A huge debt of gratitude in this sermon for Frances Taylor Gench's wonderful book, Encounters with Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John.
February 17, 2008
It is 2008, and at least one very well known woman is making headlines every day. As I write this there is a woman commander aboard the International Space Station, a woman who is a major contender to be her party’s presidential nominee, there’s a woman chancellor of Germany, there are countless women in very visible positions of power and prestige. It may be surprising in this season of so many well-known and powerful women for us to turn our attention to this woman in today’s gospel story. She is nameless, like so many women in scripture. She is powerless, like so many throughout the ages. She is brought before Jesus in an episode, which is full of surprises. It’s surprising that the woman is brought forward alone and accused of a crime which, by definition, usually necessitates the presence of a second party. It’s surprising that this episode, which may be one of the best-known stories about Jesus in the New Testament, may be one of the least preached-on in mainline Protestant churches. It’s surprising that this story is not included in our three-year cycle of readings, the Revised Common Lectionary. And it’s surprising that this episode continues to be linked in the popular imagination with Mary Magdalene, who is not the woman in the story: when she is mentioned in this gospel, she is mentioned by name. This is a story we think we know so well… until we dig a little deeper, and find all these surprises.
The gospel of John locates this story at the end of the festival of booths, also called “Sukkot.” This is a commemoration of the time when the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, following their liberation from slavery. Jews still mark this festival each fall by building open-air structures and then dwelling in them for seven days. During the course of the festival, Jesus has been in Jerusalem, teaching in the Temple courtyard. The content of what Jesus is saying is astonishing, and it’s stirring up the crowds. Here’s an example. The festival includes a procession commemorating God’s miraculous giving of water during the wilderness sojourn. Remember: forty years of wandering in the wilderness, during which time the presence or absence of water meant life or death. At the end of the festival, John tells us, Jesus cries out to the people, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” [John 7:37]. This is a fairly provocative statement. For a faithful Jew to implicitly place himself on a level with God, to say, in essence, “You are commemorating God’s giving of water, but if you are thirsty, you really ought to come to me”… well, this is not just controversial, it borders on blasphemy. John goes on to tell that many in the crowd wanted to arrest Jesus, then and there, but no one laid a hand on him. Before our passage begins we are given a moment as flies-on-the-wall, where we get to observe a consultation between the Temple police and the chief priests and Pharisees. Trouble is brewing.
“Then each of them went home,” our passage begins, “while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple.” Undeterred by the reactions to him the day before, Jesus sits down, which is the traditional posture for a teacher in this setting, and he begins, once more, to teach. What happens next might well be a result of the controversy of the day before. Jesus has claimed such extraordinary things about himself: how will he handle a situation which is not purely theoretical, but which involves human beings, life and death? Answer one way and the religious leaders will want his hide; answer the other and the Romans will be after him. Verse six tells us, a trap is being laid for him.
We can only imagine the state of the woman… caught, the accusers say, in the act of committing adultery. Imagine her state of dishevelment. Imagine her fear… the sentence is death by stoning for both the woman and her partner. I am about to say something shocking to our modern sensibilities, that flies in the face of all those things I was saying earlier about women in the news: Adultery, in its original understanding, was really a crime about property rights. The woman was considered to be the property of her husband. So the sin, the crime is against the husband of the married woman. Of course, that brings us back to that surprising fact I mentioned earlier: why is this woman brought forward alone? Where is the man? We can imagine a number of scenarios that might account for his absence. The man may have escaped in the mayhem of being apprehended. Or, he may have had a friend among the Temple police who allowed him to slip away… special treatment for the friends of the powerful seems to happen in all times and all places. Or, the man may be a Roman citizen. Jews in first century Palestine were an occupied people, and the Romans were their occupiers. Then as now, the men of an occupying force often used the power of their position to exploit local women. The scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman before Jesus have no authority to discipline, say, a Roman soldier. But they do have authority over this woman. We don’t know why no man has been brought forth. For some undisclosed reason, the woman faces her accusers alone.
