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What does Antoniou Platon famous portrait and documentary photographer, Ilse Crawford interior and furniture designer and Cas Holman unique toy designer have in common? Their EMPATHY for their clients! In order to discover more lucrative markets and buying trends, and drawing more customers one needs to study, analyse, and find the heartthrob of what people desire at a given moment in time. This entails empathy, asking more questions, listening, observing, and serving a felt need. Serving a person’s need is the holy grail of effective client service and successful business enterprise.

Jesus moved from empathy to compassion by healing the sick, saving the lost, setting the captives free, and dying for the sins of the world, so that we can be united with God. May we have His empathy and compassion for the lost.

Let’s study the well-known story of Jesus’ engagement with the unknown Samaritan woman as a framework to understand spiritual empathy in times of cultural, ethnic, religious, and ideological contestation (John 4).  

This story displays Jesus in action as He shows a sincere interest in the one whose testimony of Him redeems a village!

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Theodore Roosevelt

A Search for Legitimacy

Empathy is developed by a deeper understanding. Consider six reasons why Jews and Samaritans were in opposition with one another. Jesus’ empathy and compassion found this controversial discussion with the Samaritan woman necessary in order to address the issues of conflict between the two people groups. He was reconciling her heart back to the Father, giving her a pure perspective on reasons why she was hindered of true, “spirit and truth” worship (John 4:24).

First and foremost, the Samaritan Israelites crafted their identity within the exclusive framework of Israelite culture. They proudly referred to themselves as “the sons of Israel” and “the keepers” (shomrim). Conversely, Jewish sources often labeled them as “kutim,” likely derived from a location in Iraq from which non-Israelite exiles were relocated to Samaria (as recorded in 2 Kings 17:24). The term “kutim” was used in contrast to “shomrim,” which denoted the “keepers” and was a term Samaritans reserved for themselves. Jewish Israelite writings consistently emphasized the foreign nature of Samaritan religious practices, contrasting them with the authentic faith of Israel. Samaritan Israelites believed that such identification denied their historical right to be considered part of the Israelite people. They saw themselves as the faithful remnant of the Northern tribes, safeguarding the ancient faith. 

Secondly, the Samaritan Israelites staunchly opposed the worship of Israel’s God in Jerusalem, firmly asserting that the focal point of Israel’s worship was limited to a location ~ Mt. Gerizim—the mountain associated with YHWH’s covenantal blessing (as described in Deuteronomy 27:12). In contrast, Jewish and Judean Israelites regarded Mt. Zion in Jerusalem as the spiritual epicenter of Israel. A key reason for Samaritan Israelites rejecting the prophetic Jewish writings was the strong support these texts provided to Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty. 

Thirdly, the Samaritans adhered to a fourfold creed: 1) Belief in one God—YHWH, 2) Recognition of one Prophet—Moses, 3) Acknowledgment of one Book—the Torah, and 4) Affirmation of one sacred place—Mt. Gerizim. While most Jewish Israelites during Jesus’ era agreed with Samaritans on the first two points (one God and one Book), they diverged regarding the place of worship and the acceptance of additional sacred texts, namely, the Prophets and the Writings.

Fourthly, Samaritans believed that Judean Israelites had strayed from the true path of ancient Israelite faith, which they deemed heretical—a sentiment reciprocated by Jews towards the Samaritans. This historical and theological conflict between the two groups parallels the sharp divisions seen in contemporary Shia and Sunni Muslim disagreements. To outsiders, both groups may appear as Muslims, but to the Shia and Sunni, one is genuine, and the other is counterfeit; one is true, and the other is a pretender. The Samaritan-Jewish conflict of antiquity shared this divisive nature and played a defining role in the inner-Israelite polemic during the first century.  Similarly, but definitely more complicated is the Palestinian and Zionist conflict. Closer to home, the questions arise: “I am an African”?; “Are White people also African?”; “Who has most rights to the land?” These are global and ancient-historic causes for division and contestation.

