In the time of Jesus, Samaria was a Roman Empire province situated between the provinces of Judea and Galilee. Although Jews were the predominant residents of Judea and Galilee, they were geographically separated by Samaria, whose residents were not Israelite. The Jews and Samaritans were rivals and enemies. They claimed to worship the same God—of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but they disagreed on particulars of worship: whether the proper place was the temple in Jerusalem or the temple on Mt. Gerizim; whether or not Scripture included the Prophets and Writings (Psalms, etc.); and whether the Samaritans were descendants of Jacob as they claimed. There were racial and cultural tensions between the two groups.
John 4 describes a trip undertaken by Jesus and his disciples from Judea to Galilee through Samaria. Jesus encountered Samaritans and thereby provided an example of Godly relationships. Jesus chose a controversial place to rest and used the occasion to act out the neighborly viewpoint that he held toward Samaritans: He started by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water (7-8). The woman reacted according to her contentious viewpoint (9). Instead of addressing her statement, Jesus led her into a discussion that opened the Gospel to her (10). The woman redirected the discussion to the contentious issue of identification (11-12). Jesus ignored the issue and reverted to the Gospel (13-14). When the woman began to respond to him, he took the opportunity to tell her a truth about herself that she did not think he should have known (15-19). But instead of staying with Jesus’ thrust, she again diverted the discussion to a contentious issue (20). Jesus, again, did not take the bait but proceeded to reveal to her a deeper truth (21-24). This seemed to capture her attention, leading to an inquiry about the Messiah, about which Jesus directly responded (25-26). When his disciples returned, Jesus used the opportunity to teach them about sharing the Gospel (27-38). John concluded with a summary statement about the effect upon the Samaritan people of the village: many of them became believers in Jesus (39-43).
This story teaches us how to situate ourselves as Christ’s servants not on one side or the other of a controversy but on the side of all as people for whom Christ came. Jesus was for the Samaritans and shared the Gospel with them; at the same time, he was for the Jews and upheld them and their true heritage, and he did this without antagonizing the Samaritans. We, in turn, without condoning the behavior of any, can boldly and clearly share the truth of the Gospel about Jesus, who loves all and gave himself for all.