“For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans”

In the Gospel today Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.  His disciples are shocked: first because he, a single man, is talking to a single woman (probably of ill repute); but then even more so because as a Samaritan she is from a different religious code and so an infidel!  In a country like South Africa with so many religious traditions this story is important to us.

One of the greatest gifts we South Africans received in 1994 was genuine religious freedom.

Now, I must point out, religious freedom was on the statute books before, but what I think is different today is the way in which we are able to be ourselves before God (or whatever you choose to call Her) without subtle discrimination.

In the past South Africa was a Christian country (though without any formal state church) that allowed other faiths. Among Christians there was a clear hierarchy of approval: conservative Calvinism was most esteemed (which just happened to be the main faith of the ruling elite), then Pentecostalism (because it tended not to ‘get involved in politics’), and then the rest. African Initiated Christianity (the largest single block of Christian churches) was at the bottom: anthropologically interesting though considered by some to be close to ‘paganism’, its main saving grace was that it was (officially) ‘apolitical’.

How things have changed! Today we are an officially secular state (though acknowledging God in the Constitution) where all kinds of religious beliefs are practised – subject to the proviso they harm no-one. Muslim and Hindu marriages no longer have second class status.  It’s no longer unusual for someone to openly admit they’re atheist – or that they profess witchcraft. (My sources tell me that a few years ago there was even a practising Wiccan parliamentarian!).

But a close reading of today’s Gospel might help us all. In it we see Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman – a multiple outcast in the eyes of his more orthodox followers. She is a Samaritan, a person not seen as following a corrupted form of Judaism. She is a woman – a subordinate by their definition and, more dangerously, encountering a single man alone at a well! To cap it all, she has been through many husbands. Now imagine such a woman talking openly to a young priest after Sunday Mass. My, my, how the parish tongues would wag!

Yet Jesus will have none of this. He encounters her as a person with all her faults and finds in her a woman of faith. She listens to him, she responds, and by the end of the encounter she sees him better than many of his own disciples. Person encounters person. Faith encounters faith. And both come away the better for it.

That’s what the new religious freedom is about in contemporary South Africa. That’s what it should be. Long may it continue!

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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