Daniel Wolpert October 14, 2018
Scripture John 7:53–8:11
So when we planned the worship schedule a couple of months ago, I had no idea that I would be up here preaching on this wonderful day and occasion. It’s really a great honor and privilege and pleasure and time of great thanks and rejoicing to acknowledge the 50-year members; Beth, to you for your present and future here at Plymouth; and to all my esteemed colleagues in ministry. It’s just wonderful to be here today. My Lord, what a morning. My Lord, what a morning. The scripture today is from John’s gospel, at the end of the seventh chapter into the eighth chapter.
Then each of them went home while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again into the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, making her stand before all of them. They said, “Teacher, this woman had been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him so they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first one to throw a stone at her.” Once again, he bent down and wrote on the ground. And when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”
Here ends the reading.
So this Sunday begins the next in our series of worship themes for the fall. The theme is healing for this next several weeks. And what we have chosen as our subthemes are really the traditional and ancient methodology of healing from Christian tradition, and that is this flow of confession, repentance and forgiveness. This may seem somewhat arcane. Perhaps it seems odd to you to even connect this with healing; certainly there are problems and challenges with each one of these topics. But we thought that it was a very helpful and interesting place and way to bracket this theme, because our faith does contain this powerful methodology, even if we need to reclaim it and recover it and reinterpret it in each generation.
One of the things I did at the earlier service, which I won’t do here, is to ask one of our younger community members if “one of them had an owie.” It worked perfectly. The girl I paid a couple of bucks to before the service did in fact say, “I do have an owie right now.” And one of the things we did talk about was the fact that if she cared for her owie, putting on a Band-Aid and cleaning it a little bit that the cut would actually heal itself. So I want you to keep this image as we continue through the rest of the sermon.
This particular text from John’s gospel is perhaps one of the most radical texts of the entire Bible. One of the ways we know this is through something called “textual criticism”—which sounds like a really rocking, fun activity. It is actually somewhat fascinating. It is the study of the ancient scriptural text that we have, and it’s particularly of value and interest because we do not have any of the original biblical texts, which for some people causes some concern. It even may make them think that God is not a very good steward of the Xerox machine up in the sky through which God sent down the Bible: Why would we lose all these originals? Also it made for some funny moments in Christian history. For example, the creation of the King James Bible: myth has it that King James got all the scholars of his time—the best scholars—and put them all in separate rooms and had them translate the Bible into English. And lo and behold they all came up with exactly same thing, which, of course, proves that the King James Bible is the fundamental, authoritative word of God.
This particular story in John is fascinating from the point of view of textual criticism because it is one that is moved around, left out, changed or ignored more than any other story in the New Testament—and this is because it is so outrageous. Jesus comes into the temple and he’s teaching, and this woman, who we might imagine is wrapped in a sheet or a robe or may not even have clothes on—she’s been maybe beaten, dragged out of bed—is brought before him. And this is supposedly a good and proper thing to be doing. Which truly shows us that, for example, the #MeToo movement in recent times is not just about the mistreatment of women in our day and age but is really a deep reflection on massive generational trauma, the way that women have been abused and mistreated, often seen more as property rather than fully human. In case we think that this story is just an ancient story, I’ll tell you about a sister of a dear departed friend of mine who grew up in a church pastored by their father. When it was discovered that she had had sexual relations with her boyfriend, she was dragged in front of the church and verbally abused and assaulted until finally one little old woman said, “Well, I think that’s enough.” So this woman was brought before Jesus, and the Bible, the law of God, condemns her to death. Jesus then does this thing which many people have been trying to figure out and get a sense of: What is he doing here drawing on the ground? Is he talking to space aliens, maybe, or drawing little special symbols? And what this story really shows us about him, what it points out for us about the purpose of this story is that this is the vision of Jesus as a shaman, as a profound tribal healer.
Many years ago, I was working in a mental health center in Denver, Colo., and one of our colleagues on the team was a traditional healer—a curandera—who had been trained in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States by her mentor, a teacher who was a shaman, who certainly was not Christian or familiar with this story or text. One day she told the most interesting tale about her training. One day she had been confronted with a patient, and she didn’t know what to do. So, she went to her teacher, and she asked him, “How should I find the answer to what I need to do for this person?” He said, “Bend down and take a stick and draw on the ground, and you will learn the answer.” So, she did. She bent down, she drew on the ground with a stick, and the healing solution came to her.
So people from what we might call an indigenous culture would recognize here that Jesus is engaging in this act of intuitive healing. How is it that he is going to liberate this entire scene? Not just this particular woman, not just these particular temple elders, but how is he going to, in fact, liberate this entire faith from this gross misinterpretation of how we are to treat each other when we confess?
Really, the problem we have with confession is that we tend to think of it as leading to punishment. The Inquisition, of course, took this to extreme and brutal, grotesque ends. A person was brought before the Inquisition and had the choice to either confess their crimes and be killed or not confess and be tortured to death. Neither of these paths seem very liberating or positive.
What Jesus does is he frees confession, and he points to a different kind of way. Confession—the recognition of what we have done wrong or ways that we are in need of healing or ways that we have fallen short—is not about a path to judgment and rejection. It really is about a path to healing and transformation.
The issue for us as individuals and as people in a community of faith is very much akin to the little girl with the owie. She has a cut, and what her parents teach her, what we perhaps have taught our kids, what we have all been taught, is that if you just do a few things to take care of that cut, the healing power of our bodies and our spirits will go to work, and after a while we won’t even know. How many cuts have I had on these hands? Thousands. They are all gone.
In the same way, if we create spaces of safety and openness and love, if we create those spaces within which we can come with openness and confession, not for the purpose of being judged and shamed and rejected but for the purpose of being embraced and healed, then those spaces will allow God’s spirit to not only not condemn us but, like this woman, to set us free.
So, it is really beautiful that on this day where we are beginning this series of healing reflections that we are installing a minister who is the minister for care and healing. The little that I have gotten to know Beth—Beth, you are a beautiful vessel of safe space and transforming love. So, it is a great gift that we all have today, as part of this community. And then it is our call to join together to be that gift for one another. If we do that, we will arrive not at a space of horrible rejection, but we will arrive at a space that shows the world a very radical, very different, very overwhelming and mind-boggling journey to love.