At the beginning of last week’s sermon, I observed that for the next four Sundays during Lent in Year A we will encounter four special people from the Gospel of John.
Last week, then, was a man named Nicodemus. He and Jesus meet and have a difficult conversation about the nature and scope of salvation.
In this week’s passage, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well—and through him we too encounter her. They have a difficult conversation about social norms and religious expectations.
Last week, also, I observed that there is an overarching theme of light and darkness governing this Gospel, a kind of lens through which we should interpret Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and this Samaritan Woman.
But just about there the similarities stop: other than we encounter both of these characters in the Gospel of John and nowhere else in our scriptures; that they have conversations with Jesus about complicated matters; and that the theme of light and darkness should be our lens through which we interpret our encounters with these characters—other than these similarities there’s not much else these two have in common.
- N comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness. On the other hand, Jesus encounters the SW at about noon, in the full light of day.
- N is a Pharisee, a member of a devout Jewish sect. For him, worship follows a finely tuned liturgy. He comes from a proud lineage, from a people who see themselves as God’s chosen. On the other hand, the SW is a Samaritan, a half-blood people largely despised by the full-blooded Jews. The Samaritans look to Jacob as their spiritual ancestor but figure it is acceptable to worship in their own way: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Moreover, the Samaritans are largely forgotten by the Romans, the political rulers of the day. Together, their despised and forgotten status makes Samaritans the lowest rung on the racial ladder.
- On the one hand, N is a Teacher of Israel. This title signifies position, authority, and respect. His people know him and he knows his people. On the other hand, the SW is just that, a woman. That makes her already in the background of society. The fact that she is a Samaritan makes it doubly so. But to come to a community well at about noon says even more: she’s not there with the other women, who came earlier in the day, to gather water for their daily chores before the day grew too warm. Perhaps her aloneness has to do with her present, somewhat scandalous living arrangement. Perhaps it’s for some other reason. Whatever the case, this poor woman is as much a social outcast as N is in the limelight.
- Also, there’s this, whatever we want to make of it: N seeks Jesus; whereas the SW was found by Jesus.
In this comparison, it’s not just darkness and light: another theme rises to the surface; a theme I want to explore with you today. It’s a theme with which we are all very familiar: head vs. heart.
We think with our heads, our rationality.
We feel from our hearts, our seat of emotion.
These two—head and heart—can work together in beautiful harmony; for instance, in matters of social justice.
My friend Debby, from Texas, works as an adoption lawyer. Early in her career she found herself confronted by a cumbersome adoption process, difficult to navigate for both the child and the parents-to-be: her heart was moved. So, she took what she knew, adoption law—her head—and combined it with her new passion, a just adoption process—her heart—and now fights for this cause.
But, also, as we all know from our annual attempts at New Year’s Resolutions—in matters, shall we say, of personal justice—head and heart can work against each other.
January 1st rolls around and you vow to yourself, “Okay, here goes: all year long, you’re allowed only one glass of wine with dinner.” And—you know the story—the first few days you do brilliantly. But a week or so into it, your heart begins to tell your head things like, “Why not treat yourself to a bigger glass tonight. You deserve it. After all, a bigger glass is still only one glass.” Or, you’re at some sort of celebration; and your heart tells your head, “Ah, just go ahead and have two tonight. You can always have zero tomorrow night, to make up for it”—which, you know, may or may not actually happen.
Two brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, have written a book about this very struggle. It’s called, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard.
They have a very helpful metaphor for the heart-versus-head struggle we all face: it is an elephant and its rider.
Your head is the rider, knowing where it wants the elephant to go and what it wants the elephant to do. But your heart is the actual elephant, who may or may not want to follow the rider’s instructions.
The rider tries to steer the elephant. But what if the elephant gets hungry? or decides it wants to cool itself off in the adjacent coursing waterbrook? or suddenly remembers it left something important back at the house?—an elephant never forgets, after all.
You see? The rational rider will try to direct the emotional elephant; but it’s going to take a lot of patience and discipline to get the elephant to do what the rider wants.
Moreover, the elephant is a heck of a lot stronger than the rider; so, in a battle of strength, who’s going to win?
Keeping our hearts in check can be exhausting.
So, in looking at these two characters from the Gospel of John, one, Nicodemus, is much more like the rider from the metaphor; whereas the other, the Samaritan Woman, is much more like the elephant.
Nicodemus is a Teacher of Israel, a Pharisee, and a community leader. All his theological and societal ducks are in a row.
Or at least they should be.
But his internal thoughts are in conflict. Who is this man Jesus? He stands in contrast to what I represent. Could he be right? Could his way actually be the way of truth?
And so, wrestling in his soul, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, under the cover of darkness, in secret. And, after their confusing conversation, Nicodemus simply fades away, back into the darkness from which he came, just as confused as ever, still wrestling with his convoluted thoughts just as much.
The Samaritan Woman, too, has conflicting thoughts. We see them in her conversation with Jesus.
We worship on this mountain, she tells Jesus, but you Jews worship in Jerusalem; one day the true Messiah will come and make it clear to us all.
Yet, in the clear light of mid-day, she hears what Jesus says and drops her water jar and runs off in haste to tell her friends and family to come and see the Messiah. He has come! In fact, he is here! And . . .
No doubt she still had questions! No doubt she still wrestled with conflicting internal thoughts! No doubt she was aware of the injustices all around her! No doubt she would still feel the deep injustices done to her personally!
Yet, despite it all, her heart, her seat of emotion, tells her in this moment, in the full light of day, that here is the very Messiah of God.
And she acts on her heart!
Beloved, the Gospel of John is clear. When it comes to matters of faith, don’t overthink it. When it comes to matters of faith, act on your heart. When it comes to matters of faith, yield to the elephant.
Jesus is not looking for biblical experts; Nicodemus shows you that.
Jesus is not looking for perfect piety; the Samaritan Woman shows you that.
Jesus is calling you, now, to act only on what you know.
Yield to the elephant.
By the way, here’s a friend of mine learning (with a friend of hers) to yield to her elephant: