Reflections on the woman taken in adultery
I have been meditating on a story in John’s Gospel for the past few months as I’ve continued to explore the topic of love and its effect on my own life and perspective of God (you can read a creative imagining of the story here). In the eighth chapter, Jesus is in the temple teaching. We meet a woman who has been brought to Jesus by religious leaders. She is accused of committing adultery and the religious leaders are asking whether she should be executed because technically the laws of Moses command it.
Jesus challenges the leaders who brought this woman to him. He can see straight through their charade and he literally rains on their parade. They think they’ve caught him in the perfect trap, but they are about to learn a very important lesson. Jesus passes the test they didn’t even realize they were administering. Jesus looks up from writing in the sand to tell them that only the one who is without sin can cast the first stone at her.
Each of these accusers begins to think through Jesus’ proposition and realizes that they have no right to throw the stone. So they leave, one by one. Jesus then addresses the woman and asks if anyone still stands to accuse her. She tells him, No one Lord. And Jesus replies with the oft repeated and well known phrase, “Go, and sin no more.”
There’s a whole bunch of interesting conversation we could have about this passage. We could talk about the culture and circumstances, and the implications of this on the unfolding of the story. We could talk about the Mosaic law and its intricacies. We could talk about different ways this text is approached and read. We could talk about the rigorous debate around whether this account is original to John’s Gospel*. But none of these are my focus today. I wanted this short reflection to partner with my creative reading as a way to enter into contemplation on this text and ponder its value for us today.
When I have heard this text preached, the parallel is often drawn that we are the accusers and we should learn to not judge others when we ourselves have things in our own lives to confront. And I agree. I easily remember many times I have been so hasty to point out the less than perfect actions of others as I ignore my own innate selfishness and flaws. How easy it is to judge someone when I haven’t walked in their shoes, when I don’t see the world through their eyes, when I haven’t lived through their experiences. Part of me likes to think that maybe those men went home that day and tried to make their own wrongs right. That their own encounter with the radical love of Jesus changed them in ways that we will never know.
But what if we tried to identify with the other characters in the story? What if we step into the shoes of the woman accused for a moment? I know how that feels. When it feels like the whole world is ready to throw stones at you. It seems like no one is listening and no one understands. It feels like your whole world is crumbling around you. When we mess up and others condemn us, what is our response? Do we allow Jesus, even there? Do we accept the grace and forgiveness that comes from God? Do we accept our inherent worth and go on our way committing to do good, bearing the image of God as we go? Or do we try to vindicate ourselves or make it right by trying to ignore our own faults? Do we consider ourselves unworthy of the love and forgiveness of God and others?
What if we stepped into the shoes of Jesus? What if we intervened when injustice is happening? What if we spoke truth to power regardless of its consequence? What if we stood by those who are on the margins, who are the “less than”, who society has rejected? What would it mean for us to look like Jesus? I think in this story we see Jesus showing us, once again, what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus meets us where we are at; every single time. I have the opportunity every single day to offer that same love to others. Not to just continually ignore the problems, but to say I love you, you are forgiven; you are wholly loved just as I am wholly loved. Because of this, go. Go in forgiveness, go in grace, go in the mercy, and go in peace. That love can change you. That love has the power to change others. That kind of love has the power to change the world.
God is love John tells us. The one who loves God also loves their fellow human. The love that God has for us is never ending. We see the love of God clearly displayed in Jesus. In his life, Jesus revealed to us what God is like. In his death, Jesus revealed what God is like. In his resurrection, Jesus revealed to us what God is like. God is love. And God loves us. That doesn’t change. It doesn’t go away. It isn’t limited. It’s ever giving. Ever flowing from the heart of God for each and every one of us.
I mean, life can pretty crazy at times. This world is pretty crazy. Like all you have to do is tune into the news and it won’t take long before it is all literally overwhelming. You don’t even need to tune into the news. My own life gets pretty overwhelming at times and I’m sure yours does too. The car doesn’t start. The baby is crying again. The person you love dies. Goodness and beauty, pain and suffering are all part of this life. This is the lesson I have been learning. The truth that I have been reminded of time and again though is God is still love. God is still there. God is the God who delights in our joy and joins us in our suffering. The love of God is constant. The love of God is not always a feeling, sometimes it is, many times it isn’t. But it is always displayed towards us. This is what the cross reminds us of. This is what communion reminds us of. That God is with us. In the good, in the bad. In the beautiful, in the mundane. God’s love is a constant that we can all rely on. And it’s easy to forget. And that’s part of the reason why I love coming to receive bread and the cup each Sunday. It’s a physical reminder to me that God is love. God is so much love that God became human. God is so much love that God dies and resurrects in the person of Jesus. God is so much love that God enters into the suffering of this world with us to redeem us from it. Thus for me, communion becomes a moment to receive God’s love inside of my being, to remember that I am indeed loved.
God loves you. God loves us. Being loved however doesn’t let you off the hook to do whatever you please; love invites you in to participate in its transformative work. So what does it mean for me to be this radically loved by the God who creates all? What would it look like for me to reflect love back to God and then out to others around me? How would this change the way that I move through the world? These are the questions I have been pondering lately and maybe they will be helpful for you too as you move into this upcoming week.
*There is no little debate around whether these verses should be considered authentic to the original text. It is my opinion that these verses contain a story that has been formative to the church for centuries and whether they are originally Johannine is of less importance to the conversation on the value these stories hold for the church today. For a brief overview of this subject if you are unfamiliar, check out this summary. If this subject interests you further, there’s a fascinating interview with Duke Divinity Professor Jennifer Knust about the transmission of the Bible in general, and she specifically speaks about the account in John 8 as she is currently conducting research on the subject. You can listen to the interview here.