Two thousand years after the fact, the relationship between the Samaritans and Jews has been covered with dust like so many relics. When Jesus traveled through Samaria and rested at Jacob's well, He spoke at length with a Samaritan woman—something that shocked many of His disciples. All John's gospel affords us in way of background is a parenthetical statement that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." But a closer look reveals the complexity of Jewish-Samaritan relations that only a contemporary of Jesus (i.e., John) would know.
The animosity between the two groups comes across clearly in the woman's surprise that a Jew would ask her for a drink. Various histories relate stories of the Samaritans selling Jews into slavery, killing pilgrims, and trying to desecrate the Temple. Jews, in turn, made many accusations against their Samaritan neighbors.
On the other hand, more moderate views also come down to us. Not all Jewish rabbis (religious teachers) taught that anything a Samaritan touched was unclean (i.e., forbidden for Jews to touch, eat, or own). So, while most Jews detested the Samaritans for what they considered flawed views of the Old Testament and proper worship, they likely did not consider them Gentiles or heathens.
If the Gospel of John had been written later than John's lifetime, as some claim, the writer would not have known these nuances of the Jewish-Samaritan relationship. The disciples could buy food in nearby Sychar and eat it—and yet still be shocked that their Teacher would be speaking with a Samaritan and asking her for water. The food would be clean, but the interaction and request would be completely unexpected.
But more important than just the historical accuracy is the spiritual awakening of the woman at the well. Jesus broke through racial boundaries to reveal the moral failures common to every human (John 4:16-18), to highlight the futility of our own efforts to find salvation (John 4:19-24), and to point to the only true answer for humanity's spiritual needs: Himself (John 4:25-26).
Adapted from The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (Book III, Chapter VIII) and from the lecture notes of Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament Exposition at Shepherds Theological Seminary (used by permission).