I’m retelling familiar stories so that we can hear them again for the very first time. Anyone with a little bible knowledge is likely familiar with the woman caught in the act of adultery. The context of the story is easily missed, but enlarges its message from the story of forgiveness we’ve all been given.
Early manuscripts of the bible don’t contain John 7:53-8:11, (the woman caught in the act of adultery). This passage was added later during the transcription process. It’s inclusion doesn’t diminish it’s historical accuracy, if anything it bolsters it because greater consensus is required for later additions.
It’s important to recognize that it’s an insertion. The content is obviously vital to the context. The story as inserted, is essentially sandwiched amidst a big argument between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Jesus miracles and teachings, as I’ve shown, are square in the face of religious practice. He is not rebelling, nor ignoring, nor diminishing the religious law, rather he is reorienting people from the letter to the heart of the law so that God is not lost in abstraction. Jesus is fulfilling the law by reorienting it within the flow of life.
The big argument is whether Jesus is the promised messiah of Jewish prophesy. The crowds were saying he was. The religious, who should know better, were trapped in their history and books. Jesus main contention was that religious people were judging based on appearance instead of right judgment (John 7:24). They couldn’t recognize their own Messiah because he didn’t fit into their box. God’s message and work are beyond expectations or religious predictions.
Back to the inserted story.
On the last day of the feast, when everyone except the religious had concluded that Jesus must be the promised Messiah (v.31), Jesus stands up and cries out to everyone that “if they are thirsty, they should come to him so their hearts will flow rivers of living water“ (v.37-38). According to Jewish prophets, God is Living Water. Jesus is saying; “I am lasting refreshment to everyone (not just Jews) in this godless desert.” This just incites the religious mind, so much so that they are determined to test him (John 8:6).
The next morning (the feast is over and the lamps of the festival are now put out) Jesus is back in the temple teaching. The religious leaders bring a woman whom they caught in the act of adultery to see if he will obey the religious law or not.
Jesus immediately recognizes that these religious leaders are not obeying their own law. If they had, they would have brought both the man and the woman (Leviticus 20:10). If you’ve ever seen this story as a bit one-sided, then you were right.
Jesus pauses quietly and writes something in the dirt. Then he says those without sin may throw the first stone at her (v.7) and goes back to writing in the dirt. As the accusers each drop their stones (older to younger) Jesus graces the woman with equal treatment that the Pharisees had already given to the man.
So what is with all the writing in the dirt?
While we can’t be certain, some scholars believe Jesus was actually writing their names in the dirt. This makes sense to me and here is why:
“O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” -Jeremiah 17:13
Sound familiar? Do you see the meta-narrative emerging between the lines?
The central argument that started with John the baptist is that the promised Messiah has come into the world. Jesus teaching and miracles validated him as the chosen one sent by God (John 7:29), and everyone but the most religious were able to believe it. Those most knowledgeable about the Messiah cannot get beyond their rigid framework.
Forgiving the adulterer introduced people to a new kingdom that runs on the principals of the law (love, justice, equality, humanity) but which had been lost within the system of compliance and measurement. The river of life flows from those who trust in the flow of the head waters and not the reservoir. The flow for this woman and for all of us is that there is no one who condemns us. Can you get into that flow or do you have a religious framework that refuses to believe that is true for everyone?
Religion and personal faith are intended to serve the person, NOT imprison the person into servitude of the faith (Mark 2:27- “The Sabbath was made for man…”) This is one of the reasons why I moved my ministry online. I could no longer invite people into a system of captivity that sells itself as an evacuation strategy from a suffering world. Like the woman, the river of living water puts us back into our life with a new awareness that WE ARE NOT CONDEMNED. Like Jesus, I discovered, everyone can see this except the religious. Unbelief does not bring condemnation, it is the condemning of oneself that births unbelief.
The story continues along with the argument after this woman leaves. Without blinking an eye Jesus again subverts the religious power plays with love and grace. With the festival lamps now extinguished, Jesus takes the opportunity to announce that he is the “Light of the World” (John 8:12). He is the bread of life, the river of living water and the light of the world. Now who in the right mind would rather have their religion in stead of that?