🔼The name Samaritan in the Bible
The Samaritans originally were the inhabitants of the city of Samaria (in Hebrew: Shomron), which was founded by king Omri of Israel, and from which the kings of Israel ruled. This city grew out to be the central hub of an area called Samaria, which contained several satellite cities (the cities of Samaria; 1 Kings 13:32). The whole area quickly became infested with centers of worship of various pagan deities; a development that culminated when the Assyrians deported the indigenous Samaritans and replaced them with subjects from other parts of the realm (2 Kings 17:24).
The only time that the Hebrew word for Samaritan (שמרנים; Shomronim; Samaritans) occurs in the Old Testament is in 2 Kings 17:29, where the Samaritans are observed to having built shrines for the foreigners to place their idols in. Ezra uses the Chaldee form (שמרין Shamrayin) twice (Ezra 4:10, 17).
When the Jews returned from exile, celebrating the fact that they still existed as an autonomous cultural entity, they were so zealous about preserving their identity that they refused to associate with the foreigners as well as the Samaritans (Ezra 4:2, Ezra 10:10-11, Nehemiah 13:3). The Samaritans initially responded with envious aggression, but retreated and decided to build their own Yahwistic temple on Mount Gerizim (see our article on Samaria for more details). Post-exilic Judaism evolved into rabbinic Judaism and by the time the Samaritan temple was destroyed around 110 BC, Jewish animosity against the Samaritans had formalized and the Samaritans were viewed as worse than gentiles.
The stance on Samaritans of the New Testament is therefore miraculous and quite telling. Although there is still obvious mutual animosity (Luke 9:51-56), the Samaritan association with multiple deities and Christ's response to that is beautifully expressed in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). She has had five husbands but is currently unmarried, and awaits only the Messiah. Jesus and the woman discuss the Gerizimite temple (the destruction of which has divorced Samaria from Yahwistic worship), and Jesus explains that an era has began in which a person's location (= ethnicity) no longer influences his or her relationship with God.
Less abstract is Jesus' shocking story of the Good Samaritan, in which he instructs a theologian to (1) keep the Law, and (2) be like the Samaritan who showed compassion, and not like the Levite and priest who didn't. The story doesn't disclose the reaction of the theologian and his colleagues, and the impact of Jesus' story is nowadays probably much underestimated. Saying to a Jewish legal scholar of the first century AD that he should be like a Samaritan is like telling Richard Dawkins that he should be more like Anne Rice.
🔼Etymology of the name Samaritan
The ethnonym Samaritan obviously comes from the name Samaria, and that name comes from the verb שמר (shamar I), meaning to keep, guard, observe or give heed:
The Hebrew name for Samaria, Shomron, is formed by adding the ון (waw-nun) couple to the root, and the name Samaria means Place Of Watching, denoting a watchtower or some other elevation. The Samaritans, therefore, were the People Of The Watchtower, or Those Who Keep Watch.
It's quite clear that the meaning of the word Samaritan itself became a character in the story of the gospel. In Christ it's no longer important in which tradition we grew up, or even with what kind of care we observe rituals and liturgy. What is important is that we acknowledge that we are incomplete, and that we keep a diligent watch for the coming of the Messiah.
This idea is one of the great themes of the New Testament. Compare, for instance the story of the ten virgins; five who kept watch for their coming husband and five who didn't (Matthew 25:1-13). Or Paul's ministry to the Athenians (Acts 17:21). Or even the many references to "eagerly awaiting" a Savior (Philippians 3:20), the Christ (Hebrews 9:28, ) or general righteousness (Galatians 5:5).