When Racism Died at a Well

The title of this post should make most of us Christians say, “well of course.” However, the word “racism” is a modern word. When we read Biblical accounts sometimes we miss modern applications because we don’t see our modern words in the text. That is exactly what happens when we read the account of the Woman at the Well (John 1:1-42).

I have read that section of scripture many times and I have generally focused on the words of Jesus introducing salvation to this Samaritan woman. It is a beautiful story, but my previous casual reading of this text made me miss so much that is buried in these ancient words. But that changed recently when I was given the opportunity to teach this account to the youth group at my church.

About a year ago, I came across a little paragraph in my Chronological Bible that discussed some of the cultural realities of the time and I remember being blown away by how Jesus was turning the prevalent sexism of his time on its head (more about this in a later blog). But it was only recently, in preparing to teach the youth that the racial aspect of this account jumped out at me.

To see it, you have to understand the racial realities of Biblical times. By the time Jesus was walking on this earth, there was a centuries-old feud between Samaritan’s and Jews. When the Israelis had been taken captive by the Assyrians in approximately 722 BC, their captors had brought in colonists who intermarried with the few Israelis that had been left behind. This intermixed group of people would later be known as the Samaritans. Fast forward over a hundred years later, and a remnant of full blooded Jews had been allowed to return to their homeland by the Babylonians. This group of full-blooded Jews and their descendants came to despise the Samaritans and resented the fact that these Samaritans were now racially and religiously intermixed. (For a little more detailed history of this conflict read here.)

Enter Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus was a rabbi, and rabbinical standards of that time dictated that any “good” Jew would go nowhere near a Samaritan.  Why? Because Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” When I asked my youth group class what that sounded like using modern terms, a very perceptive junior high student responded, “racism.” The most “religious” of Jews hated Samaritans so much that if they needed to travel between Judea (in the south) and Galilee (in the North), they would travel west into Perea and go completely around Samaria which was sandwiched in between Judea and Galilee. Considering that travel time by foot was about two and a half days from Judea to Galilee, to take such a detour would have been very taxing. The hate ran deep.

Another common belief by religious jewish leaders at the time was that anything a Samaritan touched was unclean. That means that drinking out of the same vessel as a Samaritan would have been unthinkable. When I reflected on this, it brought to mind the American segregation era when blacks were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains as whites. Yes, the prejudices against the Samaritans can only be described as good old fashioned racism.

But what does Jesus, the rabbi do? For starters, he didn’t take the long route through Perea to get from Galilee to Judea. He went straight through Samaria. The text actually said that he needed to go through Samaria and many Biblical commentators rightly point out, I believe, that the need was a spiritual one. He had a divine appointment, even if the intended party had no idea what awaited her. The account says that he reached the Samaritan city of Sychar and he sat at the well and asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. With the simple words, “Give me a drink,” he broke down centuries of cultural, social, and racial biases. Why? Because by asking the woman for a drink, the King of kings was telling the woman, “I am willing to drink out of the same vessel as you because to me, you are not unclean, you are worthy.”

Obviously, none of us are worthy. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. Our worthiness comes from Christ alone and as He proceeds to talk with the Samaritan woman, he invites her to drink from His living water to eternal salvation. But his actions stand in stark contrast to the corrupted doctrines and biases of the religious leaders of his time. No wonder the Pharisees hated him so much, but Jesus would have none of it. If anyone had any right to feel superior to any other human being, it would have been Him. And yet, He did not act superior. A couple of years later in the ultimate act of humility he would die for all of us, for all races and ethnicities, even for those that hated him the most.

In this beautiful account of the woman at the wall, the actions of Jesus are a good reminder to all of us that we have to check our own prejudices and biases at the door when interacting with others. There is no room for racism in Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity is about love, love for even those we consider “unworthy.”

So what of the Samaritans? I am not sure, but I do know that a word that once was considered so vile by so many now has a positive connotation. Thanks to Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, we now associate Samaritans with something really good. There is even a law named after it, the good Samaritan Law, to protect those just trying to be good neighbors. But what I want to remember when I think about the word Samaritan is my King, and how he loved us all then and how he loves us all now.

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

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