If people know of the Samaritans, it's probably a result of having heard the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) or from reading John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1ff). The Samaritans reappear in the Book of Acts, when Philip, one of the seven "Deacons", having been run out of Jerusalem, "went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them."
There are a number of theories as to the identity of the Samaritans, a group of people living in the region between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, but what seems clear is that while Judea and Galilee were populated largely by Jews, the residents of Samaria were of a different background. The center of their region was the ancient city of Shechem, where according to Stephen Abraham was buried, and Mt. Gerizim. Although not Jewish, they followed a form of religion similar to that of the Jews. It was centered on the Law of Moses, but there were some modifications to their version of the Pentateuch.
Whether or not there were significant ethnic differences, the two groups differed as to their authoritative books, the location of the place of worship, and the form the cultic system may have taken. In spite of their differences, they shared a common faith in Israel’s God, observed Mosaic law, and hoped for a messiah. And yet, they also shared an intense hatred for each other. [S.v. "Samaritans," by H.G.M. Williamson, in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, eds., (Downer's Grove: IVP, 1992)].
Whatever the differences between the two groups, Philip finds himself in Samaria, and begins to preach. It would appear that his preaching is accompanied by signs and wonders, including healings and exorcisms. As one would expect, these signs attracted attention and large numbers are converted. As a result, there was "great joy in that city." Philip's ministry is described in the same way Luke described the ministries of Peter and Stephen, or for that matter the ministry of Jesus.
The Although they were baptized by Philip, Luke says that they didn’t receive the Holy Spirit. We can only speculate as to why this happened, but Luke suggests that something was lacking. When the Apostles heard of the conversions in Samaria, they took notice. Hearing that the Holy Spirit had not fallen on these believers, they decide to investigate further and send Peter and John to pray for them. After their arrival, Peter and John prayed and laid hands on the people, and the Spirit descends upon them.
Although we can only speculate as to why this occurred the way it did, it is good to remember that this is a boundary crossing event. Prior to this moment all converts had been Jews in good standing. Now, we have before us people who were deemed deficient in their beliefs and practices. Could it not be that, in Luke’s mind, God needed to make sure that the Jerusalem church recognized this fledgling new community, that they needed to affirm the witness to a group they had deemed second class? This is especially important in the light of the long history of dissension separating the two peoples. Thus, this appears to be a sign of the providence of God.
As a side note, it should be stated that this passage has been used historically to define the rite of Confirmation. The assumption is that there is a two-step process by which a person is baptized for remission of sins and then at a later point receives the Holy Spirit. One sacrament is enacted by a priest, and the other by one having apostolic authority. Philip can baptize, but being that he’s not an apostle, he cannot convey the Holy Spirit. It is here that the idea of apostolic succession is rooted, for the church insisted that the bishops were the successors of the apostles and were therefore the one's called to convey to believers the Spirit.
As we consider the meaning of this passage of Scripture in its original context, what are its missional implications for the church today? What barriers and boundaries must be crossed so that the Good News might be shared?