I harbor a deep dark resentment in my heart for a certain type of people. Whether I know them or not, I prejudge them. They are the dregs of society. A scourge on decency and an abomination.
I’m referring, of course, to fans of the Denver Broncos.
Allow me to elaborate.
In 1998, the Kansas City Chiefs hosted a tightly contested playoff game against the Broncos. Early in the match, Chiefs defenders noticed something odd. En route to rush quarterback John Elway, the offensive linemen were, well, more slippery than usual. They notified officials, and the referees discovered a foreign substance on the arms and jerseys of three linemen.
After the game, the NFL revealed Mark Schlereth, Brian Habib, and Gary Zimmerman had used vaseline to make it more difficult for defenders to gain leverage on their way to the quarterback. This tactic, no doubt, was in response to the fierce pass rush of the Chiefs, particularly that of linebacker Derrick Thomas. Earlier in the season, the Chiefs beat the Broncos, sacking Elway six times.
The Broncos wound up winning the playoff game 14-10 on their way to a Superbowl XXXII victory. For their crime, the three linemen were fined $5000 each.
Did the surreptitious vaseline application, dubbed Slimegate, have any effect on the outcome of the game? Maybe, maybe not. But Schlereth remains unrepentant:
Did I grease up my jersey, and use sticky substances on my gloves? You're damn right. What you call cheating is a fine line. It's an interesting line. What we did, in the locker room, is called being creative.
As a 14-year-old, the loss crushed me, and I can point back to this game as the genesis for my hatred of all things Denver Broncos. I know it’s irrational. But maybe those of you deep south Southeastern Conference fans can relate with your Alabama-Auburns and Tennessee-Floridas. In Norman, Oklahoma (my hometown) you must despise the University of Texas, Oklahoma’s chief rival.
But if you think those rivalries are intense, you have never experienced anything like the 1st Century Jewish-Samaritan divide. These people despised each other, and their roots of resentment ran deep.
A Rivalry Born
When you hear the word Samaritan your thoughts are probably positive. You might associate the term with the word “good” as in Jesus’s parable of the compassionate Samaritan who helped out a mugged Jew. Or you might think of the non-profit Samaritan’s Purse that helps provide food and medicine in the third world. When one helps out his or her fellow man, we might call that person a “good samaritan."
But to a 1st Century Jew, Samaritan was an epithet on par with Denver Bronco fan (or Oakland Raider fan, if you will). Yet the hatred festered much deeper than athletics. Imagine combining a sports rivalry with the Republican-Democrat divide and then sprinkling in a little 16th Century Protestant-Catholic acrimony. The resentment between Judeans (i.e. “Jews”) and Samaritans spanned hundreds of years of history.
At the death of King Solomon in 931 BC, Israel split into two kingdoms. Despite prophetical warnings from Hosea, the northern Kingdom of Israel turned away from God and chased after false deities. Here’s one compelling passage:
The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all.
Hosea 11:2, 7
Yet Hosea’s warnings fell on deaf ears. In response, God allowed the Assyrians to invade Israel, and they captured Samaria in 722 BC. The foreigners carried off the inhabitants as a way to divorce them from their identity as tied to the land. Then the Assyrian king, Sargon, repopulated the land with peoples from various surrounding territories. If Israel had once been a nation set apart for God, now it was inhabited by pagans.
Judah, of course, had trouble of her own, falling to the Babylonians in the same pattern as her northern sister. But Nebuchadnezzar took a different tack than Assyria, plucking only 10,000 of the brightest and most promising Judeans to dwell in his homeland, and he never repopulated Judah with foreigners.
With the Jews still in captivity, the empire of Babylon fell to Medo-Persian forces as depicted in Daniel 5. This same empire would eventually allow the return of the Jews to their homeland and would help facilitate the rebuilding of the temple destroyed by Babylon.
In the midst of the rebuilding effort, people from the north came and offered help, but the Jews not so subtly declined. Such a reaction might seem harsh, but the reality is that the offer was insincere. The Samaritans (as they came to be known) desired to sow discord among the Jews to prevent the completion of the Temple. Or, in the event the Jews succeeded, they wanted to be able to stake a claim in the edifice. From the Jewish perspective, they could not have polytheists of mixed ethnicity involved in their religious institutions.
(If you'd like to learn more, you should check out my detailed Old Testament reading guide. You can get your own copy for free here: How to Read the Old Testament without Getting Lost or Dozing Off.)
This was just the tip of the vile iceberg of hate between two peoples. Rebuffed, the Samaritans would build their own temple on Mt. Gerizim and even add an eleventh commandment to the Ten Commandments:
Across the Jordan you shall raise these stones, which I command you today, [on] Mount Gerizim. And build there the altar to the LORD God . . . bring on it ascend offerings to [the] LORD God, and sacrifice peace offerings, and eat there and rejoice before the face of the LORD God.
Or as one 19th Century theologian interpreted it, "Thou shalt build an altar on Mount Gerizim, and there only shalt thou worship!”
