"There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink.' (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, 'How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?' (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)" (John 4:7-9)
In John 4:7-9, Jesus crossed three barriers. The first was that which separated Samaritans from Jews. In the eighth century BC, the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and deported the Israelites who lived there. In their place, the Assyrians brought other peoples to populate the land (see 2 Kings 17:24). These Gentiles sought to worship both the gods of their homelands and the local deity, the God of the Israelites, so they mixed the religions. This was a grave offense to the Jews, and over the centuries their hatred only grew as the Samaritans developed their own brand of Judaism. Because of this resentment, most Jews traveling between Jerusalem and Galilee went the long way around Samaria and carefully avoided personal contact with Samaritan people. Rabbi Eliezer taught, "He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine." So the first barrier Jesus crossed was a barrier of ethnic and cultural hatred.
This Samaritan was also a woman. It may not seem scandalous to us for a man to sit at a well with a woman, but it certainly was in Jesus' day. Religious Jewish men used to thank God daily that they had not been born Samaritans, but they also prayed, "Blessed art thou, O Lord . . . who hast not made me a woman." A rabbi would lose his reputation if he spoke publicly to any woman, even his own wife or daughter. Yet Jesus unashamedly crossed that gender barrier.
Third, Jesus overcame a social and religious taboo by asking for a drink. Jews did not share utensils with Samaritans; doing so risked separation from the fellowship and worship of God's people under the temple rules. But Jesus deliberately crossed that line, too. Even the woman was astonished by this, asking, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (v. 9).
Why did Jesus cross these barriers? Because He cared for the woman's soul. We, too, have to cross barriers to reach people for Christ. This does not mean that we should participate in sin—Jesus never did that. But it does mean that we have to reach out to people who will never come to church or read the Bible. This woman did not belong in the religious world that produced Jesus. So He came into her world with the gospel. He crossed ethnic, gender, and religious lines to seek her out. William Barclay exclaims, "Here is God so loving the world, not in theory, but in action." We must do the same on His behalf.
In His exchange with Nicodemus, Jesus gave us a very negative explanation for unbelief: He said that people love darkness and hate light (John 3:19), so they have no interest in Christ. But more of the story is shown in John 4. Many people are kept from God simply because they think they don't belong at church. They assume that believers will look down on them. Moreover, they feel uncomfortable in religious surroundings, the way a Samaritan would have felt in Jerusalem. For all these reasons, they are not likely to come to us, so we have to take the gospel to them.