Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself did not baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. But He needed to go through Samaria.
John 4 is a very peculiar passage in the days of the ministry of Jesus Christ. We will soon be addressed to the woman at the well, an outcast of outcasts (the Samaritans). We really should take a little time to actually go back in the Old Testament to understand why the Jews found Samaritans (essentially half-Jews) so detestable. We will find the passage giving us insight in 2 Kings 17:26-41. As many of the Israelites were carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, some Israelites as well as others nationalities were handled differently:
“So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, ‘The nations whom you have removed and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the rituals of the God of the land; therefore He has sent lions among them, and indeed, they are killing them because they do not know the rituals of the God of the land.’ Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, ‘Send there one of the priests whom you brought from there; let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the rituals of the God of the land.’
Then one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD. However every nation continued to make gods of its own, and put them in the shrines on the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities where they dwelt. The men of Babylon made Succoth Benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim. So they feared the LORD, and from every class they appointed for themselves priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods– according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away.
To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the LORD, nor do they follow their statutes or their ordinances, or the law and commandment which the LORD had commanded the children of Jacob, whom He named Israel, with whom the LORD had made a covenant and charged them, saying: ‘You shall not fear other gods, nor bow down to them nor serve them nor sacrifice to them; but the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, Him you shall worship, and to Him you shall offer sacrifice. And the statutes, the ordinances, the law, and the commandment which He wrote for you, you shall be careful to observe forever; you shall not fear other gods. And the covenant that I have made with you, you shall not forget, nor shall you fear other gods. But the LORD your God you shall fear; and He will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies.’ However they did not obey, but they followed their former rituals. So these nations feared the LORD, yet served their carved images; also their children and their children’s children have continued doing as their fathers did, even to this day.”
What we are seeing when we look at Samaritans are those who are not only mixed in their ethnicity, but also in their worship. Jews were and still are very stringent, especially orthodox Jews, on the purity of their religion. Certainly in Jesus’ day this would have been the case, and it was a commonly held position among the Jewish people to greatly detest the Samaritans.
When Jesus brought up Samaritans in his parables, it definitely would have been eye-opening and the cause of much bristling. A good Samaritan? Can anything good come from Samaria? Sure, use them for illustrations about what to not be like, but don’t use them as the “hero” of the story! This will help us to understand why the disciples’ first inclination in John 4 is to not engage the Samaritans, but to get what they needed and to keep going. Even the disciples had their major hangups towards the Samaritans, and this very well was part of the necessity of a vital lesson they needed to learn.
So, backtracking to the beginning of this passage, the need to move on came “when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John.” Why was it a need? What could have happened? The issue of time comes up throughout the Gospels; Christ is very particular about His timing (see later in John 7:1-8 that His “time had not yet fully come.”) There were times when Jesus evaded the scene for sake of improper timing. In John 6:15, right after the feeding of the five thousand, it says, “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone.”
The point to be made is that there were very different responses to Christ and his miracles and influence: some believed on Him, some wanted more from Him, and some wanted to do away with Him. He was very judicious with what He would or would not do in every given moment, moving into some situations and moving out of others.
Furthermore, we must observe that He left Judea with His disciples and headed to Galilee. He decided to go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee. Look at v. 4: “But He needed to go through Samaria.” For the verse to say that He “needed” to go is what should draw our attention. Jews did not go through Samaria to get from Judea to Galilee; they’d consistently make their way around, even though it was a straight line to go through Samaria. Their disdain for the Samaritans was so great that they would essentially add about two days of walking (if walking) to their journey just to avoid the Samaritans.
The word for “needed” speaks of a compulsion, a drawing by necessity. Was it a necessity of time? Was it a necessity of safety in case He were followed? The necessity is most likely, given the text, a necessity of the will and work of God. Jesus knew what would take place when He went there and knew that many from the town of Sychar would end up believing upon Him. His disciples would nearly miss it, but He knew it was necessary to be in the right place at the right time for the work of God to happen as it had been eternally determined. His disciples needed to be there for the lessons they would learn as well.
We never know when we are stepping into a moment, however big or small, where some amazing things that God has eternally ordained are about to take place. It’s easy to overlook if we’re not careful or if we’re simply self-absorbed. If you’re a believer, there was a day when God knew it was the day, the day you’d cry out to Him, the day He’d embrace you, the day you’d call Him Father for the first time, the day you’d choose Him over your sin and depravity. In Luke 15:7, Jesus says, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”
While Scripture backs up the predestination of God’s chosen people, it also tells us of the excitement and joy when an eternal plan is consummated in the birth of every one of His children. It is truly a shame, though, when a believer has found life in Christ only to care about the security of their own future. Selfishness and discipleship do not mix well. We all need to grow to see Christianity as much bigger than ourselves; God still has plans for others that He needs to enact in His time, and He is still sanctifying many other people than us, too. Let’s pray that we are on board with the places He needs to take us for the ends He intends to accomplish.
Prayer: Today’s prayer comes from the words of Psalm 8:1-8
O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth, Who have set Your glory above the heavens! Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies, that You may silence the enemy and the avenger. When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen– even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth!