The Unnamed, VI: The Woman Who Kept Working Late at the Office

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February 22, 2023

The Unnamed, VI: The Woman Who Kept Working Late at the Office

Passage: John 8:1–11

During the seasons of Epiphany and Lent, Christine and I are preaching the sermon series of The Unnamed. We are looking at many of the biblical figures that are very important to the story but never receive a name by the biblical authors. This has given us an excuse to revisit the vast sweep of God’s history of God’s people from the garden of Eden to the Garden of Easter. Today a very well know story for the first day of Lent:

while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and, making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “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?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

One day, at 7:00 in the morning no less, just when Jesus has settled in outside the Temple gates for another long day of teaching, some leading members of Jerusalem society—John calls them ‘scribes and Pharisees’—drag a young woman in front of Jesus and tell him that she has been caught in a compromising position, so to speak.

If the labels ‘scribe’ and ‘Pharisee’ seem like obsolete categories for you, just read ‘Lawyers’ and ‘Puritans.’  Almost literally, scribes were lawyers and Pharisees were Church Ladies with those pursed scowls and scolding eyes.

"Jesus," say the lawyers and the Church Ladies, "we caught this cheater red-handed, in the very act of adultery." And they weren't kidding. Under first-century Palestinian law, you had to be caught at the worst possible moment in order to get the death sentence for such a crime. You couldn't be caught with lipstick on your collar or smelling like your secretary’s Chanel #5. You couldn't be seen exiting a hotel room. You couldn't even be seen lying in the same bed smoking a cigarette. You had to be caught in flagrante delicto, which means, literally, ‘while the crime is blazing’; you had to be seen doing the deed, and by two witnesses.

Since this is the case, some New Testament scholars have guessed that this woman might have been set up, or entrapped, perhaps by the husband she was cheating on, perhaps because she’d made one of those classic cheater mistakes, like leaving convicting text messages on her cellphone, or whatever the first-century equivalent of that little mistake might have been. Perhaps the cheated husband hired a private investigator to follow her to the Hampton Inn.

No one knows what happened to the masculine half of this little frolic; thus it was, and thus it forever shall be; men can often get away with murder, or infidelity. They’re like Teflon; scandal just slides off them.

Anyway there she stands in all her shame. They say, "Jesus, in the law Moses tells us to stone a cheater like this; what do you think we ought to do?" Jesus just bends down and doodles in the sand with his finger. No one knows what he was writing.  Perhaps he was just buying time while he tried to think of an appropriate response. Or maybe he was deliberately ignoring them, refusing to participate in this unseemly little charade staged by morality police who had absolutely no interest whatsoever in the law of Moses.

By the way, this is neither here nor there, but did you ever notice that this is the only time in the New Testament where Jesus writes anything down? The most important figure in history, and so far as we know, he left nothing written behind, at least not that survived him. This is the only thing he ever writes, and he writes it in the sand of that Temple courtyard; hours later, when everybody leaves, the wind will wash it away forever.

But whatever he was writing, the morality police are not going to let him ignore them for long. "Jesus!" they say, "Jesus, pay attention! What're we gonna do?" As if they cared about anything besides getting him into trouble!

And then he gives them their answer: "Let the one who is without sin among you cast the first stone." This is one of the greatest forgiveness stories in the history of the world. This is better than Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmes­dale in The Scarlet Letter, better than the Bishop and Valjean and Javert in Les Miser­ables, better than Beauty and the Beast, better than Shakespeare's Measure for Measure or Much Ado About Nothing.

 Here’s a free recommendation. You don’t even have to tip me for this favor on your way out of church this evening. This is free. If this story from the Gospel of John is one of your favorites, and if you want to live more deeply into its richness, and if you think that John’s little story about an almost-stoning is ancient and obsolete, and if you think enlightened twenty-first century people don’t stone adulterers this late in history’s day, watch the film The Stoning of Soraya M, but don’t let the kids watch it; it is a splendid but difficult film. You will see what happens when a woman is accused of infidelity and there is no Jesus to step between her and her accusers.

“Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone.” There is no one like this man, not ever, not anywhere. He is wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. All of a sudden the trap is turned back upon the entrappers, and they are caught. These smug Church-Lady guys—suddenly they are absolutely baffled.

And notice what John tells us. "One by one, beginning with the eldest, they went away." I love that little detail: the oldest leave first, because they know themselves the best, and the years have taught them a humility yet unlearned by the young. Finally a 19-year-old college sophomore who has just been born again drops his rock and steals angrily away. And only two are left.

But Jesus is not finished with her yet. Jesus will not leave the cheater where she is. He says, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? No one?" Daring not even to look him in the eye, she whispers, "No one, Lord." And he says, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more."

You see what Jesus has done for her? He has forgiven her, but he has not excused her. Jesus expects something in return. He expects a changed life. As the old saw has it, “Jesus loves her just the way she is, and too much to stay that way.” This is the heart of the Gospel. Anybody here need a second chance, like Jean Valjean, like Beauty’s Beast, like Shakespeare’s Claudio’s?

Jane Kenyon is one of my favorite poets. As a student at the University of Michigan (that’s not why she’s one of my favorites, but it doesn’t hurt), as a student at the University of Michigan, she fell in love with her poetry professor. His name was Donald Hall, and when Jane Kenyon met him, he was already an accomplished poet in his own right. Poet Jane Kenyon married Professor Donald Hall in 1972; he was 42, she was 24.

She has this beautiful poem called “Notes from the Other Side.” Jane Kenyon knows about the Other Side. She was ill with leukemia for the last year of her life, spent a lot of time in the hospital, and underwent a bone marrow transplant, which looked at first as if it might be successful, but several months later, the leukemia had returned, and she died eleven days later, just shy of her 48th birthday.

At the end, with Donald’s help, she completed her last and finest book of selected poems, six days before she died. “Notes from the Other Side” is the last poem in that book. It was written at the threshold of “The Other Side.”

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,
there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.1

Someday, on the last of all our tomorrows, at the end of all our wanderings, we will shuffle humbly to the throne of grace, carrying all our accomplishments and all our failures, all our brave victories and all our timid defeats, all our heroic nobility and all our embarrassing missteps, and when we get to the throne of grace, there we will find this one who writes languidly with his finger in the sand, and we will discover that God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.

Oh by the way: St. John never gives this woman a name, but some scholars think her name was Mary, the same name as Jesus’ own mom.

This Mary came from a little fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee called Magdala, so we’ve always called her Mary Magdalene. After this happened, she followed Jesus everywhere, as he wandered hither and yon across the Palestinian countryside, from Galilee to Jerusalem and back again, and she was the first one to see the Risen Jesus with her very own eyes, on that first Easter morning.

[1]Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996), p. 215.

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