Here’s the address/sermon I gave at the Gardner Webb University School ofDivinity this past Monday. It was based, in part, on the story of Jesus’ encounter with the a Samaritan woman at “Jacob’s well” (John 4).
I surely understand the opening lines of Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Self Portrait”: “I lived between my heart and my head/like a married couple who can’t get along.”
Inside me, there’s a philosophy professor in a tweed coat with fraying sleeves, sitting in an overstuffed leather chair next to a reading lamp, not far from a roaring fire, in a room lined with dark bookcases overflowing with books. He chases ideas wherever they lead him, the way my great-grandfather’s hounds raced after foxes, but he hardly ever leaves that room. He’s not unfriendly, but prefers the company of authors he reads, many of whom are long dead, to most of the people he actually knows. He can be impatient with people who speak before they think, a bit aloof around people who aren’t calm, logical, and reasonable, and a touch condescending toward people who only read checkout stand magazines. He finds unbearable conversations that turn chit-chatty, frothy, superficial, and sentimental. He has a well-stocked warehouse of sturdy facts and durable analysis from which he builds his positions, and he has little regard for opinions cobbled together from flimsy impressions and wobbly feelings picked up somewhere on the cheap.
I also have a poet who lives in me. Most days, she wears blue jeans, a brightly colored shirt and a jacket if she needs it, because she spends as much time as she can outside: in the woods, on mountaintops, by the river, and under the stars. The breeze blows across her face. Light and color dance in her eyes. She stops to smell wild flowers, to feel the texture of tree bark, to pick up interesting rocks, to watch deer run across a field, to hear birdsong, and to let butterflies light on her shoulders. When she is at home, she goes to her studio, a room with large windows and lots of light. She has music of all kinds on her I-Pod, but goes back again and again to jazz—something about its structured freedom, its patterned improvisation, fires her imagination. She is a romantic; her love is passionate, boundless, energetic, and free.
He’s my head; she’s my heart.
He says, “I think.” She says, “I feel.” He says, “I’ve concluded”; she says, “I wonder.” He says, “I know”’; she says, “I’m curious.” He says, “I’m planning”; she says, “Who needs a plan? Let’s just go.” He says, “We ought”; she says, “We can.” He says, “This is very meaningful”; she says, “Wow.”
He wants to think his way to God; she wants to be carried on the wings of love. He wants it to make sense; she wants it to make joy. He wants to be challenged; she wants to be delighted. He wants ideas; she wants experience. He’s looking for evidence, proof, and understanding, she’s reveling in mystery, surprise, and astonishment.
My challenge is to help them to get along.
You’re familiar with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman. He was tired and thirsty, because he’d been on the road from Judea to Galilee since early morning. At noon, he stopped outside the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the ancient well which the patriarch Jacob had dug. She came there to draw water. Most villagers fetched their water at dawn and at dusk to avoid the intense heat of midday. Their gatherings at the well, early and late, were social occasions, too: like stopping to talk with a neighbor in the produce section of the grocery store or having a quick conversation with a friend at Broad River Coffee.
She came alone to the well, because her community had ostracized her. She had become an object of derision and a subject of gossip.
Jesus asked her for a drink. She was startled that this Jewish man dared to speak to her. She asked him: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus answered in a way that sounds a bit like Yoda talking to young Luke Skywalker: “If you only knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
In a brief exchange, Jesus moved from asking the woman for a dipper-full of water to offering her a never-failing inner spring of wisdom and salvation. Like almost all of Jesus’ conversation partners in the Gospel of John, she was confused. To her it seemed that their conversation careened from one subject to another. At one point, she engaged Jesus in a discussion about the proper place of worship: “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain [the shrine at Mt. Gerizim], but you Jews say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ response to her was astonishing: acceptable worship is not bound up with a shrine or a Temple, nor with geography or architecture. It is about regions in the mind, places in the heart, and sanctuaries in the soul: “The hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth . . . God is spirit and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.”
About these words, theologian Jack Levison recently wrote:
Spirit and truth—in a truthful spirit of spirit-inspired truth. There can be no spirit-inspired worship that is untruthful, no truthful worship that is void of Spirit. . . Jesus taught that study and spirituality, a vibrant spiritual life and a life of learning go hand-in-hand [40 Days with the Holy Spirit, 70-71].
Genuine worship unites study and spirituality; it reconciles intellect and emotion; it results in a feeling mind and a thinking heart.
