Jesus' departure to Galilee at this time was probably a wise thing to do. The religious leaders had not been happy with John, and Jesus was becoming even more popular than him. Thus, they would quickly become antagonistic toward Him also. Perhaps the avoidance of persecution was a cause for Jesus' departure.
John's mentioning of Jesus going through Samaria is significant and sets the stage for the rest of the chapter. Jews, because of their hatred for Samaritans, would generally travel east to cross the Jordan River, then north, and finally re-cross the river in order to avoid traveling through Samaria. Jesus, however, takes the shorter route straight north--directly through Samaria.
Let us spend the rest of our time today considering some relevant background information regarding the Samaritan people.
The nation of Israel was united until Solomon's son, Rehoboam, came to power. He was rejected by the ten northern tribes because he pledged a harsh and tyrannical rule--even worse than his father's. In his place, the people of the northern ten tribes appointed Jeroboam king and became the Kingdom of Israel. The remaining southern tribes, known collectively as Judah, allowed Rehoboam to rule over them.
The northern tribes continued as a separate nation for just over two hundred years. During this time, some nineteen kings reigned over Israel, representing nine families. Eight of these northern kings were either assassinated or committed suicide. None of them were faithful to the Lord; each of them promoted idolatry. Because of Israel's disobedience (cf. II Kings 18:9ff), the Lord allowed the Assyrians to march victoriously against the northern kingdom. The siege against Samaria, the capital city of Israel, lasted from 724 to 722 B.C.
An Assyrian governor was placed over the territory. Many of the Israelites were taken as captives to Assyria, and, in their place, a foreign upper class of people was imported (II Kings 17:24). Mixing ethnic populations of captured nations had been instituted by an earlier Assyrian king to diminish chances of rebellion among conquered people. This mixing resulted in the formation of a hybrid race which came to be known as the Samaritans. They were part Hebrew and part Gentile.
Historically, there was never a feeling of kinship between the Samaritans and the remnant of the southern kingdom of Judah. In fact, the Jews who resettled Jerusalem after their captivity considered the Samaritans as mongrels or half-breeds, who were not regarded as Jewish.
However, before this alienation, there had been considerable intermarrying. As religious and social exclusiveness grew stronger in Judea, intermarriage became a serious issue. This situation continued until Manasseh, brother of the Jewish high priest, married the daughter of a Samaritan. The controlling religious party in Jerusalem demanded that he divorce her at once. Rather than comply, Manasseh withdrew from Jerusalem at the invitation of his father-in-law, taking many priests from the Jerusalem temple with him.
The father-in-law of Manasseh, a man of considerable wealth, soon built and established a rival Jewish temple on Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans set up a form of Jehovah worship, complete with animal sacrifices. They used a copy of the law of Moses in their worship, which they had brought with them from the temple in Jerusalem. They also dedicated a set time to observe the various ritual feasts and offerings, although with some minor differences from those observed in Jerusalem.
These two religious groups, the Jews and Samaritans, developed side by side, each charging that the other was debased and corrupt. In Jesus' day, it was well understood that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Jesus' parable about the "good" Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and incident with the Samaritan leper (Luke 17:15,16) attacked the prejudice of the day. The teachings of Jesus sought to replace such prejudicial feelings with the spiritual qualities of mercy and thankfulness.
We will consider Jesus' interaction with a Samaritan woman in our lessons next week.