Sermon: “Reclaiming the Soul through Shadow Work”

By Joanna Shenk

Third Sunday of Lent — “Soul Journey: Joyful is the Dark”

John 4:1-42

The passage that we just heard is the longest recorded conversation we have between Jesus and another person in scripture. And it’s pretty interesting, right? Although it was culturally taboo for the two of them to be talking, the Samaritan woman had no lack of things to say. She wasn’t even afraid to challenge Jesus about his weird idea of living water.

At the same time, we see some frustrating themes that run through scripture: Jesus, the man, shows up with magical powers to help a poor, oppressed woman. Additionally, the woman is probably of questionable moral standing and Jesus is Mr. Sinless who stoops to her level and we praise him for being such a liberating guy. Obviously Jesus doesn’t have any needs either. The whole “drink of water” thing is just a ploy, right, to start the conversation? Jesus gets all the points and the woman gets to be grateful that this man chose to liberate her.

That’s the interpretation I’ve generally adhered to until writing this sermon. Clearly there are some liberating elements but it still perpetuates patriarchy even if it’s benevolent and the idea that some people are saviors and others need saving.

With that said, I want to set the scripture aside and come back to it later. I think delving into the concept of shadow work can help us understand this story in new ways.

So far in our Lenten series we’ve defined soul and talked about soul loss. To quickly review, we are defining soul as different than spirit and ego. Our ego is our everyday conscious self, the trunk of the tree. Spirit is the branches and it’s about transcendence and drawing toward what is universal and shared. Soul is the roots, the “vital, mysterious and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person, found in the layers of self much deeper than personality,” So we’re descending into the depths of our roots, with all it’s mystery and murkiness.

A big part of why we need to do this work is because we’ve been disconnected from our souls. Last week Sheri aptly defined soul loss in this way, “In the course of becoming modern, the Western mind enshrined the ego — the trunk of our tree — as the lord of ourselves and the universe.  We denied Spirit and therefore find no wider perspective, no transcendence, only the awful grinding mill. We denied Soul and therefore cut ourselves off from our roots in the dark earth, from the nourishment of nature and our own wildness.”

And so we come to the shadow. The shadow is all the parts of ourselves we’ve been taught to hide, repress and deny. Jung felt intuitively that the term ‘shadow’ was appropriate for this dissociated sub personality because, it’s denied the light of the consciousness and relegated to a twilight zone of the unconscious. In situations when our shadow breeches awareness we usually have feelings of fear, that if someone else discovered it we would be rejected.

To develop our ego we’re pretty much required to set aside our shadow parts. We need to know that we can protect ourselves, that we can solve problems, that we can care for others, that we can win, that we can use our agency for good in the world. This ego development is the work of our first half of life, like Sheri mentioned last week.

The problem is when we don’t move out of that ego development stage and never get in touch with our shadow. Plotkin points out, that when you open yourself to “encounter with shadow, your conscious personality will sometimes be overwhelmed or shattered. Your ego might experience a death, but it will thereby be enabled to later rise from the ashes like a phoenix endowed with new powers.”

That’s the descent… the Lenten journey, and it’s no walk in the park. It’s a journey of encounter with strange, mysterious, frightening and beautiful aspects of self. The negative qualities are the parts of ourselves that we’ve been told are socially unacceptable. Depending on our formative contexts we could have been trained to repress many parts of ourselves in order to avoid punishment.

The parts we repress can look different for different people. For example, people conditioned in masculine ways may have been taught to hide insecurity, grief and apathy. For people conditioned in feminine ways it can be anger, arrogance, or selfishness.

It’s not all negative though. The positive qualities of our shadow—qualities we would consider virtuous or elevated—are projected onto others. These are the exemplary traits we see in others but can hardly imagine for ourselves.

I’m sure some of you are familiar with the Marianne Williamson poem that starts out:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”

Since it is painful to own our shadow in either direction (positive or negative) we project it out on others. In this way we deny our own ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ and project it onto others, whom we hold responsible for it.

“I’m not smart. You’re the smart one in this relationship.”

“I’m not an angry person. You made me angry.”

This act of unconscious cunning explains the ancient practice of scapegoating: it underlies all kinds of prejudice against those belonging to groups other than our own and it is at the root of all massacres, pogroms and wars.

This is where we recognize our collective shadow. And we don’t have to look further than the daily news to see it. The problem is the Muslims, the immigrants, the feminists, the liberals trying to regulate everything. When we get rid of them, we’ll be fine.

“America can be great again if we get rid of all the people messing it up.”

I also think about the wolf who we’ve been getting to know the last couple weeks. Today in the story the Bigger King pointed out how she had become like those she hates—murderous and greedy. She was projecting her shadow onto them to justify her murderous actions. “The humans made me do it,” she thought. But the Beggar King stood up to her anger and did not return it. He offered her another way to relate to the humans.

You may remember the sermon I preached soon after the election where I talked about how I’m like Donald Trump. I told the story of being a jerk to my partner and how my arrogance was actually rooted in my insecurity. A major point of that sermon was how arrogance actually is insecurity.

There’s another part of that story that’s worth telling. It’s the part about how I got in touch with my shadow… the parts of me that were exhibiting such arrogance and anger in the conversation.

Like I said in the previous sermon, after blowing up in that conversation, I felt terrible. I kept asking myself, what was that? Where did that come from? Am I crazy? I thought I was a put-together, loving person, so where did that other Joanna come from?

