John 4:1-45 | A Surprising (Re-)Marriage
by Lindsay Kennedy
In John 4:1-45, Jesus travels from Jerusalem in the south to Galilee in the north. In doing so, he travels through Samaria, a place that Jews usually avoided.
There was a great history of animosity between the Jews and Samaritans. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam caused the ten Northern Tribes to separate themselves from Judah in the south, the north quickly fell into idolatry. While both the north and the south had their fair share of wicked kings and false worship, the evils of the north were consistently greater. This culminated in God’s punishment of the north by means of Assyria. The Assyrians began by capturing Samaria, the capital city. As recorded in 2 Kgs 17:24, Assyria’s solution to dealing with a conquered people group was to both remove the locals and then resettle the land with foreigners and their gods. This resulted in inter-marriage between the two and a loss of cultural and religious identity.
In contrast the Judeans, or Jews, retained their identity even though they suffered exile in Babylon. When the Jews returned to the land (as recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah), unsurprisingly, there were tensions between themselves and the locals (the Samaritans).
An Unfaithful Wife
Ezekiel 16 tells a very graphic story of Judah and the Northern Tribes (Samaria) and their descent into idolatry. Their rampant worship of false gods was likened to prostitutes so insatiable that rather than receiving payment, they paid their lovers. In Hosea, the North is compared to an unfaithful wife. In Jeremiah, 3:8, we are told that God “divorced” Israel, so to speak. However, Ezekiel 16 ends with hope that Judah and Samaria would be restored from exile and forgiven of their sin.
Ezekiel 36-37 records God’s promise to restore His people from exile. He states that He will make a new covenant with His people, forgive their sins, and empower obedience through His Spirit. In the classic passage of the valley of dry bones there is an often-neglected section where Ezekiel takes two sticks. On one he writes “for Judah” and on the other he writes “For Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him.” The latter is a reference to the Northern Tribes, who were dominated by those from the tribe of Ephraim (Joseph’s son). Ezekiel is then told to join the two sticks into one, and told that this is a prophecy that God will one day restore Israel and Judah into a united people who worship Him.
As Jesus enters Samaria, He encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. This scene recalls the stories of Isaac’s wife Rebekah, Jacob’s wife Rachel, and Moses’ wife Zipporah all being met at wells. However, this woman—like Samaria that was re-populated by five foreign people groups with their gods (1 Kgs 17)—had five husbands. The was currently living with a man who was not her husband. Following the marriage theme, this would make Jesus her seventh “suitor.” In light of John’s consistent symbolism, this would indicate that He is the ultimate husband. God promised to restore Israel in the north, and here Jesus is enacting that symbolically with the Samaritan woman.