Friday, 21 March 2014

Do you catch clean?

Do you catch clean, or do you catch dirt? Any fule do no that you catch dirt. If you sit next to Mrs Streaming Cold on the bus, before you can blink, you feel that wretched tickle at the back of your throat. If a cockroach crawls over your bread, it has made it dirty.

It is very easy to catch germs, and it is very easy to become unclean. We have an entirely well-based fear of contagion. It has kept us safe from sickness and plague. No wonder we trust it. It has protected us from moral and social contagion too. You don’t believe in moral contagion? Um. Well done. Only, ask anybody who is trying to get their teenager out of a downward spiral of behaviour. It is the friends who are encouraging each other in ever more destructive behaviour that are the first targets for action. Consult the various proverbs and comic verses. If you sleep with dogs you catch fleas. You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses (at which, the pig got up and walked away).

Dirt works like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. You can’t pass heat from the cooler to the hotter (try it if you like but you far better notter). No amount of sitting next to Mr Sports Coach on the bus will let you catch a six pack.

So it is that the unclean are shunned, like cockroaches. In Samaria, a woman who knows what she is comes to the well in the burning heat of mid-day. She does not need it pointed out again that she is a cockroach. She does not need the skirts drawn aside, she does not need the comments. She makes the pure unclean, just by being there. Jesus meets her, speaks to her as though she were not a cockroach, to be shunned. He asks care from her, and offers her cool water. Water from a deep well of pure.

In a remarkable story, layered with sparkling meaning, Jesus does one more remarkable thing. He makes clean pass to dirty. They touch. He does not become unclean. She becomes clean. The normal course of life is reversed in a transformation as remarkable as a resurrection.

What we consider clean and unclean has changed in my generation, in more than one instance most remarkably so. The principle remains. It is possible. It is possible to move towards what you think is wrong and impure, and to transform it by love. As I have prayed for poor Fred Phelps this week, I have been acutely aware of that. To me, he represents all that is most unclean. Yet he is an old man, dying.

This illustrates what love cannot do. Love cannot compel. I do not imagine Fred Phelps will have a death-bed conversion. Nor is the contagion of love a matter of hanging around to sort out the problems of others. Jesus is not derailed from his mission, he is not still in Samaria a year later, sorting out the upbringing of those children in one family with five different fathers. In a period which had no word or concept for ‘clear boundaries’, Jesus had astonishingly appropriate boundaries.

None of this should detract from the challenge of this story. Love, the disinterested love of our fellows on this earth, is the ultimate clean, and it does not work like the Second Law of Thermodynamics after all. You can catch clean, and you can pass clean on. We really ought to try it. Because, if that is not true, our faith is in vain.

Rosemary Hannah is a writer and historian living near Glasgow.

Posted by Rosemary Hannah on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 6:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Jesus' astonishingly appropriate boundaries. Beautifully conveyed Rosemary. I've heard and read this story many times and each retelling imparts another truth.

Posted by: Pam on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 7:33am GMT

"Any fule do no that you catch dirt."

Is this piece written in Scottish? [Gotta say, it threw this Poor Ignorant Yank for a loop. Perhaps my way o' talkin' does the same for y'all!]

Fred Phelps---what can I say? "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust". Lord knows we ALL need mercy at our ends...

Posted by: JCF on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 7:36am GMT

Rosemary, thank you.

Posted by: RPNewark on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 9:26am GMT

'Any fule kno' is not Scots, but a quotation from _Molesworth_, a series of comic books first published in the 1950s, reasonably well known among people of a certain age in Britain.

Posted by: Simon Kershaw on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 11:18am GMT

"any fule do no" and "You can’t pass heat from the cooler to the hotter (try it if you like but you far better notter)" are references which bring back happy memories for those of a certain age.

The schoolboy Nigel Molesworth in the books by Willans & Searle (1950s) used the former expression (actually "as any fule kno") , and the latter comes from the Flanders & Swann review "At the drop of (another) hat" (1960s).

My copy of the Penguin complete 'Molesworth' is at the side of my desk!

I need to get back to plotting Sunday's hymns.

Posted by: John Roch on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 11:40am GMT

And oh dear - my Christian name reveals my age too.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 11:41am GMT

O how dreadful to be "of a Certain Age"!

Brilliant piece, Rosemary.

Posted by: cryptogram on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 12:59pm GMT

Thank you John for bringing to mind that glorious decade the 1950s - a golden age before things started to swing a bit in the following decade. Yes, a new queen came to the throne and the Book of Common Prayer reigned supreme in all the Established parish churches and cathedrals of her realm. Television programmes were far more family orientated, no need for a Mary Whitehouse in the 1950s, how well I remember Whacko, Billy Bunter and Dixon of Dock Green. Yes, those were the days alright!

Posted by: Father David on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 1:07pm GMT

Really poignant piece, Rosemary, thank you!

In a sermon, I was told that another facet of the Samaritan Woman at the Well story is that she was not a whore. Then, only men could initiate divorce, not women. Thus, she was an outcast, someone who had been cast out 5 times. Also, 5 times was the limit that someone could be married. So the fact that she was living under the roof of a man to whom she was not married is interesting, she wasn't allowed to marry again. It may well be that that man was showing extreme compassion, as a woman was hard pressed to "make it" outside of the protection of a man's household.

I was told that this was a story of an outcast and compassion, more than that of a particularly sinful woman. It is a very interesting story, either way.

Posted by: Cynthia on Friday, 21 March 2014 at 3:51pm GMT
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