I also wondered how Eric could continue loving me after I behaved like that… it was a rough couple of days. I couldn’t really sleep or eat. What I didn’t realize in that moment, but see now through the lens of shadow work, is that I had internalized this message: “if I don’t keep my shadow parts hidden, I won’t be loved. If I show my shadow, I will be rejected.”

When Sheri and I had our check in that week, I shared with her about the situation and my confusion and remorse and shame. She suggested we do a visualization. She suggested that I try to get out of my head and into my heart. When she said that I started crying and cried for awhile. I think that was because I been trying to figure out this rupture within myself and how to fix it, rather than face that it might not be a rupture… that it might actually be a part of me.

Then she asked me to invite the different parts of myself to come and sit and with me. So I invited angry Joanna out of the shadow and asked her why she was angry. I invited mean Joanna out of the shadow and asked her why she was mean. I invited insecure Joanna out of the shadow and asked her why she was insecure. I invited anxious Joanna out of the shadow and asked her why she was anxious.

The overwhelming responses from these Joanna’s was that they felt vulnerable. Suffice it to say, I continued to cry a lot during the visualization. Sheri then encouraged me to do something in my body to continue the interaction with these shadow parts. (So that I didn’t get stuck in my head again.) She suggested yoga or art or music.

Later that day I found a yoga video online for grief and healing. It had a lot of heart-opening exercises and I pretty much cried during the whole routine. It was painful to be so aware of my vulnerability, but it was also releasing. I continue to do a version of that routine every morning.

I also continue to come back to that visualization when I notice myself exhibiting these shadow parts. The practice has helped me become more curious as I ask myself what I’m trying to protect or why I am feeling vulnerable.

With these definitions and examples of shadow, I now want to come back to our scripture story. Back to Jesus and the Samaritan woman by the well at high noon.

In the initial interpretation I offered I would suggest there is a good bit of shadow projection going on. As people in the Christian tradition we’re conditioned to project lots of positive qualities onto Jesus. Where this becomes a problem is when we deny our own agency because we could never be as good as him. It’s also a problem when we over-identify with this Jesus projection, and assume we are showing up with the liberation that oppressed people need. 

As people in the Christian tradition we’re also used to women being in the subordinate role, so even in our “liberating” texts it’s still normal for women to be defined by their relationship to men.  In the case of this story, we project the good shadow qualities onto Jesus and the bad shadow qualities on to the woman… Jesus is so evolved to talk to this woman. He’s breaking societal norms and offering her liberation. She, on the other hand, is of loose moral character (given the five husbands thing), she’s an unclean Samaritan, and she must be an outcast even within the Samaritan context because she comes to the well at noon. We’ve heard that all the good women go in the morning or evening.

Now that our shadows are out in the open, is there a way we could retell the story? Is there a way we could be curious about it? Maybe Jesus actually was thirty. Maybe he actually had a need. Maybe he wasn’t sure how the woman would respond.

And maybe the woman came to the well at noon because her neighbor was sick and hadn’t been able to go to the well herself in the morning with the other women. Or maybe there was some emergency that required water in the city and she said, “I’ll go get it.”

Then she comes across this outsider Jewish man and rather than bowing to his request/demand, she faces him and asks a question that exposes the shadow. That was a bold move. Then she continues to challenge him when he gets symbolic on her about living water. She upholds the honor of her people by naming her ancestor Jacob and his claim on the well.

Jesus responds that he’s offering a different kind of water altogether and she agrees that she wants some. Then we get to the husband part. It seems like a strange thing to say… like Jesus taking a jab at her and putting her in her place as a woman who needs saving.

But she doesn’t skip a beat, or repent. Some biblical scholars point out that this is a symbolic conversation and not about her sex life or martial status at all.  To understand it, we need to know some history. After the Assyrian conquest of the region in 722 BC, they took about 30,000 native Israelites out of the region and imported people into Samaria from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim (2 Kings 17:24). These people intermarried with each other and with the native, Israelite, population. So that’s the five husbands. And the one who is currently not her husband is Rome, the ruling power of the day.

Jesus affirms her telling of Samaritan history by saying, “what you say is true!” She is a truth-teller. And she affirms they are on the same page by saying “you are a prophet.”

She not redirecting the conversation by saying that, she’s co-creating it with Jesus. Next she offers a theological question about worship. What are your thoughts on where its right to worship? Jesus offers a fairly vague answer about worshipping in spirit and truth. To this she answers, “Yeah, yeah, let’s just wait for the Messiah to clarify that stuff.”

At the Outreach retreat yesterday we were looking at this passage and Meg said, it’s as if she not really impressed with his answer but wants to acknowledge it in some way. “Good try dude but let’s just wait for the person who actually knows.” Again, she’s a serious conversation partner.

To that Jesus replies, I am the dude. The disciples show up then and they are confused, as usual. In the meantime the woman goes back to city to share about her experience. Clearly she must be a woman of influence because a lot of people believe her story. Jesus ended up staying in Samaria for a couple days and even more people became a part of the movement.

In this telling of the story, two people who have carried long shadows in Christian history are revealed in the full light of the noonday sun. The Samaritan woman is revealed as an equal conversation partner, confident to state the truth about the shadow that has been cast on her and her people. Jesus is willing to acknowledge his need for a drink and to reveal his calling for the first time in John’s narrative.

Shadow work is no joke. I’m grateful to be a part of a community that values this work. I’m grateful for people like the Beggar King in my life that ask me hard questions, invite me to interact with my shadow and co-create a path toward wholeness.

May we each continue to take the next step on our soul journey, whatever it may be, knowing that we are held by the deep love this community and by Divine Love. May our roots grow stronger and stronger in the rich soil of our souls.

May it be so. Amen.

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