Historian Garry Wills wrote about “two force fields” in American religion: the force fields of the Enlightenment and of the Evangelical. One is force field of the mind, the head and the other is the force field of the emotions, the heart. These two approaches to faith push and pull against each other in our public life, but Wills claimed that we need them both. A religion that is dominated too strongly by the head becomes, “desiccated and cerebral, all light and no heat.” A religion that is driven too powerfully by the heart becomes “mindlessly enthusiastic, all heat and no light.” [Garry Wills, Head and Heart: American Christianities, pp. 550-551)
We don’t need cold light. As Miguel de Unnamuno said: “Warmth, warmth, more warmth! For we are dying of the cold and not of darkness. It is not the night that kills but the frost.” But we don’t need dark warmth, either—not fevered, fervent feeling without the guidance of reason and wisdom.
As this academic year begins, let’s affirm the valuable intellectual work there is for us to do. It is a dimension of our response to God’s call. We will read books and hear lectures which will stretch our minds so completely that they will never return to their original size. We will have conversations, discussions, and debates which will enrich our understandings of God, world, and self.
In the late 1970s, when I was a seminary student, Ernest T. Campbell, then the preaching minister of the Riverside Church in NYC, delivered the Mullins Lectures on Preaching. I was trying to decide whether the center of my vocation would be as a teacher in a university or divinity school or as a pastor of a local church. Campbell eloquently described the perils and possibilities of church life—mostly the possibilities—and then said words to this effect: “We need pastor-theologians on the front lines.” In that moment, I saw what I still see: the church—the ordinary-extraordinary local church—may be a context for praying, preaching, and thinking—thinking—about the intersections of Word and world, of kingdom and culture.
Whatever your vocation proves to be, whatever the front lines are for you, you are now preparing to be a pastor-theologian, a professor-theologian, a chaplain-theologian, an activist-theologian, a social worker-theologian on the front lines: someone who probes the mystery and mess of everyday life for signs and sounds of God’s presence and love. A part of your calling is, Jacob-like, to wrestle with ideas, some of which will be for you as strangers, until they leave you unable to walk in the world without a reminder of their strength and until they confer on you the blessing of transformation.
But faith rarely begins in the head. Intellectual exploration is almost always a response to faith, rather than the way to faith. Faith goes in search of understanding. As Samuel Miller, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School once put it:
“Faith . . . has its intellectual aftermath but fundamentally it is a deep-hearted, single-minded, full-bodied confidence that in the world there are forces and powers, principalities and graces waiting to come in, to make more adequate our own life and more abundant our living of it [Samuel Miller, The Life of the Soul (New York: Walker and Company, 1986/1951), p. 113]
The heart leads. The head serves and helps the heart, because the mind can’t see what it can’t see and doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Sometimes, unwittingly, the head limits the heart’s reach. Novelist David James Duncan said the mind alone, logic and reason by themselves, are like unruly bird dogs. “Unless trained . . . to heel in the presence of love and mystery,” they jump around, “barking and snuffling” and scare off reverence, wonder, and trust—the kinds of things that “only the heart could have hoped to embrace” (in David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays, p. 216).
As one example: the resurrection of Jesus cannot be verified or refuted by anything like scientific or historical evidence. It is not an event of which the mind can ever make full sense. That is why the New Testament itself is honest to say: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” I trust in resurrection, not because I have been convinced by reason, logic, and evidence. I trust it because I have seen people living lives which can only be explained by the resurrection—a quality of fearlessness, compassion, love and joy that do not make sense unless those people have been touched by Jesus who is somehow alive and loose in the world. And, I believe in the resurrection because I have found forgiveness in the middle of guilt, acceptance in the place of shame, hope in the face of despair, and joy, trembling joy, in the place of relentless sadness. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe the resurrection.” He was right: it is love, sweet love, which raises us up from the dead and gives us new life.
The mind by itself and on its own is not enough. There are things we cannot experience—true, good, beautiful, life-saving, and life-changing things—if we rely solely on the mind to lead us to them. As Paul prayed for his friends in Ephesus: “May you know the love of God which surpasses knowledge.”
Your mind, your intellect, is a great gift. At its best, it will lead you to its limits and point beyond itself to your heart and the heart of God. I urge you to think as searchingly as you can, ask all your questions, voice your doubts, and ransack the world for knowledge.
Even more, though, I urge you to open your heart. Take down your defenses; take off the masks. Let yourself feel the glory and pain of life—yours and the life of the world. Face what is broken in you; pray for its healing and restoration. Be honest about your hunger, thirst, yearning and desire for love, for hope, and for joy. Ask God to become real to you, or more real to you. Then, watch and listen as your heart awakens and rises to lead you to the life God means for you to have.
I want for you and for me what poet Mary Oliver wants for herself:
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do. (“The Ponds,” New and Selected Poems, pp. 92-93)