoods are you reluctant to walk through?
About the races you might need in your life. When you look at your Facebook friends, is every face the same color? When you walk into a crowded room, do you always go right toward the people who look like you?
About those who practice religion differently than you. How about Christians who believe differently than you on some (small) detail – do they have a place in your heart?
Or maybe about the person who lives right down the street, but you try not to make eye contact as you pass. What about them?
Who are your “those people”?
I have a challenge for you, and it’s not to go to those people. If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that’s what comes next – as followers of Christ, we must go to those people. But first, I want you to do something equally dangerous:
Pray for those people every day this week.
Write their name down, either as a group or as an individual. Pray for them, without fail, for the next seven days.
And be warned: If you are brave enough to do so, God will start to reveal a path to you.
An easier route will be available, one that avoids “those people” altogether.
But the Holy Spirit that Jesus left us will point you in a different direction.
To a path that is less-travelled.
To Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.