The old rift between Samaritans and Jews began in 930 BCE. Way back then, jealousy ignited a tribal war, which ended in Israel’s split into two countries. The tribe of Judah became the southern kingdom with its capital Jerusalem while the other ten tribes formed the northern kingdom with its capital Samaria (hence Jews of the northern kingdom were called Samaritans). Ongoing conflicts between the Jewish tribes further aggravated political hostility and opposition as centuries went by.
It is with those centuries of opposition and incidents between their peoples that we can understand the surprise of a Samaritan woman when Jesus addressed her out of the blue. Jesus had been touring Israel for a while. Wherever He walked He talked about the kingdom of God. He was sitting at a well resting after a long day’s journey when the Samaritan woman showed up. That’s when He asked her for a favor: a drink of water.
In the ancient Middle East a man wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a woman, unless she was family. Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman carried many counter-cultural notions, not the least of which was gender equality. If a woman is more than the extension of her husband, she becomes a human being whose input is valued, whose opinion matters, and whose questions are taken seriously.
And here is the loaded question that must have bothered the Samaritan woman for a while. She asked Jesus point-blank (John 4:19-20):
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’”
Essentially, the woman was asking Jesus: “Where do we worship God?” This question was based on the assumption that worship is bound to one particular location and nowhere else. However, can God really be tied to one location? God is Spirit, isn’t He – and His Spirit is known to be like the wind. No-one can fence Him in. The wind of His Spirit blows everywhere. Our hearts are brushed by His wind whenever He speaks to us. If God had chosen a capital, it wouldn’t be Jerusalem or Samaria or any other location on this planet that we deem sacred. God capitalizes on our hearts. It’s within our hearts that we worship God in Spirit and in truth. And our hearts are indeed the one and only location where God wants to be worshiped.