So Jesus came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. John 4:5-6a
John sets Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman on the land Jacob purchased near the ancient city of Shechem. John is not giving us a tourist’s guide to the Holy Land; he is telling us that God is reconstituting Jacob’s family on Jacob’s land, uniting Judeans and Samaritans in the person of Jesus.
Although the overwhelming majority of sermons I hear on this text emphasize the social divisions and prejudices that existed between Judeans and Samaritans, few seem to catch the underlying unity that Jesus was restoring. Samaritans and Judeans both understood themselves to be Jacob’s descendants and heirs of God’s covenant with the patriarchs. Samaritans saw themselves as descendants of Jacob’s son Joseph and his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.
Shechem and God’s Covenant People
According to the Book of Genesis, Shechem was Abraham’s first stop in the Promised Land. The city was situated on the shoulder of Mount Gerizim, across a narrow valley from Mount Ebal. Canaanites then owned the land on which Abraham camped, but God promised him that his descendants would one day possess this place. Abraham built an altar to the Lord at Shechem before he moved on to Bethel (Genesis 12:6-7).
Two generations later, when Abraham’s grandson Jacob (later known as Israel) returned to Canaan, he too stopped at Shechem. For a hundred pieces of silver, he bought the land where he camped from the family of a Canaanite tribal chief named Hamor. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Jacob, too, set up an altar to the God who had appeared to him (Genesis 33:18-20).
While Jacob and his family were camped on the land he purchased, Hamor’s son Shechem (for whom the city was named) raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Shechem was infatuated with Dinah and wanted to marry her, so Hamor proposed a merger with Jacob’s family. “We’ll marry your daughters and your sons can marry ours. You can settle in our midst. Buy more property. Open a business. It’s a win-win situation.” Jacob’s sons – the patriarchs of Israel’s twelve tribes – were furious, however, at the way their sister had been treated. To get their revenge they tricked the Shechemites. “We can only agree to your proposal,” they said, “if you agree to be circumcised.” The Shechemites consented to this arrangement because they saw it as a way to obtain access to Jacob’s wealth. While the Shechemite men were still in pain from surgery, Jacob’s sons attacked the city, killed the men of Shechem and looted the town (Genesis 34).
After the slaughter, Jacob’s and his family had to flee Shechem. For good reason, they were no longer welcomed by the other tribal leaders in the region. As his grandfather Abraham had done, Jacob moved his tents from Shechem to Bethel. Before he left Shechem, however, Jacob directed the members of his entourage to rid themselves of their foreign idols, which Jacob then buried under the oak tree near Shechem at which Abraham had camped. (Genesis 35:2-4)
Near the end of the Book of Genesis, with Jacob now in Egypt, the patriarch bequeathed the land he owned in Canaan to his sons, with an extra portion going to his son Joseph (Genesis 48:21-22). Genesis 48 does not specifically identify the land that Jacob gave to Joseph, but at the end of the Book of Joshua we are told:
Joseph’s bones, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem in the tract of land that Jacob bought for a hundred pieces of silver from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. This became the inheritance of Joseph’s descendants.(Joshua 24:32)
Shechem continued to play a major role in the early history of a united Israel. In the last chapter of the Book of Joshua, Shechem is the location of Joshua’s final speech to the assembled tribes of Israel. As the book comes to a close, Joshua recapitulates the history of Israel, calls on the tribes to abandon their other gods, challenges the people to serve the Lord alone and renews Israel’s covenant with the God of Jacob (Joshua 24).
God’s People and Land Divided
While the stories of Jacob and Joshua at Shechem recall Israel’s roots in the sojourn of the patriarchs and the conquest of the land, the city was also the site of tragic divisions within the kingdom.
The first of these conflicts is recorded in Judges 9, the story of Gideon’s illegitimate son Abimelech who murdered 70 of his brothers and set himself up as king in Shechem. Abimelech’s reign was short-lived as the Shechemites who initially supported him turned against him. Abimelech burned alive 1000 of his enemies as they took refuge in the temple of Baal-Berith (the Lord of the Covenant) in Shechem. Abimelech himself was mortally wounded in a subsequent attack on another rebel strong point. As he prepared to burn the tower to which the citizens of the town had fled, a woman on the roof dropped a millstone on his head.
More significant was the conflict that erupted between north and south following the death of Solomon. 1 Kings 12 recounts the story of Israel’s rebellion against Solomon’s son Rehoboam.
Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had gone there to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard this (he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), he returned from Egypt. So they sent for Jeroboam, and he and the whole assembly of Israel went to Rehoboam and said to him: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David, what part in Jesse’s son? To your tents, Israel! Look after your own house, David!” So the Israelites went home. But as for the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah, Rehoboam still ruled over them. King Rehoboam sent out Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, but all Israel stoned him to death. King Rehoboam, however, managed to get into his chariot and escape to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day. When all the Israelites heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. Only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David. 1 Kings 12:1-4, 16-20
The united kingdom of David and Solomon divided into two realms under two really bad kings. Jeroboam established the northern kingdom’s capital quite naturally at Shechem. The sacred location so associated with the patriarchs offered the rebellious king an air of legitimacy. Ten tribes – including Ephraim and Manasseh – aligned with Jeroboam in Shechem. Two tribes – Judah and Benjamin – remained with Rehoboam in Jerusalem. Tragically, the two kingdoms would never reunite. The whole people of God would remain divided.
