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A Near-Death Experience
March 9, 1997

JOHN 7:53-8:11

The woman had a near-death experience. I imagine she wanted to crouch on the ground and protect her head and her breasts while she waited for the stones to hit her, to pound on her body until it was broken. But, her accusers made her stand in front of a stranger. They told him, "This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

The woman probably didn't realize it, but they were trying to trap Jesus. They were using her to get at him. Never mind that she was a person, a human being with feelings. No, to them she was an object. In fact, she was a piece of property. The reason adultery was a serious offense, so serious it was punishable by death, was not because it was morally wrong, not because it was sexual impropriety, but because adultery was a violation of property rights! A wife was a husband's property. She belonged to him, and he could do anything to her he wanted. He owned her, and for another man to commit adultery with her violated his property rights. To the accusers that day, she was not a person, she was a piece of property, an object; an object of scorn, an object of derision, an object to use to trap Jesus.

The trap was clever. If Jesus had said, "Let her go," he would be breaking the law of Moses, and would lose credibility and respect in the eyes of the people. According to the law, the death penalty was imposed if there were two witnesses, and Leviticus 20:10 specifies that both the man and the woman should be executed. This leads to an interesting question-- where was the man? Why did the accusers think they had the right to demand the woman's life without the man's life as well? I have eight commentaries on the Gospel of John, but none raise the question.

At any rate, they were trying to trap Jesus. If Jesus had said, "Let her go," he would be breaking the law of Moses. If Jesus had said, "Stone her," he would be breaking the law of Rome, because the Roman government would not allow Jewish courts to impose the death penalty. That is why the chief priests sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate.

So, what did Jesus do? Jesus bent over and began writing in the sand. Why? Give him time to think? What was he writing? Was he doodling? Rabbis often doodled while they taught. Or, as some commentators have fantasized, was Jesus writing down the sins of the accusers? Straightening up, Jesus said, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." In other words, you may have a legal right to execute her, but do you have a moral right? Jesus invoked a higher principle than the laws-- if you would condemn others, you must be without sin yourself. In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus said,

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye" while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.

One by one, they left. Jesus said to the woman, "Where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." Jesus treated the woman, not as an object, but as a person; not a temptress or a sexual object, but a person with feelings, a person loved by God, unconditionally loved regardless of what she had done.

Jesus did not condemn her. Nor did Jesus condone her behavior. He neither condemned nor condoned. She was guilty but not condemned, accepted but not excused. She was given a second chance. The woman met God's unconditional love in Jesus. God's love for us is on a deeper level than condemning or condoning. Unconditional love makes it possible for one to change. One has the power to change when he/she is loved. Judgment and condemnation rarely bring about lasting change. Forced change doesn't last. Lasting change must be of one's own free will. Did the woman change? We don't know. We do know she experienced Jesus' unconditional love, which gave her the means, the power to change.

Where do you see yourself in this story? In the biblical, life-changing encounters with Jesus, we can see ourselves. Where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the woman who has sinned? Do you feel separated, isolated, unclean because of something you have done? Are you the woman who is being judged, criticized, and condemned? Are you like the woman wanting and needing to be rescued, rescued from condemnation, rescued from endless repetition of a habit or an addiction?

Or, are you the mob-- the accusers, the ones who think they are so righteous they can judge others, criticize others, condemn others? Do you like to make yourself seem important and superior to others by condemning those whose conduct or looks or attitudes or beliefs offend you?

Or, are you like Jesus, and stand up for the underdog? Do you show compassion for those who are being condemned, or caught in wrong-doing?

Or, would you have done nothing? Just stood there-- letting it happen, watching a woman being pounded with stones, watching her bleed, watching her die? Someone has said, "The hottest corners of hell are reserved for those who, during a moment of crisis, maintain their neutrality."

Ben Burton, writing in A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, recalls an experience in his childhood that haunts him to this day. Andy Drake, a fifth grade classmate, was a sweet, amusing little guy whom everyone liked but harassed, just because that was the way one treated Andy Drake. He was the whipping boy. They taunted him with,

Andy Drake don't eat no cake,

And his sister don't eat no pie.

If it wasn't for the welfare dole,

All the Drakes would die.

Andy took the kidding well. After all, it was better than nothing. Being teased and taunted was better than being ignored.

Andy Drake's father was in prison. His mother took in washing and men. Andy's ankles, elbows and fingernails were always dirty and his old coat was way too big.

One weekend, the boys planned a camp-out in the nearby woods. Their mothers fixed an extra pack for Andy Drake. As they gathered and waited for Andy, Randolph said, "He's different. We don't really want him, do we?" It fell to Ben to tell Andy. Let me read how Ben recalls the incident.

I can still plainly see Andy as he came toward me down the long, dark tunnel of trees that leaked only enough of the late afternoon light to kaleidoscope changing patterns on his soiled old sweatshirt. Andy was on his rusty, one-of-a-kind bike-- a girl's model with sections of garden hose wired to the rims for tires. He appeared excited and happier than I had ever seen him, this frail little guy who had been an adult all his life. I knew he was savoring the acceptance by the group, this first chance to belong, to have "boy fun," to do "boy things."

Andy waved to me as I stood in the camp clearing awaiting him. I ignored his happy greeting. He vaulted off the funny old bike and trotted over toward me, full of joy and conversation. Why won't he get serious? Can't he see that I am not returning his gaiety? Can't he see by now that his babblings aren't reaching me?

Then suddenly he did see! His innocent countenance opened even more, leaving him totally vulnerable. His whole demeanor said, "It's going to be very bad, isn't it, Ben? Let's have it." Undoubtedly well-practiced in facing disappointment, he didn't even brace for the blow. Andy never fought back.

Incredulously, I heard myself say, "Andy, we don't want you."

Hauntingly vivid still is the stunning quickness with which two huge tears sprang into Andy's eyes and just stayed there. Vivid because of a million maddening reruns of that scene in my mind. The way Andy looked at me--frozen for an eternal moment...Finally, a fleet little tremor broke across Andy's lips and he turned without appeal, or even a question, to make the long, lonely trip home in the dark.

Days later, by the time Ben worked through his shame and prepared himself to apologize to Andy Drake, Andy had moved. Ben never saw him again.

Andy Drake was scorned and rejected like the woman in the lesson today. Like Jesus, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief." (Isaiah 53:3) Where do you see yourself? The victim? The self-righteous condemners and rejecters? A rescuer, a savior? Are you the one with the unconditional love of Jesus who will stand up for victims of prejudice and bigotry, the Andy Drakes of this world?

© 1997 Douglas I. Norris