Jesus & the uncondemned woman

Thud, thud.

Sandals pound on the dusty streets, the lingering smell of animal sacrifice still hangs thickly in the air. People come and go, buying and selling their wares. Others stand and chatter among themselves.

Thud, thud.

The sound of my own two feet joins in the cacophony of noise that lingers in the mid-morning air. I hurriedly wipe away beads of sweat that are already beginning to form on my brow. I have been up before the rising of the sun, hurrying to draw water for the family. Now, with the sun steadily beating, I find myself in the city square. My mission today is to buy some cloth—a luxury that I have carefully saved for months to purchase. Passing by the temple courtyard, I momentarily pause in my journey. The temple is a sacred place for us. It is where the presence of God dwells.

It is then that I see a crowd gathered—male and female, young and old. A rabbi is sitting and teaching. Wait, I recognize him—that is the one called Jesus, from Nazareth! I have heard many rumors about him. That he has come declaring the kingdom of God and the forgiveness of sins, that many are following him, and that he sums up the commandments in love of God and neighbor. Some say that he is the Messiah we have been waiting for, others vehemently disagree. We live in strange times that much I know. I draw closer, insatiable curiosity distracting me from the task I came to complete.

“Rabbi, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery.” The words ring in my ears, spoken by people that I instantly recognize—experts in the laws of Torah, deeply religious and committed to their faith.  And then I see her standing there, in the middle of the now rapidly growing crowd—it appears I’m not the only one distracted from their intended destination. A soft tear silently makes its way down her cheek, cutting through the grime to reveal a face marked by shame and suffering. I know her. I know her well. We grew up together. Her parents died when she was young. She married an awful man who beat her, last I heard he threw her out on to the streets. Her eyes are cast down as she stands in silence, accused by those around her of the unthinkable in our culture: a woman out of her designated place, faithless to her marriage, bringing untold shame to her family. This woman, as is any person in this place, is no stranger to the common violence of everyday existence in this city. We all live in fear knowing full well that our lives could come to an end at any moment without many so much as blinking an eye. We are part of a conquered people group ruled by a foreign ruthless power. She and I are women in a society that is dominated by men and operates by slavery. “Where is the accused man?” I quietly wonder to myself.

I look to her accusers curious to what made them choose to bring such a woman forward. Are they genuine? Or do they mean to catch Jesus in a trap?  Some are angry, hardened, and controlled by the letter of the law. Their passion to uphold the commands of Moses has formed thick scales around what it might mean to love your neighbor. They seem intent on catching Jesus compromising on the laws of Torah, a sure offense for a prophet of the religion to make.

Then I see Jesus bending down to write on the ground with his finger. I draw closer to get a glimpse but alas the writing is out of sight. I wonder to myself what he has written as it seems to be causing quite a stir among those standing around. I’ve heard rumors about the man’s mother, how she was pregnant before she was married but her husband stayed with her anyway. I wonder if this memory crosses his mind in this moment?

Those experts continue to pressure him, demanding that he answer their questions. All of a sudden, the rabbi stands up and declares in a straightforward manner, “Let the one who has not sinned be the first to throw a stone at her,” and with that he kneels back down and continues writing in the sand.

The noise and the jostling come to a stop. It suddenly becomes very quiet. All of a sudden, everyone is thinking about the ways in which they have not perfectly kept the laws of Torah. My own cheeks flush with guilt as I think about the times I myself have broken Sabbath in order to feed my family. I certainly am not without fault. I look at this woman’s accusers; they seem uncomfortable by this declaration also, but surely they would not admit their own faults in front of this crowd?

Thud, thud.

The sound of sandals on the dusty ground as one by one the accusers walk away is only amplified by the silence of the crowd. Everyone around me is incredulous; the accusers are admitting their own shortcomings in front of everyone?

Thud, thud.

My heart beats inside my chest as the last of her accusers disappears from sight. What will this rabbi do? Will he condemn this woman? I press in closer.

Jesus looks up. He looks directly at this woman. He asks, “Where are they? Does no one condemn you?”

The woman surprised by the kindness in his voice responds, “No one.”

Jesus scans the crowd standing around and then the following words fall from his lips. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.”

If the crowd was surprised before, they were in shock now. As they part and go their separate ways, the chatter bubbles over. Talk of this will go on in the marketplace for weeks. I glance over and see that woman—with newfound hope in her eyes thanking Jesus as she goes on her way, her life forever changed by a moment that her path collided with overflowing and unconditional love.

Thud, thud.

There it is—my heart again! Who is this man that comes declaring the arrival of the kingdom of God and preaching the forgiveness of sins in God’s name? For this our ancestors have hoped and prayed for in our continuing exile. Could this be what we have been waiting for?

Thud, thud.

My feet pound the dusty streets as I slowly return home—the task I had come for now a distant memory—my head a spinning mess of thoughts. Love has a way of changing us, in the best of ways. It seems like a new light is shining in my city, and inside of me. To others she might be known as the woman caught in adultery, but I will forever remember her as the woman who left uncondemned. 

For a reflection on the implications of this story for us today, click here.

Please note that this is a creative imagining (sometimes this is called a contemplative reading) of an event depicted in the Gospel of John. My desire is to retell the story in a way that is faithful to the events described and what is known of the culture at the time whilst also making it accessible for us today. I think that doing so helps it to come alive to us in new and helpful ways that have implications on the way we view Jesus and ourselves as part of the grand story of God. I offer my reading of the story with an open hand.

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