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.