Week 2: An unnamed woman is known, seen by Jesus
“Life From Death”
Vicar Bristol Reading
Texts: John 8:2-11; Romans 8:1, 11-17
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The stakes here are life and death.
This Gospel story does not present a moral quandary, or a theoretical scenario. This is a person facing the possibility of public execution. This ‘woman caught in adultery’ – who is presented as nothing more than the wrong she has done – is an individual. She has a name, a hometown, a family, a history. We don’t hear any of those things about her, though. She has an identity, but it has been reduced to nothing more than her guilt. For her, for this woman, this is a life and death situation.
And the obvious outcome is death.
The scribes and Pharisees have hauled her before Jesus because she has committed a sin that is punishable by death, according to Mosaic law [Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24]. The stoning they’re proposing isn’t an out-of-control mob killing. They’re talking about a sanctioned execution with a trial and eyewitnesses. But all the formalities seem to have already been taken care of.
She was ‘caught’ in the act. She’s guilty. She’s violated one of the ten commandments! Death by stoning is appropriate in this situation. And truthfully, they haven’t brought this woman to Jesus to ask permission to kill her. They’ve already decided to do that.
They’ve brought her to Jesus set a trap for him.
The Gospel writer tells us they’re testing Jesus, trying to manufacture a charge they can bring against him. Jesus can either condone her death, or he can challenge the law. Either response will be problematic for his authority. With such a huge crowd gathered to witness, that puts Jesus between a rock and a hard place.
So the woman is really just the bait in the trap they’ve set. The details of her life have been ignored, and now even her death won’t really be about her. She has already been erased from her own story, and that story ends here, in a painful, humiliating death.
Except her story doesn’t end that way because Jesus intervenes.
At first Jesus says nothing, at least not out loud. For a minute he’s just… silent, writing on the ground. Who knows what happened in that silence? Perhaps Jesus prayed. Perhaps the woman prayed. Perhaps the accusing Pharisees glared indignantly. Perhaps the crowd of onlookers squirmed uncomfortably.
But in that silence, something shifts. And when Jesus speaks, he chooses neither the rock nor the hard place. He doesn’t dismiss the law or condone her death. “Anyone who has no sin can throw the first stone,” Jesus says.
This reframes the requirement for her execution. In the face of this woman’s guilt, Jesus shines a spotlight on the guilt of others. In the question of whether this woman should be killed, Jesus asks who will actually kill her.
Jesus’ words remind the people that they are involved in what’s happening. They’re responsible for this woman, their neighbor. They can no longer see themselves as distant or different from her. They, too, are individuals with names, families, stories. They, too, have made mistakes, broken commandments. What will they be saying about themselves if they choose to throw that first stone?
Unable to bear Jesus’ scrutiny, the elders and the crowds leave, and at last the woman gets a role in her own story.
Jesus sees her as the individual person she is, a beloved child of God. He speaks directly to her, and says out loud what she has already seen become reality: she is not condemned. She will not die here.
But even more than that, she is invited into transformed life.
Jesus tells her, “Go on your way, and do not sin again.” This isn’t a threat; it is a reminder that renewed life is always possible. The transformation of true repentance is always available. God’s mercy is always overflowing, no matter what mistakes have been made.
“Go and do not sin again.” And so she goes: alive, forgiven, freed. The death that had seemed so certain, so unavoidable, has somehow been made into new life. The shame that seemed so overwhelming has been eclipsed by grace.
In Jesus, this woman has encountered the one who makes a way where there seems to be no way, who brings redemption to what has been completely broken, who heals even the deepest of wounds. It is because of who Jesus is that this has been made possible for her.
Because this is what God in Christ is all about: bringing life from death.
Certainly that’s what God in Christ will be about on the cross. But that’s also what God in Christ is about during Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ teachings, healings, feedings, miracles – these are continuous invitations to transformed, abundant life. These personal encounters we are hearing about this Lent – these are invitations to transformed, abundant life. This moment between Jesus and the woman freed from condemnation – is an invitation to transformed, abundant life.
Not just life in heaven but life here, on earth. God’s way is a way of goodness and fullness even in the midst of all the complications of what it means to be human.
This woman didn’t go from the temple and cease to make mistakes. She likely did sin again. And when she did, the invitation to come back to God’s way would still be waiting for her. Every time, in every mistake, she could find freedom in God’s endless mercies, made new every morning.
Avoiding this public execution didn’t mean that she would physically live forever. But when it did come time for her to face her own mortality, she could do so knowing that no death would have the final word on who she was: a beloved child, seen and known by God, always, in this life and the next.
The woman was not the only one who left the temple that day invited into transformed life. The Pharisees and scribes who had brought this woman before Jesus: they, too, have been offered a different way of living. Jesus’ words and actions call them to let go of their desire to control their religious tradition, to let go of their legalistic interpretation of what’s right and wrong, to let go of their tendency to use another person for their own gain.
It will be challenging and painful to give them up, but they can be freed from those burdens and welcomed into restored relationship. By letting those behaviors die, they can step into renewed life. That’s the kind of new life that’s possible through Christ!
The same transformation that was possible for the woman, for the Pharisees, is possible for you.
The power of God to bring new life is already in you! Paul writes in Romans that the very same spirit that raised Jesus from the grave is dwelling in you. The same spirit that breathes life into places of death where no life seems possible has set up residence in you. That spirit is already at work in your heart and your life: freeing you of your burdens and transforming you for renewed living; interceding for you, even in moments of silence when all seems lost; and bearing witness to your indelible identity as a beloved child of God. No death can ever change that.