The writing that follows is my exploration of what it might have been like to be with Jesus the day the woman was brought to him. Read slowly, allow the images to assault your senses. Feel the heat, the dust, the morning sunshine. Hear the noise of Jesus’ laughter, the crowds at the temple, the angry mob. Taste the dust. Feel the tension. See the woman, Jesus, the people walk away. Experience that day!
It is early but already the day is hot and dry. Wind sweeps in from the east over the desert bringing imperceptible sand particles with it. Imperceptible only in that the individual grains can’t be seen but the sky is hazy, the dryness palpable. We’ve only been up a little while and yet already our skin feels chalky, our hair thirsty and our throats parched. The overnight hours brought relief from the heat of the day but as we prepare to return to the city our eyes scan the horizon for clouds that will bring rain again. The dry season seems long this year. The Festival of Shelters finished yesterday but there are still plenty of people in the city so we begin our descent from the Mount of Olives to the temple area.
Yesterday Jesus spent a lot of time teaching at the temple. The crowds were amazed by his authority, some saying he had to be the Messiah and others argued that the Messiah will not come from Galilee. I am not sure…I have traveled with him all these months, I’ve seen the miracles, heard the parables, listened to the teaching…my faith is growing every day. And yet still, I don’t know. Yesterday, on the last day of the festival, Jesus cried out to the crowds and invited anyone who is thirsty to come to him. Funny! Everyone is thirsty this time of year. There has been no rain for months and cisterns are filled with warm, mucky sludge. The wells are still running but thirst – yes, we are thirsty. And Jesus promised living water that would flow from within. Yes! That is what I want. I want to know the refreshment of living water that is always there, always cool, always refreshing.
Walking quickly down the hill toward the city and then up again to the temple mount, there is a sense of anticipation in the air. Jesus always looks forward to the new day. Even after the trouble from the religious leaders and the threat of arrest yesterday, Jesus is calm and assured. As we walk along, he laughs quietly as we talk of the day and share memories of other days like this. The dirt swirls around our feet, dust puffing up with every step. In no time, our feet are covered with the silty, soft clay of the path. Laughter and good natured conversation surround us as we begin the ascent to the temple. Jesus assures us that today will be filled with opportunities and blessings. He reminds us that this is why we are here – to share the good news and announce the coming of the Kingdom of God.
As always, crowds gather early at the Temple. Approaching the temple steps that face the Mt of Olives, Jesus immediately begins speaking to people – all the people. He reaches out to help an old woman climb the steps and playfully engages a small child in play, the mother coming along more slowly with one child on her hip and another at her hand. Soon a crowd gathers and Jesus sits down to teach them. We all listen with rapt attention, never tiring of listening. The crowd is quite large today and as Jesus teaches them with stories and parables about the kingdom of God they listen carefully and ask questions, nodding as they understand. Once again they are amazed by the tenderness of his voice and the authority he embodies.
But I just watch Jesus. I watch his eyes, filled with compassion and love for these people. I watch his hands as he gently motions to emphasize a point. I watch his face as he smiles with acceptance at those nearest to him. I never tire of watching him interact with the crowds.
With no warning his face stiffens slightly as he glances up and toward the outskirts of the crowd. My eyes shift as well. There seems to be a disturbance. Something is going on just there – on the outside of the crowd. There isn’t any shouting but the silent struggle is deafening. The footsteps of those approaching seem to echo against the backdrop of the temple. Someone or something is approaching. Who can this be and what is going on? It is like the swell of a storm – just a feeling that all’s not well. And then the crowd begins to part in a clumsy sort of way to make room for some of the religious leaders – the Pharisees and teachers of the law. What have they come to do today?
Now I see her. Grasping tightly to the coarse garment thrown carelessly around her body, a woman is being forced through the crowd. I want to look away, but I can’t. It’s as if my eyes won’t move. What is happening and who is this? What will Jesus do? My body tenses, my ears ring, heat rises up my neck and spills over onto my face, my stomach tightens and my knees shake. This woman … who is she? This can’t be good. The Pharisees throw her to the ground in front of Jesus saying loudly for all to hear, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery! The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
Time stands still. This feels like a game, an awful game. They have done this before but never to this degree. Trying to trap Jesus into saying something they can use against him, they concoct all kinds of crazy scenarios. But this? Never anything like this. And then my eyes fix on the woman. She is huddled on the ground, laying where they threw her. How long has she been in their possession? Did they discover her this morning? Or was it during the night? It is early, but these kinds of things take place at night under the cover of darkness. Who is she? I alternate between humiliation and judgment. Pity and shame. This is not good! Never good!
The crowd doesn’t leave but neither do they draw in closely as before, pulling away ever so slightly but waiting. They wait. And I wait. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that some have gathered stones. Unconsciously, I pull my own garment more securely around me, my arms tightening around my body as I pull inward to protect myself. Always there is a pile of stones here for situations just like this. I glance around notice that many of the people have picked up a stone. And the Pharisees wait, but not patiently. They fidget. And Jesus, he writes. I can’t see what he is writing, but he writes. Slowly and deliberately he writes. This is not what the religious leaders want, they want justice, they want decisions. So they demand an answer. “What would you have us do with this woman?” they shout.
Slowly, Jesus stands to his feet. He looks at the men and he looks at the woman; he looks at the crowd and he looks at me. And then he says, “All right, you can stone her. But the one who has never sinned must throw the first stone!” And then he stoops down again and writes in the dust.
My heart pounds as I wait to see what will happen. There is no sound except the fidgeting of feet and the notes of a morning bird, singing brightly, unaware of the impending storm. And then just as suddenly as it came, the horror abates. Those who accuse her – and there are many – begin to slip away. One by one, beginning with the oldest, gray haired man, they pull away from the crowd. Strong, accusing and arrogant they had come in, but head bowed, silent and ashamed they fade into the heat of the day. One by one they leave, the thud of rocks hitting the ground, the only sound that can be heard until no one is left but Jesus, the disciples, a portion of the crowd and the woman.
Slowly Jesus stands to his feet and looks around. He isn’t smiling right now but the indignation that had come over him is gone. His gentle face looks tired and at the same time strong. Looking at the woman, he asks her if there is no one to accuse her. “Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”
Not even looking up, she quietly replies, “No, Lord.” And what happened next, I will never forget. Kneeling in the dirt, he turns the woman’s face toward him and looking into her eyes – oh the love in his eyes – Jesus says, “I don’t condemn you either. Go and sin no more.”
And as the woman struggles to her feet, helped by Jesus, he looks over her shoulder to where I stand. I see his eyes, gentle and gray, filled with love for me. And I knew grace that day. Undeserving, unconditional grace! And I am changed.