Relations only worsened in the late late 2nd Century BC when John Hyrcanus of the Hasmonean lineage (descendant of Judah the Maccabee) marched north and destroyed the Samaritan temple in an attempt to reclaim Palestine for a united Israel.
Did Jesus Really Have to Pass Through Samaria?
Against this backdrop of racial baggage we read the story of Jesus and his conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. When Jesus encountered the woman, He and His disciples were on their way back to Galilee from Jerusalem, and Samaria lay right in the middle. The scripture tells us, “He had to pass through Samaria” (John 4:4).
While it is true that the majority of Jews would take this most direct route to travel from Jerusalem to Galilee, some of the more extreme Pharisees would head east of Samaria through Peraea in order to avoid stepping foot in Samaria.
Therefore, as is often the case in the book of John, “He had to pass through Samaria” carries a double-meaning. He passed through because it was the most logical route, but also because He had to. He had to bring restoration. He had to bring reconciliation. He had to bring truth to this woman specifically and to the Samaritans as a whole.
John used this narrative to contrast Jesus with the Pharisees. Rather than engaging the pagan, they avoided him. Jesus, though, proactively reached out to this woman and asked her for water. For one who is unfamiliar with the aforementioned tensions, such a request might seem harmless. But in reality it would be a bit like a Capulet, asking a Montague for a cup of sugar. The woman’s surprised reaction says it all, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9). Jews and Samaritans don’t interact. Especially not an esteemed Rabbi and an outcast woman.
Although Jesus asked for water, he used the physical element as an opening to discuss spiritual matters. Water was the pretext, the starting point, for telling the woman about the kingdom. He told her he had living water by which she may never thirst again.
The woman, probably thinking him crazy, goads him into an argument. “Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself” (John 4:12). She’s bringing up old grudges, reviving the rivalry. She’s trying to say, “We don’t need your water. Your Jewish water. We have patriarchs like Jacob on our Samaritan side.” And Jesus says, in essence, “Ah yes, but even if you are right, drinking Jacob’s water leaves you thirsty still, while I can provide you spiritual water to quench death itself.”
Samaritans, though, can be hard headed when it comes to Jews, and so she says, "Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (John 4:15). Perhaps I’m reading the passage incorrectly, but I hear this phrase with a skeptical sneer, with jest. A pejorative jab at a Jewish rival. If so, the response from Jesus might seem vindictive. He told the woman to go fetch her husband, knowing full well she was five times divorced and shacking up with yet a sixth man.
Why Jesus Revealed the Samaritan Woman's Sin
But Jesus wasn’t being cruel. He did not concern himself with petty rivalries no matter how deep they ran. Instead he used his knowledge of the woman’s sinful ways for two reasons: first to cause her to acknowledge her immoral lifestyle (and thereby acknowledge her need for the living water) and second to establish credibility with the woman. She would not take Jesus seriously probably because He was Jewish, so He had to demonstrate His authority.
Even still, after acknowledging Him a prophet, she seems to want to justify her beliefs. She says "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (4:20). Notice that this is not a question. Jesus’ response is astounding, prophetic, and conciliatory all at the same time.
The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.
Jesus did not shy away from the truth, that salvation would come through the Jews. This is exactly what He had been trying to tell the woman from the start! He had living water from which springs eternal life. But yet He went on to downplay the conflict between Jew and Samaritan, saying essentially that it doesn’t matter on which mountain one worships because true believers worship God in spirit and in truth, not at a building or on a hill. The Samaritan temple had already been destroyed by Hyrcanus, And within a few decades Herod’s temple in Jerusalem would itself become a pile of rubble.
Jesus, a Jew, could have taken the Pharisee's route and avoided Samaria on His way back to Galilee. Instead he walked right through the middle, and made conversation with the lowliest of all. Not only was she a Samaritan, but also of low esteem among her own people. Having been married multiple times probably means she was unable to bear children and thus rejected by her husbands and the community at large. That she was drawing water at noon is also telling. Women typically drew water in the early morning and evening, not in the middle of the day. This woman came at a time when no one would be there to sneer at her. These are the kind of people Jesus embraced when the world rejected. These are the people the religious avoided. But these people are those who needed Jesus the most.
In reality, we are all like that woman at the well. We deserve no association with anything sacred, being ourselves vulgar and filthy. And yet, Jesus intentionally seeks us out just as He sought out the Samaritan. In doing so, He by no means endorsed her lifestyle, but rather pursued her that she might believe. Jesus demonstrated His love for the woman and the Samaritans in general, staying a few days at her request. This was at a time when no Jew, let alone an esteemed Rabbi would be caught dead hanging around the pagan Samaritans.
No matter your past or your heritage, Jesus is pursuing you too. As Paul wrote to his protege Timothy: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1:15
If Jesus can love a Samaritan, maybe I can learn to love a Denver Bronco fan.
2. Two other linemen were implicated but not fined.
4. See 2 Kings 17:24.
5. I have edited the translation slightly for clarification purposes. See the full (and very rough) translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch here: Online Interlinear Pentateuch.
6. Arthur Stanley, Lectures on the History of the Church of Scotland (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1872), 4.
8. Frank Viola and Mary Demuth, The Day I Met Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 99-100.