By Terry Crist
We all come from different places. We live in places. In first-century Israel, the land was dotted with approximately 240 closely-knit communities, much like modern neighborhoods. These small villages ranged in size from just a handful of families to around one hundred residents, covering three to four acres—a scale comparable to a modern high-rise.
Jesus himself resided in one such community in a place named Nahum’s Village, which is known to most of us through our Bibles as Capernaum. This was Jesus’ neighborhood, the setting for his daily life. He selected the majority of his disciples from within these intimate communities, performed the majority of his miracles there, and delivered most of his sermons and parables in these settings. In every sense, Jesus was a product of his neighborhood, deeply rooted and engaged in the life of his community. He was a neighborhood kid through and through.
Though he was embedded in a neighborhood, Jesus saw a world of mission and ministry beyond it. Refusing to be confined to the block, he ventured into other communities throughout Galilee and beyond, which is how he ended up in Samaria.
The Gospel of John, a beautiful, textured, and rich literary masterpiece, offers layers that cannot be fully appreciated by those of us living two millennia after it was written. This challenge invites us to engage with the story in a deeper, more personal way.
While the efforts of scholars who delve into historical-critical exegesis are valuable, understanding John requires a more nuanced appreciation of its literary artistry. His distinct editorial vision emerges not only from his claim to have witnessed enough of Jesus’ ministry to fill the world with endless volumes but also from his choice of stories to recount. These choices are designed to guide readers to know and believe that Jesus is the Messiah and that through faith, they may have eternal life (see John 20:31). We must read the Gospel of John with our hearts and our heads.
In a sudden and beautiful turn of phrase, John introduces us to an unexpected movement within his writings, without any prior warning or explanation: “Now he had to go through Samaria.” But why? Why did he have to go anywhere? Why couldn’t the Samaritans come to him as so many others did throughout the Gospels? For that matter, why do we have to take the gospel into all the world? Why can’t we leave it to people far from God to find us?
Because some never will.
Samaria, Land of “The Other”
Samaria was unlike any other place Jesus visited. It had a painful history and an ongoing legacy of rejection and marginalization. It was the place religious Hebrew people avoided for this reason: generations earlier, invaders had taken the land, bringing in foreign peoples for resettlement and labor. This already “mixed” population intermarried with Jews, mixing their ethnicity and their religion into the bloodline of the chosen people—and all of this right in the promised land. As a result, the Jewish community hated the people of Samaria. No self-respecting Jew would have dealings with them if they could avoid it.
The Samaritans were often perceived as the other, a faceless group defined not by their individuality but by their collective identity. They were not seen as individuals with whom one could meet, befriend, or interact. Rather, they were a category, a monolithic “them,” their humanity obscured by generalizations and stereotypes. Many of their Jewish neighbors would have viewed them through the lens of their different religions, appearances, and ways of life.
But these distinctions were more than mere observations; they were barriers. The term Samaritan seemed to blot out individual characteristics, reducing a diverse community to a single, simplified label. This label was believed to tell you everything you needed to know, rendering personal engagement undesirable and even unnecessary. It was as though understanding of or empathy toward the Samaritans was out of reach or somehow inappropriate. Safer to avoid them in person, to keep them at arm’s length, and perhaps even to condemn them from the comfortable distance of unfamiliarity.
Breaking the Rules
Jesus, however, wasn’t playing by the rules. He did not conform to the expectations or rules of the religious community of his time. He was not there to reinforce prejudices, promote discrimination, or teach the pious how to be more virtuous. Instead, his presence in Samaria was guided by a singular, compelling force: love. This love was not an abstract or generalized sentiment; it was specific, personal, and deeply passionate. God’s love reaches out to real people, each with their unique stories, struggles, and complexities.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria doesn’t merely recount a passing moment in his itinerant ministry, it illuminates a profound spiritual reality. God will not allow us to cling to our prejudices, stereotypes, or broad-brush judgments of others. Jesus’ connection to the Samaritan woman breaks down barriers and puts a face to a place often reduced to a stereotype. It is a poignant reminder that God’s love is not just broad, encompassing all of humanity, but also deep, reaching each individual with profound intimacy and care. It is a love that refuses to let us think of entire groups of people in abstract ways and impersonal terms.
The Depth of God’s Love
While we celebrate the vast embrace of God’s love for the world, this story calls us to remember the depth and personal connection of that love, recognizing each person’s value and significance. Sometimes our focus on the width of God’s love, wide enough to surround the whole world, makes us forget about the depth of God’s love for each person.
There’s a reason the beloved verse in John’s gospel proclaiming that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son” is followed up with the story of that son in Samaria. God is telling us that the world is more than a sea of humanity. And just as Jesus saw this woman, with all of her pain, complexity, and humanity, we are called to see the faces around us.
What if we saw the world not merely as a faceless mass of people but as a tapestry of individual faces, each cherished by God? How might such a perspective transform our understanding of community, influence national conversations, and shape global awareness? What positive impact might it have on the quality and authenticity of our daily interactions? By recognizing the sacred worth of each person, we can enrich our souls and create a world more aligned with the love that pursues us all.
Loving Samaritans is more than a call to mere empathy, it is an invitation to radical love, mirroring Jesus’ love affair with the Samaritans. It’s about recognizing the special nature of every person we encounter, regardless of their appearance or behavior. It’s about seeing others as God sees them and loving them as he loves them, fully and unconditionally. This is the profound message of the gospel: the story of a God who loves not in the abstract but in the real, the raw, the messiness of our world without reservation or retreat.
Why does this matter?
Because the world has a face. And in this story, it is the face of a woman at a well, waiting to be seen, heard, and loved.
Adapted from Loving Samaritans: Radical Kindness in an Us vs. Them World by Terry Crist. Click here to learn more about this book.
You can live a radically inclusive life without compromising your beliefs or the truth of the gospel.
Humanity is more divided now than ever, gridlocked over social issues, race, gender, climate change, immigration, and our responsibility to vulnerable people. How did we get here? And what can we do to build bridges where walls exist?
As a pastor committed to building deep relationships with people whose life experiences are different than his own, Terry Crist knows the beauty and challenge of connecting across dividing lines of race, economic status, faith, and much more. In this book, he shares how you can too.
Profoundly weaving the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well with his own stories and examples from culture today, Terry addresses how we’ve strayed from the unity God intended and how we can trade judgment for grace, disputes for harmony, apathy for empathy, and hate for love and acceptance. By the end of this book, you will be able to:
- Identify how you see the world and why it matters
- Recognize those on the margins who are right around you
- Imitate Jesus’s love for all humanity in the interactions you have with others
- Extend dignity to those suffering from mental illness, homelessness, and addiction
- Maintain thriving relationships when family members are on opposing sides of issues
- Be an ambassador of reconciliation in your community
It doesn’t have to be one or the other—you can both love God and love your neighbor.
Loving Samaritans: Radical Kindness in an Us vs. Them World by Terry Crist is published by Zondervan Books, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Terry Crist is the co-lead pastor of City of Grace in Phoenix alongside his wife, Judith. He has a TH.M. and a D.Min. and has a business certificate in nonprofit management from Harvard Business School.
Terry is also passionate about community transformation and promotes adoption and foster care through his work in state government. An avid outdoorsman and gifted communicator, he has adventured and preached the gospel in 65 nations.
Terry and Judith have three married sons and three grandchildren. They live in Phoenix, Arizona.