The Samaritans lived in the land that once belonged to Ephraim and Manasseh in Israel. Their capital was Samaria, a city occupied by people from a wide variety of nations after the defeat of Israel by Assyria mentioned in 2 Kings 17:24.
Over time, the remaining Israelites married foreigners who served other gods. Samaritan religion grew to become a mixture of pagan worship with variations of worship of the Lord (2 Kings 17:26-28). The Jewish people looked down on Samaritans and had little to do with them for several reasons: their mixed-ethnicity, their ignorance and disregard of the ways of God, and their worship of God on Mount Gerizim instead of at the Temple in Jerusalem.
In the time of Joshua, the area of Samaria was known as a place of refuge or hiding for criminals (Joshua 20:7). Generations of harboring criminals would have given Samaria a notorious reputation, one further worsened by the influx of non-Jewish residents under Assyrian rule who followed the teachings of other gods. Later, after the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans opposed the reconstruction of the wall of Jerusalem, seeking to stop the work (Nehemiah 4). The Scripture of the Samaritans also differed from the Jewish people. Samaritans accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The other inspired writings included in the Hebrew Bible were rejected.
Understanding why Jews despised Samaritans sheds light on two important New Testament passages. First, there is the account of the woman at the well with Jesus in John 4. The Samaritan woman was not accustomed to a Jewish man willing to speak to her. When Jesus asked her for a drink, she replied, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?" (John 4:9). Their discussion transitioned from cultural differences to water to her marital status to the issue of worship and of Jesus as the Messiah. This woman then shared her story with those in her town and many people believed in Him.
The second account is the well-known narrative of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. There a Jewish man is robbed and left injured on the side of the road. Both a priest and a Levite passed by without stopping to help, likely concerned about becoming ceremonially unclean and unable to perform their religious duties. The third man, a Samaritan, stopped and helped, going above and beyond the expected to the extent that he even left money to pay for the man's stay in an inn. Jesus' point was that our actions make us neighbors, not the similarities in our backgrounds.
After the resurrection of Jesus, Samaritans would be treated much differently by His followers. Though Christianity initially spread among Jews, Acts 8:25 reveals that Jewish Christians soon began to share the gospel with Samaritans. This was a fulfillment of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) which included sharing the gospel with everyone, both Jews and non-Jews (Romans 1:16).
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