Approaching Wisdom With Emptiness: Two Characters from John

Approaching Wisdom With Emptiness: Two Characters from John May 28, 2024

approaching wisdom with emptiness
{Photo by Bea Davidson for Scopio; approaching wisdom with emptiness}

This week in my tradition we read the story about Nicodemus. But I can’t think of this story, without also thinking about the next chapter of John and the story it features—about the woman from Samaria. These stories and their juxtaposition are strategic; and they are all about contrast. We understand Nicodemus better because of the woman from Samaria. And we understand this woman better because of her contrast with Nicodemus.

The author of John frequently paints contrasts. At times this is problematic. Such as in the dualistic language of light/dark, children of God/children of the devil, etc. In the late first-century time when John was written, deep rifts were taking place between followers of the Jesus movement and the communities and synagogues they were a part of. In addressing these rifts, the author borrows language from Hellenistic dualism that makes for the worst kind of fighting words. (It is not just in John. Dualism was so pervasive in the first-century Mediterranean that it was akin to capitalism in present-day America.) According to John’s dualism, the community’s opponents are cast as unredeemable.

But the contrast between the teacher Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman was different. Nicodemus is portrayed as sincere and as a seeker. But he, an elite and a powerful teacher, is also hapless. He cannot understand what Jesus is telling him. Jesus speaks to him symbolically, and he takes the words literally. He misses the point.

The woman from Samaria also does not fully understand. But as the conversation between her and Jesus goes on, her awareness deepens. Whereas Nicodemus, the person with power, gets more and more confused as the conversation with Jesus goes on, the Samaritan woman—who would have been marginalized in a number of ways—becomes increasingly open and enlightened as the conversation unfolds. In the end, we’re told she goes out to testify to what she has discovered. She goes to “tell everyone she knows” about Jesus. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, on the other hand, ends unresolved. We don’t find out how it ends, or what Nicodemus does next. The passage simply wraps and we’re on to other topics.

approaching wisdom with emptiness
{Photo by Fateme Gheybi for Scopio; approaching wisdom with emptiness}

An overt power imbalance is at the center of the contrast between the two characters in John. What might the gospel writer, who put these stories together for a reason, have been saying? For one thing, he seems to be saying that Jesus shows neither deference nor disdain for people based on their social status. He gives both characters his attention and respect. He teaches both. The author seems to be saying that to be a student of Jesus, one does not need power or socio-familial connections.

In the worlds you and I inhabit, power often gets people places. But in the end, the things that matter—such as deep understanding and wisdom—are often more accessible to those with less to lose, less position or social cache or wealth. The Samaritan woman was an example of this. In the end, she was more open to receiving. An empty cup can receive more than a cup already filled. This image is, in fact, a good one for the contrast between these characters. In Buddhism they call the stance “beginner’s mind.”

Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal

Winner of the 2022 Independent Publisher Awards Bronze Medal for Regional Fiction; Finalist for the 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. (2021) Paperback publication of Wren a novel. “Insightful novel tackles questions of parenthood, marriage, and friendship with finesse and empathy … with striking descriptions of Oregon topography.” —Kirkus Reviews (2018) Audiobook publication of Wren.

About Tricia Gates Brown
Tricia Gates Brown is an everyday theologian working as a writer/editor in Oregon's Willamette Valley, mainly editing and co-writing books for the National Parks Service and Native tribes. After completing an MA in theology then a PhD from the University of St. Andrews in 2000, she continued to pursue her studies—energetically self-educating in theology, spirituality, and the emotional life. She is also an Ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. Tricia is an art quilter, potter, and novelist. Her art can be viewed at https://bit.ly/TGBArts . You can read more about the author here.
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