This disheveled, frightened, nameless woman. There’s something about the way she is accused...the setting of the trap for Jesus…that tells us, she is at least on some level, a victim. She is certainly being used… used as bait in a trap, perhaps used by a hostile occupying force. She arouses our pity. She is brought before Jesus, as he sits teaching, and the charge is laid against her, and Jesus is asked for his opinion. “‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” [John 8:4-5]
Jesus does something rather remarkable at this point. Jesus is the same eloquent speaker and preacher who didn’t hesitate to speak boldly to those attacking him just the day before. But now he remains silent. Instead of speaking, he bends over and writes with his finger, in the dust on the ground.
One of the first sermons I ever remember hearing was about this text. And the preacher, I recall, sat, and leaned over and used his finger to trace shapes in the ground, just as Jesus is said to have done. Scholars have been wondering for two thousand years exactly what it was that Jesus wrote. One woman, talking to a minister in a bible study, said, “I know what he wrote: It takes two!” Other speculation has included the possibility that Jesus was writing down the sins of all those who were present. Others imagine that Jesus may have been writing a pertinent quote from scripture, such as this line from Exodus, “You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness…” [Exodus 23:1b].[i] But ever since I saw that preacher writing on the ground, I have been convinced that the words Jesus wrote are not important. Rather, the writing was a way to take time to let tempers cool, to let harsh words finish echoing in the courtyard, and then float away on a breeze. One scholar gives this interpretation of Jesus’ writing in the sand:
He hesitates. He does not draw a line, fix an interpretation, tell the woman who she is and what her fate should be. He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want. When he lifts his head, there is both judgment and release.[ii]
Jesus hesitates. In so doing, he throws a lynch mob off its original plan. He allows space for a breath, a thought, a new understanding. And then, he speaks. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” [John 8:7b]. One by one the members of the mob drop their rocks and go away, the text tells us, the oldest departing first of all, perhaps because when you have lived a little in your own skin, you know better than to think yourself entirely righteous.
Eventually Jesus and the woman are left alone, as he has resumed his writing on the ground. Jesus sends the woman on her way, with… advice? warning? instructions? “Go your way, and from now on, do not sin again.”
This story of the nameless woman has so captured our imaginations. There are countless paintings depicting it, showing the woman as everything from a shy, demure waif to a seductress, defiant and half-naked. Why is this a story that is not heard so often in many Protestant churches? Well, one answer has to do with the text itself. This little passage is a kind of homeless wanderer in the New Testament. If you look it up in most bibles, it’s bracketed, and a footnote appears along with it informing the reader that this story is not found in the most ancient manuscripts. In fact, when it is found, it appears in all different places: sometimes here, at the beginning of chapter 8, sometimes in chapter 21, and sometimes, in the gospel of Luke! The story is a kind of scriptural orphan with no home that anyone is satisfied with, though there is no doubt it is very ancient and traces back to the earliest Christian witness of Jesus. Why should that be?
One theory is that this story made the early church so uncomfortable that it was suppressed. The freely given, gracious forgiveness of God shown in Jesus… well, it’s not very satisfying for most of us, is it? We tend to be a justice-loving people: we want the justice of God to rain down on evildoers. There’s a problem with that desire. If we are honest with ourselves, not one of us would be safe if God’s only move was the move of vengeance, the move of punishment. The early Christians feared that people hearing this story—especially women—would take it as a blank check to misbehave. But it is a misreading of the story to imagine that Jesus condones sin. He does not. He tells the woman to stop sinning. But in the same breath, he reminds those of us who are inclined to judge the sins of others that we might try remembering our own culpability before we start picking up stones and warming up our throwing arms.
This nameless, powerless, surprising woman. Someone has suggested that every anonymous character in the gospel should be considered a kind of invitation, an invitation to see ourselves. I hope and pray that none of us will ever be dragged through the streets by an angry mob. But as horrible as that would be, truly, I think the greater danger to our souls would be for us to be the ones doing the dragging, convinced of our righteousness. Jesus has words and deeds of challenge and comfort to us in either case. By his deeds he shows us how to stop, to breathe, to hesitate when being called upon to pass judgment. And by his words he tells us that every day, every hour, every breath we draw offers us the possibility and hope of a new beginning. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters With Jesus: Studies in the Gospel of John (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 53.
[ii] As quoted in Gench, Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 78.