Fifthly, it’s crucial to differentiate the Samaritans from a syncretistic people group (the combination of different forms of belief or practice or the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms). Both resided in Samaria, often referred to as “gentile Samarians”. These gentile Samarians were likely the individuals who approached returnees to Jerusalem seeking assistance in building the Jerusalem Temple, only to be rebuffed (as recorded in Ezra 4:1-2). Due to their theological convictions, the Samaritan Israelites (remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel) could not endorse the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As stated in 2 Chronicles 30:1-31:6, not all inhabitants of the northern kingdom were exiled by the Assyrians after the conquest of the land in the 8th century BCE. Many remained, preserving ancient Israelite traditions that differed from the later developments of Judean Israelite faith.

Lastly, the Samaritan Israelites employed a script known as “Samaritan Hebrew,” which directly descended from Paleo-Hebrew (ancient Hebrew). In contrast, Jewish Israelites adopted a new script with square, stylized letters derived from the Aramaic alphabet. By the time of Jesus, the Samaritan Israelites had also experienced significant Hellenization both in Samaria and the diaspora. Much like the Jewish Israelites had the Septuagint, the Samaritan Israelites possessed their own Greek translation of the Torah called Samaritikon. Intriguingly, Samaritan Israelites believed that their version of the Torah represented the original text, while they regarded the Jewish Torah as an edited version influenced by Babylonian Jews. Conversely, the Judeans contended that the Samaritan Torah had been edited to align with Samaritan beliefs. As evident, this historical relationship was far from simple.

Redemptive Roots

The way Jesus viewed Samaritans and His own ministry among them may surprise us as we continue looking into this story. Jesus’ journey through hostile and heretical territory has a meaning beyond any surface explanation. In a very real sense, God’s unfathomable plan and mission, from the time His royal Son was eternally conceived in His mind, was to bind all His beloved creation in redemptive unity. Jesus was sent in His compassion and empathy with frail and corrupt humanity to make peace between God and man. He also made peace between man and man.

The story unfolds at Jacob’s Well, the land he gave to his son Joseph.  A silent witness is called to the story: “the bones of Joseph”.  In Joshua 24:32, we encounter the burial of Joseph’s bones, brought up from Egypt by the sons of Israel and interred at Shechem. This reference becomes significant when we examine the Samaritan woman’s ordeal through a similar lens as Joseph’s suffering. If this interpretation is accurate, just as Joseph endured unexplained hardships to bring salvation to Israel, the Samaritan woman’s suffering ultimately led to the salvation of the Samaritan Israelites in her vicinity, as narrated in John 4:39-41.

“He told me everything I ever did.”

When analyzing this narrative from a traditional perspective, one might wonder how a woman with a questionable reputation (particularly in a conservative Samaritan community) could have prompted the entire village to abandon their activities and follow her to meet Jesus. The tone of her testimony, her insight and informed, direct questions, makes one speculate that she held social stature. Hence, also, the immediate result of her single witness: “he told me everything”, evokes a great crowd of men, (not women) following her, which speaks of her influence in the city.

There are alternative explanations for her being “with five husbands” rather than assumed sexual immorality. It’s important to consider reasons for her intentional diversion from society at the well in the heat of the day and how Jesus encountered her alone. People often withdraw from social interactions when grappling with depression, a condition that existed in Jesus’ time. This continues to affect individuals today.

Rather than assuming that the Samaritan woman had multiple husbands in rapid succession, it’s equally plausible to view her as a woman who experienced either the deaths of several husbands or whose husbands may have been unfaithful to her. Divorce could have been due to her inability to have children, also keeping in mind that women in ancient Israelite society did not initiate divorces.

Jesus’ statement that the Samaritan woman lived with a man who was not her husband doesn’t necessarily imply a romantic relationship with a boyfriend. It could signify that she needed assistance and resided with a distant relative or in an unconventional living arrangement to survive. Jesus’ intention was not to pass judgment but rather to convey His awareness of the hardships she endured. This interpretation aligns with Jesus’ compassionate character, as seen in other instances of His ministry when he demonstrated understanding and empathy, as exemplified by the phrase “He told me everything I ever did.”

