Written 2/15/14; revised 6/1/20
Back when I was a young padawan studying the Word, I had a bad habit of downplaying logistics. Whether geography, time, and/or historical backdrop, I figured by skimming the peripherals, I’d discern the passage more quickly without distraction.
However, as I now know, when we consider the Scriptures, we find every word, pronoun, and article carrying strategic purpose and placement.
Take John 4 for instance…
In this chapter, we find Jesus not only ministering to a woman at a well but [literally] going the extra yard in finding her.
Yet, before the encounter takes place, we’re given context retroactive to John 3:22-23 …
“After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized.”
This in mind, let’s flash-forward to John 4:1-6:
“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.”
In these two passages, we’re given three regions as backstory to John 4: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. With Galilee and Samaria, we’re given specifics; with Judea, the reference is less clear. Still, we have enough detail to discern the relationship between the three communities.
Note the maps below as they will come in handy in a minute…
Going back to v. 2, we find Jesus leaving Judea for Galilee from a somewhat debatable departure point. Assuming Jesus started where John was baptizing, we can deduce Sychar not only as a sensible midpoint but a contrast to how Jews traveled given the cultural climate between them and the Samaritans (see black/white graphic above). While traveling through Sychar made sense in terms of mileage, it’s only fair to wonder: Why Jesus did go there in the first place?
To answer this, we’ll need to examine a few more ingredients. So far, we’ve discussed geography as context; however, we still need to unpack…
Relational Dynamics: Back in Jesus’ time, it was culturally unacceptable for a Jew to enter a Samaritan town. As we see in the Good Samaritan parable, Samaritans were widely considered half-breeds (half-Gentile, half-Jew). If a Jew was departing Jerusalem on route to Galilee, he likely would have traveled east of the Jordan to avert Samaria (a difference of a marathon give or take); however, as noted earlier, Jesus took the road less traveled by to show us why he came to die. In this case, Jesus traveled to Samaria to share the Good News and to preview the Spirit as part of their worship. He knew by making his presence known, whatever social norms existed would soon pale in the light of the hope he carried.
The Timeline: Additionally, we must note the timing of this passage as v. 6, indicates:
“Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.”
Here, we must remember the “sixth hour” did not pertain to 6:00 am as we might surmise, but 12:00 pm according to the Jewish clock. Like the location, this seemingly small detail is rather significant. If Jesus appeared at noon, then clearly he would have arrived during the heat of the day – a time when many were indoors. With well activity peaking during dawn and dusk hours, it’s fair to say if Jesus had intentions of ministering to crowds, he would have arrived in the morning or evening. Accordingly, one must wonder: Did Jesus time his journey to Sychar?
In short, ‘yes’, Jesus had every intention of meeting the woman exactly when he did; however, the longer answer integrates the ‘why’, specifically why Jesus came to inspire this particular woman in light of her tumultuous history (v. 16-19). For starters, Jesus came to transform her life through the revelation of his compassion at the potential cost of his reputation.
Remember it was culturally unacceptable for Jewish men to speak to Samaritan women back then; even Jewish women would avoid dealings with Samaritan women given the tension. And toJesus’ credit, he was well aware of this; hence, why we chose a time where he could counsel one-on-one without being a distraction.
But as the case with any individual ministry, Jesus’ timing went way beyond public perception. For Christ so loved this woman at the well, he would transform her from ostracized outcast into a victorious vessel where his evangelism would snowball into cultural transformation. Once an adulteress, now a mouthpiece with testimony and message to share.
To me, this is what makes John 4 so captivating. When we consider Christ’s intentionality, his strategy to free this woman from bondage and ignite her hope through his identity, it’s hard not to get excited. Like Jesus, we should want to restore life amidst the broken hearts and dreams we encounter. We should want to ignite change in those who doubt their worth. But above all, we should want to accept the call to lead others to a greater understanding of who God is. Because at the end of the day, God’s love is contagious and captures why we’re here: To encourage the discouraged and stir love as the root of faith.
As the story concludes, the woman accepts Christ, his prophetic declaration (v. 21-24), and fearlessly saves many Samaritans as a result:
“Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me all that I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’ After the two days he departed for Galilee.” ~ John 4:39-43 (ESV)
Not bad for an ex-social leper who spent years pursuing false securities through unauthorized relationships.
At any rate, I hope you have a better understanding of why scenic and demographic details play such a valuable role in the ministry of Christ. As this chapter reminds us, even elements God transcends can help breathe life into desperate circumstances. If you want your life to speak, dare to seek God like no one else you can live intentionally like no one else. By believing God has established your steps, you can trust him to get you to where you need to be even if it’s mean a few extra minutes or miles.