The Gospel passage we have just read was a bit longer than usual, but even that was the shorter version. The full version would have been twice as long, so rich in meaning is this story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
So rich in fact that anyone giving a homily this weekend has to choose between a number of separate themes running through it. And the aspect of the story I want to focus on today is the theme of Jesus, the destroyer of barriers and divisions between people.
The first barrier Jesus takes an axe to is the barrier that existed between the Jews and the Samaritans which had its origins in the eighth century BC. In 720 the Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Samaria – the result of a split which took place after the death of King Solomon - captured it, and transported the people to other parts of their empire. But many, especially among the poorest people, remained, and, in time, inter-married with immigrants from other countries. The original inhabitants had been Jews, just like those in the south around Jerusalem, but through mixing their blood with foreigners they came to be despised and hated by the Jews in the south. These experienced their own disaster, of course, in 580 BC under the Babylonians, but, since there was no widespread inter-marrying on that occasion, they kept their pure Jewish blood. So when they returned from Babylon to start rebuilding the Temple, the Samaritans were told that their offer of help was not wanted – this happened about 450 BC - and from then right up to Jesus’ time and beyond, there was only bitterness and hatred between these two peoples who had originally been one nation. History, of course, is filled with similar stories. The worst divisions are always within families and in a strict Jewish family, even to this day, if a son or daughter marries a Gentile, his or her funeral service is carried out. In the eyes of orthodox Judaism, such a person is dead. Even at our worst, we have never been quite as bad as that, but we have our own stories to tell about mixed marriages and the bigotry and prejudice that surrounded them in the past. I met one old couple here in West Kilbride who had been rejected and shunned on their wedding day by both their families, one Catholic and the other Orange. Jesus, however, by reaching out to the Samaritans, is showing us that there’s no place for such things in the new world he calls the kingdom.
But there was another barrier Jesus brought down that day by Jacob’s well. Because the person he met there was not just a Samaritan. She was a Samaritan woman, and it’s almost impossible for us today to appreciate what a radical thing Jesus was doing by speaking with her. The strict rules of the time did not allow a Rabbi to greet a woman in public. A Rabbi could not even speak to his own wife, daughter or sister in public. In his commentary on this passage, William Barclay, whom I quote from time to time, tells us that there were Pharisees called ‘the bruised and bleeding Pharisees’ because they shut their eyes when they saw a woman in the street and so walked into walls and lamp posts, or would have done had their been any. To be seen talking to a woman in the street was the end of a Rabbi’s reputation and its against this background that we have to undersand the radical nature of what Jesus was doing when he asked this woman for a drink and engaged her in a very personal and intimate conversation. He was going against a deep-rooted prejudice against women which predated Christianity by hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. It’s a very primitive prejudice, rooted in the way men, from earliest times, have found women both attractive and frightening at the same time. We could explore this story further, but the important thing to understand today is that Jesus has no truck with any of this. The whole story is a vindication of the fundamental dignity and equality of the sexes, a truth neither the world nor the Church has yet fully come to terms with.
And yet the Church did so at the beginning. There is no longer any distinction, St Paul says, between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, an idea which had a big influence on the early Church. In a ‘Thought for the Day’ during the week on Radio Four, the speaker explained that this was the reason so many women and slaves were drawn to Christianity. He explained how, in the Roman world, the head of a household, who, of course, was a man, had power over every aspect of the lives of those who lived in the house, including their bodies, and so, whether it was the women or the slaves, was free to do whatever he wished with them. Which helps explain why so many of the early Christians were either women or slaves or both.
And it’s very important that we understand this today. One of the issues of our time is the role of women in the Church and the way the Church discriminates against them. But it’s important to understand that it was not always like this and doesn’t have to be like that now. The teaching of Jesus expressed in today’s Gospel story was initially a liberating one for women, as anyone who reads the Acts of the Apostles will see for themselves. The discrimination and prejudice which grew up later and which are still with us, had nothing to do with Jesus and were never an authentic part of the tradition. They came from outside the Church, from the secular world around it, and are like a virus that has taken over the Body of Christ, a virus which has its origins in a time long before Christianity even existed. It really is primitive and the soonerwe shake it off the better.
But there’s one other little detail in the story which I want to draw your attention to. And its where we read that the disciples had gone into the Samaritan town to buy food. It would be easy to pass over this detail and not notice it. But it’s an important one. It shows that even in the short time they had been with Jesus – this comes early in Jesus’ public life - the apostles were already beginning to change. No Jew would have done such a thing. But they did. Yet another barrier was breaking down, and I invite you to pray that, as we get to know Jesus better, our prejudices and the prejudices of the Church will begin to fall away too.