Eternal Safety and Security

In Ancient society religion and politics were closely tied together, offering safety and prosperity for its adherents. The overarching motive for religious devotion was protection and prosperity. Jesus offers real safety and prosperity, by giving Himself as an inward reality. Political promises of safety and prosperity mostly presently disappoints and remains unrealistically futuristic. “One day when we are in power we will…” Jesus offers a now-solution: if you drink of Him, you will never thirst again! He becomes your eternal provision and safety! (John 4:14).

The enigmatic phrase: “to worship God in Spirit and in Truth,” (John 4:23-24) should be understood in the context of three mountains, not two (Mt. Gerizim, Mt. Zion and the Mt. [of] Spirit and Truth.) Jesus is saying to the Samaritan woman that she must look up to another mountain (Heb 12:21).

A New Allegiance

Shechem held a unique significance as one of the cities of refuge designated for individuals who sought a place of refuge when they had unintentionally caused harm or death. Inhabitants of Shechem lived under the shadow of the Torah’s prescription, aware of the extraordinary grace and protective function associated with this city.

The encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus at Shechem takes on added meaning when considering this location. Here, an emotionally estranged woman, feeling unsafe, resides or dwells near a city of refuge. She engages in a faith-discovering and covenant-renewing conversation with Jesus, the Royal Son of God who has come to reconcile all of Israel with their God. This dialogue occurs at the very place where ancient Israelites renewed their covenant in response to God’s words, sealed by two witnesses: the stone (Joshua 24:26-27), symbolizing their covenant obligations and faith in Israel’s God through verbal confession, and the bones of Joseph (Joshua 24:31-32), whose story guided their journey.

“Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God… But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. …On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God. Then he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak near the holy place of the LORD… Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel. And 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.” (Josh. 24:1-32)

When Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.”
Jesus reflected “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.” He was not condemning a sinful life, but in empathy saying: “I see your pain”, I acknowledge your suffering.” Empathy and compassion sees a woman who has suffered great loss. It acknowledges victims of immense probable challenges like death, abandonment, infertility, personal deformity or even adultery. Whatever the reality, it must have brought unimaginable shame to her. Yet it is obvious that she was committed to her religion amidst the actuality of the affairs of the state, the unfairness of social norms and the unjust bias against certain ethnic groups.

Therefore, when the Samaritan woman says to her village, “He told me all things that I ever did,” is not a remark of shame or guilt. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement and a moment of revelation: “This man saw my suffering!”

In a sense, the Samaritan woman mirrors the ancient Israelites by confessing her faith in Jesus as the Christ and the covenant Savior of the world to her fellow villagers (John 4:29-39). She becomes a witness and evangelist for Christ, just as Joseph, through his sufferings and journey, who played a role in the salvation of Israel. The connection between Joseph and the Samaritan woman extends further. Joseph received a special blessing from his father, Jacob, at Jacob’s death—a promise that he would be a “fruitful vine that climbs over a wall” (Genesis 49:22). Psalm 80:8 also speaks of this vine brought out of Egypt, with its branches spreading throughout the earth, ultimately bringing salvation to the world through the true vine. In John 15:1, Jesus identifies Himself as this true vine.

In conclusion, the Samaritan woman’s narrative and her interaction with Jesus are rich in symbolism and meaning. Her transformation and her role in leading her fellow Samaritans to faith resonate with the biblical themes of suffering leading to salvation and the inclusivity of God’s plan for all nations.

These stories woven from the old into the New Testament weaves an emphasis on the importance of empathy, understanding, and compassion ~ qualities Jesus exemplified. Now we, as His followers, are called to emulate these in our interactions with others. It also reinforces the idea that salvation is not limited to one group but extends to all who believe in Jesus as the Savior of the World, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries.

The Practical Take-Away For The Church

The Local Church should be a safe haven for people, where they can prosper and grow: Particularly in 3 areas:

  • Behavior
  • Belonging
  • Belief

In what way do we provide leadership to people in these 3 areas?

{{Footnote THE JEWISH GOSPEL OF JOHN; Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel, Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg; Kindle Edition.}}