Exodus 34.29-35

John 4.5-30, 39

I Corinthians 13.9-12

The Undiscovered Continent

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost


When explorer Robert Falcon Scott discovered Antarctica’s Taylor Valley in 1903, he called it “a valley of the dead.”  There are no plants on its hillsides, there are no fish in its lakes.  Scott remarked that he had not even seen moss or lichen.  But today’s explorers would disagree, as millions of microscopic plants and animals have now been discovered in places Scott had neither the desire nor the means to look:  in the soil of the Taylor Valley, under the surfaces of frozen lakes, and even inside rocks.  Scientists have discovered and are examining microscopic worms, algae and microbes in the barren wastes of Antarctica, and hope to be able to use their discoveries to determine how simple organic communities multiply and become interdependent.  The southernmost continent offers unforeseen opportunities for exploration and perhaps even for eventually understanding how human life fits within the complex macrocosm of all life on earth.

It is amazing where our explorations are taking us these days.  China’s lunar rover was wandering around the moon this week when it came across such a surprising discovery – a gel-like substance that may have been melted glass – that the rover stopped in its tracks to examine it.  The Parker solar probe made its third pass of the sun last week, coming within 15 million miles of our star.  And in the opposite direction, last week I was driving behind a car wearing a “diver down” bumper sticker, and the legend read, “I explore the last frontier.”  Indeed, there are scientists who believe that the exploration of places like the ocean floor and Antarctica will produce more discoveries, and tell us more about the origins of the universe, than space travel ever could.

It was with this sense of exploration and discovery in mind that I recalled a brief quatrain by Emily Dickinson that suggested another area for exploration, overlooked by nearly everyone, from the great historic explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries down to the most contemporary research scientists of the twenty-first century.  Dickinson’s poem, simply numbered 832, was written during a period of great spirituality in Dickinson’s life, at a time she also wrote a lot about the reality of God.  Beginning with the name of the great Spanish explorer Ferdinand de Soto, Dickinson writes,

     “Soto!  Explore thyself!”

     Therein thyself shalt find

     The ‘Undiscovered Continent’ -

     No Settler had the Mind.”

The “Undiscovered Continent,” to Dickinson, was the mind, the self, the individual we see every morning when we look in the mirror, yet one who so often remains a stranger to us.

It was a stranger whom the Samaritan woman encountered when she came to Jacob’s well in the village of Sychar around noon one day.  It struck her as odd that he would speak to her and ask her for a drink of water, because he was obviously Jewish, and Jews had little to do with Samaritans, nor Samaritans with Jews.  It was a real racial issue.  But the Jewish man spoke to the Samaritan woman, and she looked around to make certain no one was watching, lest they be caught and both ostracized and condemned for this chance yet scandalous fraternization.  Still, the woman found herself drawn into conversation with this man, in spite of her trepidation, as he began to speak to her in riddles:  “If you knew 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.”  Now it was clear this fellow had nothing to draw water with, and everybody knew how deep Jacob’s well was, and besides, this was a special spot, where the very grandson of Abraham found water for himself and his family and flocks.  The Samaritan woman was mystified by the presumption, not to mention the unsettling familiarity, of this stranger.

And then he startled her.  For right then and there he began to relate to her the secrets of her own deepest heart.  She had told him, not entirely dishonestly, that she was unmarried.  But he readily saw beneath the face she put on that she had been married before, not once or twice, but five times, and was currently living with a man she was not married to.  And she was stunned.  But notice carefully, that Jesus neither judged nor condemned the Samaritan woman for her past.  There is no sense of chastening or rebuke in Jesus’ voice, because that was not what she needed to hear.  Instead he perceived in her a spiritual longing, an unspoken desire harbored deep within herself to find a spiritual reality that would help her get her life on track, and he said to her, “I am [the Christ], the one who is speaking to you.”  In telling her who he was, Jesus also showed the Samaritan woman at the well a part of herself that at best she could only have guessed at, yet that she recognized, as soon as he spoke to her, as her true ego.

This story from John’s gospel is in a way a haunting one, particularly if you put yourself in the woman’s place.  It is as if Jesus held up a mirror for her, and in that mirror she saw, not the face she put on for everybody else, not even the face she put on for herself, to make her days more bearable, but instead she recognized in the looking-glass of Jesus’ presence who she really was:  her checkered past, her confused present, and her hopeful future.  Up until that meeting with Jesus, she had been able to fool herself, to avoid a confrontation with that inner, “undiscovered continent” of her self.  It was, and is, often a scary prospect to see ourselves in the undistorted mirror Jesus holds for us in his unambiguous presence.  The feelings of the woman, the feelings of any one of us compelled to confront our inmost selves, are expressed in another of Dickinson’s poems, this one written a year before the one we heard earlier:

     “One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted - One need not be a house -

     The Brain has Corridors - unsurpassing Material Place -

     Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting External Ghost

     Than its interior Confronting - That Cooler Host.

