Menu Close
12th March 2023

Facing Taboos

Passage: John 4;3-30


Jesus had been brought up an orthodox Jew. Meaning he was taught that Samaritans were the enemy. There was a history: the Jews originated as a slave race travelling through a desert. Under those circumstances they were very vulnerable and the only way to survive was by holding together tight as a faith and social community. Civilisation tended to be tribal at that time, with each tribe keeping itself to itself and to separate yourself from your tribe meant ostracism. Now it was after the Jewish people had established themselves in the land of Israel that, when King Rehoboam proved so harsh a ruler, there was a rebellion, with many people going off into the north of the country and crowning their own King, but the ancient taboo regarding tribal separation still held. The people in the north became the Samaritans and, even another eight hundred years later, when Jesus arrived on the scene, they were regarded as “deserters of the faith,” meaning that it was an offence against God himself to mix with them.

So here was Jesus, with a mission to reconcile all people to God, but taboos die hard, especially when they are religious.
The Christian church today has been seriously challenged to remove the taboos against homosexuality, transgender, race, varying Christian traditions and other faiths. As our society has become more inclusive, the church has been called upon to be equally so and this has involved some deep heart-searching. Yes, many Christians have been unhappy for years with religious teaching that makes certain people “taboo” but when you are taught that this is what God demands and when you can always find something in the Bible supporting this or that taboo, how can you trust your own heart? And if society is removing taboos, should the church be accepting the dictates of society or standing firm against them? After all, we applaud the German Christians who stood against Nazism. What is our duty to God? Jesus here is facing precisely the same challenge.

So, I asked myself, what did Jesus actually do? The first thing he did was to walk into the land of Samaria. Most Jews would take a different route if they wanted to get from the south to the far north of the country, but Jesus clearly decided to go and meet some Samaritans.
I remember visiting Belfast back in 1992, seeing the high walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas, looking at the slogans encouraging each to think of the unseen people on the other side as the enemy and I wondered how peace would ever be achieved under those conditions. Jesus was not content to accept what other people said about these so called “enemies.” He was going in to meet them for himself.

He walks straight into more trouble. Stopping at this well at midday, you would not have expected him to meet a woman. Women normally came to draw water in the cool of evening. If this woman was coming earlier she was likely to be something of a social outcast and yes, five husbands and now a man who was not her husband was pushing the social boundaries. There were taboos against Jewish men talking to women, talking to Samaritans, talking to social undesirables and this woman was all three. Now, what was Jesus going to do?

Clearly determined, despite the risks to his reputation, to make contact, he asks her for a drink. It was William Temple who picked up that the best way to call anyone into fellowship with us is to ask them to do something for us, as opposed to putting them in the weaker position by offering to help them. Interesting point and I remember the night Pope Francis was elected; how he came onto the balcony looking shy, uncertain, and asked us all to pray for him. Being a URC Minister, I am not comfortable with all-powerful religious leaders, but this touched my heart and enabled me to regard Pope Francis as a true Christian brother. And for Jesus and this woman, the way is now open for dialogue. No longer reliant on what others have told them about each other, they meet as equals and start to find out for themselves. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Right, what does Jesus do next? He returns the favour by offering this woman the gift of God: living water. Something springing up inside you that will bring you to full and abundant life. The word in Greek for “gift” used here is only used this once in John’s Gospel. It is a powerful word for God’s gift; God’s grace offered to all, including Samaritans, and even including slightly dodgy female Samaritans. Jesus was not presuming to decide for himself to which people God’s grace should be offered and to which not. If they ask, he will give it.

Being offered the status of recipient rather than giver may have put the woman slightly on the defensive. Knowing that Jesus is a Jew and that Jews in general despise Samaritans, she mentions “our father Jacob,” who was regarded as the patriarch of both Jews and Samaritans (so there!). She also asks him what is wrong with the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (where both Abraham and Jacob had worshipped) as opposed to the temple in Jerusalem (a city of much later date-so there!)

But Jesus refuses to get involved in these “tribal” arguments, knowing full well that the two sides will never agree on them, no matter what he says. He takes a different tack. First, this is about her as an individual, not as a member of a taboo group. He confronts her with her own situation, making it clear that he knows her marital, or rather non-marital status but he is still talking to her (so there!). Second this is about God and, when it comes to the worship of God, it is not place which matters but attitude. All those who truly want to worship God (rather than score points off each other) must worship God in Spirit and in truth. They must open themselves to the power of God in their worship, no matter who they are or where they are.

This is all sounding a bit overwhelming to the woman, and she says she will wait for the Messiah before deciding where she stands. “I, speaking to you now, am He,” says Jesus. (And what do you say about that?)

At the end of this story we come back to the burning question- what is Jesus saying about the religious taboos he had been taught? And what is Jesus saying that we might take on board about religious taboos right now? Sorry, but Jesus is actually saying very little. You have heard- he says nothing about the status of women in general; nothing about women who re-marry rather more times than might be thought acceptable and very little about Samaritans. Not much help to us then?

William Temple again pointed out that, “As so often with our Lord’s replies to enquirers, he does not answer the question but leads to ground where the question does not arise at all.”
That may sound suspiciously like a cop out, but I think we would all agree that to set religion in stone is a dangerous business. We are quick to condemn fundamentalists of other faiths who justify cruelty, oppression and abuse in the name of their gods, but they too can claim that they are remaining loyal to their faith and can produce scripture to back them up.

Jesus will not go down the road of pronouncements set in stone. Life and the people who live it are a pilgrimage; a journey of discovery. Jesus meets people as individuals. He interacts with those he has been told to avoid. He does not take the line of “anything goes” but he does create common ground and points first to the overwhelming, never-ending grace of God and second to the true, open-hearted, deeply humble worship of God. Get those two established in your life if you need God’s guidance in a complex situation.

The story ends with the woman running off to call all her friends and neighbours to meet Jesus. She has been nominated as one of the earliest and one of the most unlikely evangelists…. But look at all the people she brought to Jesus. He must have done something right.

So, I can only repeat the basic facts of the story in learning how Jesus might be directing his followers right now?
First, go and meet for yourself the people you have been taught are taboo. Don’t rely only on what you have been told.
Second, ask them to help you so that you can meet on level ground;
Third, offer them the gift of God’s grace in Jesus- it is free to all who ask. It is not for us to withhold it; only the person concerned can refuse it.
Fourth, invite them to share that grace with others. And like the woman of Samaria, they could surprise you.
And pray that, as God’s people, dependant on God’s daily grace, worshipping in Spirit and in truth, we will be guided in our pilgrimage to a place of unity with integrity in Christ Jesus.