The seriously engaged reader of John will ask many questions of the text. John’s Gospel is many-layered and rich in texture. So, what does he mean when he says Jesus “had to” go through Samaria?
To get from Judea to Galilee the fastest, most direct route did indeed pass through Samaria. But there was no geographical necessity that led Jesus through Samaria. In fact, many Jews — especially the more devout — would avoid contact with Samaria at all costs. They went around Samaria. The Samaritans were held in contempt as religious apostates who had mixed the purity of Israel’s worship with idolatry and the worship of pagan gods (cf. 2 Kings 17:24-41; Ezra 4:1-3).
Jesus’ barrier breaking ministry required that he go through Samaria. Jesus was always mingling with the “wrong people” — notorious sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, Roman officials, etc. He broke food purity laws, he healed on the sabbath, touched lepers, was considered a drunkard and glutton, and would now go through the territory many Jews loathed and would minister to one of the “enemy.”
The church has not always chosen to follow Jesus into the many modern-day Samarias. We have often spent our time ministering on our own familiar turf, mingling with people who are like us. But Jesus calls his church to follow him through Samaria. We are to focus our ministry on our own social outcasts, the morally compromised, the religious heretics, to go to those places that scare us, to engage people who don’t like us, to get our hands dirty with people who the rest of society would rather forget about.
Just before the sermon I gave on this topic, I was praying with a member of MainStreet. He shared that he had picked up a homeless hitchhiker on the way to church that very morning. He said it was an uncomfortable experience. The man was unpleasant and abrasive, he smelled bad and had multiple booger icicles running from his nose.
Many Christians passed this man by that morning (myself included!), but one disciple of Jesus chose to take the Samaritan route and stopped to give him a ride. Samaria is not comfortable, but it’s where Jesus invites us to go.
Where is the Samaria God is calling you to go through?