“Now he had to go through Samaria.” John 4:4
Usually my blogs address a commonly misunderstood passage of Scripture, but this verse is more often overlooked than misunderstood. At first glance, it seems like it serves as a transition sentence, indicating that Jesus was leaving Jerusalem in Judea to go north to Galilee. However, there are a lot of issues at play.
First, the Jews and Samaritans hated each other. The Jews thought the Samaritans were half-breeds who had betrayed Judaism by creating a new religion with a new temple on a different mountain. “Strict Jews, like the Pharisees, disliked the Samaritans so intensely that they avoided their territory as much as possible.” (Morris, NICNT, p.226) So when John writes that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria to get to Galilee, he is not saying there was no other way to get there; many Jews chose to go around Samaria even though it added several days to their journey.
The phrase “had to” is a translation of the Greek word δεῖ (pronounced “day”), which in the past tense generally means “had to” or “it was necessary.” Josephus uses the same word ( δεῖ) to describe the same route through Samaria, saying “it was necessary for rapid travel.” If you look on the map below, it is clear that this is the case. It would be much easier and faster to go through Samaria than to try to go around it on the other side of the Jordan River to the east.
Some say John used this word to express the urgency that Jesus “had to” go through Samaria so He could get back home to Galilee as quickly as He could. If that is true, then why would Jesus stop and talk to one of the Samaritans and wait for her to bring back her neighbors? Clearly something deeper is happening.
Jesus did not have to go through Samaria. He could have done what many others did and gone around it. Heck, He could have spoken into existence a toga jet pack or a speed boat to fly over or go around Samaria. But since He “had to” do the work of God, it was necessary for Him to go through Samaria. I think Jesus explains it best in John 9:4-5. “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Based on this passage, Jesus “had to” go to Samaria for several reasons.
1. Jesus understood that He didn’t have any other choice: He had to do the work of God, shining the light of truth in a world filled with darkness.
2. Jesus understood that He didn’t have much time. It was urgent that He not waste any time going around Samaria to avoid conflict when His mission was to be a light to the whole world and not just the Jews.
The key element to understanding δεῖ is determining what made the action necessary. In other words, some type of compulsion prompted the need for action so that Jesus “had to” do it. Was it a sense of duty? Was it complying with the law or cultural norms of the day? Arndt and Gingrich’s Greek-English Lexicon lists these, but perhaps the most fitting is this: the compulsion of “divine destiny or unavoidable fate.” In other words, Jesus went to Samaria because He was divinely compelled to do so. God’s prompting was irresistible to Him and He had to act just like someone with OCD has to wash their hands repeatedly. The difference is that Jesus acted out of a compulsion fueled by love rather than anxiety.
So what is God compelling you to do? Change careers? Foster care? Go away to school? Go on a missions trip? If it is God, it will be too big for you to handle on your own and it will wreck your life – but maybe life as it is isn’t life as it should be.
Whatever it is, God won’t let up. It is your divine destiny. You will always sense frustration and dissatisfaction until you give in. Until you feel “it is necessary” and that you “have to” do it, δεῖ will be just another word to you. But if you let God’s will become irresistible to you, it will change your life forever. Seize the δεῖ.