     Far safer, through an Abbey gallop, The Stones a’chase -

     Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter - In a lonesome Place -

     Ourself behind ourself, concealed - Should startle most -

     Assassin hid in our Apartment Be Horror’s least.”

The psychic danger of the encounter with the self, Dickinson suggests, is often far more frightening than any external menace could ever hope to present.  It was this kind of encounter that the Samaritan woman experienced when she came face to face with Jesus, one which disturbed her innermost disposition, because it rang so true.

Legend has it that it was the ancient oracle at Delphi who first intoned those familiar words, “Know thyself,” but it was Socrates who made those words immortal.  Socrates suggested that it is concentrated and candid introspection that reveals to us our truest selves.  To know ourselves most genuinely means to strip away the faces we wear, the faces we use to fool others, the faces we use to convince ourselves we are indeed the type of person we would like to be.  Only by coming to know ourselves, Socrates said, can we achieve our true personality, the perfect realization of our innermost being.  And when this happens, Socrates would say, then we will know perfect happiness, one of the philosopher’s highest goals, not as the result of external or physical good, but rather from knowing rightly and acting rightly.  And the way to reach true happiness is to know ourselves.

The weakness of Socrates’ idea, though, if I may be so bold as to amend the sage of Athens, is in the assumption that this is something we can do by ourselves, as though the highest of goods can be reached by reading all the self-help books Amazon has to offer.  For in a good number of different ways the Bible asks us to do the same thing Socrates wants us to do, which is to know ourselves.  But the biblical story recognizes what Socrates did not, that we need help to come to grips with our truest selves; this is not something human beings are programmed to do unassisted.  As much as we might try, there is a part of our personalities that is uncomfortable looking at our inmost selves because of the imperfection it discovers there.  There is also the question of whether we are even able to see ourselves as clearly as we need to truly know ourselves.  As Paul wrote in that magnificent thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, “Our knowledge is imperfect¼ but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away¼  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then [we shall see] face to face.  Now I know [only] in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”  We can only know ourselves most fully, when we come face to face with the one who knows and understands us most fully.  This is what the Samaritan woman learned when she came face to face with the living God in her encounter with Jesus Christ.

And there is the paradox:  when we turn our attention away from ourselves, toward God, this is when we most truly see and know ourselves.  This is the trouble with the most of the self-help programs you’ll find on today’s market:  they are inward-oriented; they are so intent on calibrating the individual that they lose sight of the world around that individual.  The Samaritan woman had a lifetime to come to grips with herself, but it wasn’t until her encounter with Jesus that she was transformed.  You and I can put on airs in front of other people, we can try to be something we are not with neighbors and friends, we can even fool ourselves into believing we are someone other than who we really are.  But we can not pull the same trick with God; it just will not wash.  And in another, deeper respect, not only are we unable to keep anything from God, but God also helps us to see whatever it is we have been hiding from ourselves:  the traits we refuse to admit; the inclinations we are not that very proud of; the sin that lurks and lures, and the comfortable amenities that seduce.  When God opens our eyes, we finally and truly come to know ourselves, and the way is open to our own redemption.

When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, having received the commandments, people could tell there was something different about him.  He himself did not realize it, but when Aaron and the people of Israel saw him, “the skin of his face shone,” as Michelle told us, because Moses had been in the presence of God.  He was transformed, and he clearly came away from that encounter a different person than before he had gone up the mountain.  The Samaritan woman also came away from her encounter with Jesus a changed person, because in his presence she had come to see herself as she really was, and was transformed.  In our encounter with God, we too become changed.  We don’t become a different person, I don’t think, as much as we become more genuinely that person we have always been, or at least that person we have always been meant to be.  It is that encounter with God, that coming face to face with the reality of Christ in our lives, that helps us finally to discover the self, Dickinson’s “undiscovered continent,” in its most authentic guise.

Once more, from the pen of “The Belle of Amherst,” this written in 1876:

            “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind - The Mind is a single State -

             The Heart and the Mind together make A single Continent -

             One - is the population - Numerous enough -

             This ecstatic Nation Seek - it is yourself.”





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