In the 9th century BCE, the Israelite king Omri moved the capital to the newly built city of Samaria, from which the later Samaritans would draw their name.
The division between north and south only became worse in 722 BCE when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom, exiled its leaders and settled foreigners in the land. Some of the newcomers intermarried with the remnant of Israel, eventually setting up an irreconcilable breech between Jews and Samaritans. In at least one strand of the Old Testament tradition, intermarriage with foreign idolaters always leads to apostasy on the part of Israel. In one sense, the previously cited story of Dinah’s rape is a warning against just such a temptation. The Shechemites proposed intermarriage as a means of assimilating Jacob’s family and stealing their possessions. The Judean belief that the Samaritans had been corrupted by intermarriage made their northern siblings perpetually suspect in their eyes. Sometime after the Judeans returned from their own exile in Babylon, the break between Samaria and Jerusalem became complete.
The people of Judah and Samaria eventually came to look on each other as different people groups, no longer members of the same family of faith. Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim, adjacent to the city of Shechem. The Jews worshiped at the temple mount in Jerusalem. Some later Jewish writers even refused to acknowledge the Samaritans as descendants of Jacob, ascribing their ancestry instead either to the Canaanites who lived in the land prior to Israel’s conquest or to the foreigners imported by the invading Assyrians.
One approach to purifying the land of Jacob and Joseph called for the use of force. During the the Maccabean era, the Judean high priest known as John Hyrcanus led an army to invade Samaria. He destroyed the Samaritan temple, sacked the city of Shechem and compelled adherence to Judean religion. Judea was unable to maintain its military dominance in Samaria, but the two sibling nations remained bitter enemies.
Jacob’s land near Shechem, then, was not only a reminder of Israel’s former unity and God’s covenantal promises, it was also a symbol of the division that had torn God’s kingdom in two.
Jesus in Jacob’s Land
While traveling through the region of Samaria, Jesus stopped to rest at a well located on Jacob’s ancestral land near the ruins of Shechem. Meanwhile, his disciples went into the nearby village of Sychar to buy food. Sychar (modern day Askar) was a town about a mile from the ruins of Shechem. In 72 CE, the Romans built a new city – Neapolis (Arabic Nablus) – near the remains of the old town. In Jesus’ day, however, Sychar was the closest thing to a population center in the vicinity and would have been the logical place for Jesus’ disciples to obtain provisions.
As we have seen, the plot of land on which Jesus and the Samaritan woman had their conversation was deeply steeped in the history of the patriarch Jacob and the story of Israel. John specifically identifies the land as the “plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph” (John 4:2).
The Samaritan woman tells us how John wants us to see Jesus in this passage with her question, “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” (John 4:12).
Notice the use of the pronoun “our”, which points to the common ancestry that existed between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus does not contradict her at this point. Unlike Jacob’s avenging sons and the high priest John Hyrcanus, Jesus does not feel the need to eradicate this Shechemite. What Jesus and the Samaritan woman had in common as children of Jacob was even more significant than the matters that separated them, including Samaritan heresies and the woman’s own marital failings. Jesus was sitting in Jacob’s land, speaking with an estranged member of Jacob’s family whom he intended to reconcile to the God of Jacob.
Greater than Jacob
Of course John’s answer to the woman’s question is “Yes, Jesus is greater than Jacob.” Jesus is a kind of new Jacob, reconciling Jews and Samaritans in the community that looks to him as its foundation. Beginning in John 4:20, the woman’s conversation with Jesus turns to worship.
Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.
Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.
Jesus’ pronouncement is literally true. The Romans would destroy the temple in Jerusalem, ending the kind of worship that God prescribed for Israel in the Torah. But Jesus’ saying is also true on another level. To worship the Father in Spirit and in truth is to worship in union with Jesus himself. John uses a version of the word “truth” more than 20 times to describe Jesus. For John, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth Jesus that sends into the world, and the Spirit testifies to the world about Jesus (John 14:7).
When Jesus says, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth,” he is not making an abstract, philosophical point about the nature of God, a preference for the spiritual over the material, or the superiority of inward over outward worship.
Rather, Jesus is saying that he is now the proper locus of worship. The Jerusalem temple and its cult were indeed part of God’s plan (“We worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” John 4:22), but now something new has come into the world. All those who belong to Jesus worship in the Spirit and in truth wherever they are assembled. The cultic function of the temple has been transferred to the person Jesus himself.
This, then, is how Jesus restores the unity of Jacob’s family and overcomes the enmity between the estranged siblings. When the Samaritan woman told her neighbors about Jesus, many came to believe. As they spent time with Jesus, they confessed, “We know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Jesus established a new covenantal community, one that is the heir to God’s promises to the patriarchs. Membership in the community is open to both Jews and Samaritans who put their faith in Christ. This renewed, unified community of faith exists wherever the name of Christ is lifted up in worship.