Written in Dust

September 12, 2021

Series: September 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: John 7:53-8:11

Today's Sermon


"Written in Dust"


John 7:53-8:11 

          53Then each of them went home, 81while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Written in Dust

            Before I continue with the sermon, it seems appropriate that we pause in reverence for a moment, given the passing of the 20thanniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, the loss and the suffering of terror, and the response of a 20-year war in Afghanistan, and a second war in Iraq, and the loss and suffering of war.  Let us in the quiet pray, honoring the dead and the affected. Let us pray for peace, the work of which comes not just in war time, but should be a constant effort of cultivation. And, let us pray for people to treat one another and indeed all creation as having been touched by God, which it, of course, has.  Will you join in such a time of prayer?



            Did you know, the second reading you heard moments ago almost certainly does not belong to the original manuscript of the Gospel of John. Scholars agree on this because of both textual and thematic evidence.  I don’t say this to doubt the veracity or the importance of the story. Quite the contrary, it likely was a part of the oral tradition and was deemed so important by later scribes that it was inserted here to preserve it.  It is an important story, if one that requires a little unpacking.

            Jesus is teaching in the temple.  People had gathered there, in the holy city, because it was the Feast of Tabernacles.  The Feast of Tabernacles, also known as Sukkot, was and is Jewish autumn festival of thanksgiving.  It was a harvest festival, also referred to—fittingly for us today—as the Feast of the Ingathering.”  Today is our annual ingathering celebration.  The Scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who had been “caught in adultery” (Jn. 8:2).  I notice they only bring one of the participants.  They wanted to see how Jesus would handle her, knowing what she had done was against the law.  Jesus responds with a gesture strange to us:  He bends down and writes in the dirt.  What he writes is either unknown or at least unsaid.

            We jump ahead to his now famous spoken response:  “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” (v. 7) for the penalty for adultery was stoning. Then Jesus writes in the dust again. What is going on?  All sorts of theories persist.  For example, in his book Son of Man:  The Mythical Path to Christ, Andrew Harvey, as a number of people do, makes something of the material with which Jesus is working.  He writes, “His writing in the sand symbolizes the temporariness and fragility of all human laws, even those supposedly inspired by God and ordained by prophets; they are no more, his action implies, than his own scribbling in the sand that a gust of wind can efface…to live by such perishable, transient laws is absurd, and to kill in their name is tragic.”[1]Harvey’s interpretation caries an Eastern sensibility you may recognize, with its focus on “impermanence.”  You may have seen monks building beautifully intricate sand mandalas only to them blow them away with breath or wind.  Perhaps.

            Maybe the point, however, is not that laws are fleeting.  Maybe the laws are not being heeded with integrity, embodied in a way to accomplish their intended purpose.  It turns out the setting of this as during the Feast of Tabernacles may provide a clue.  During continuing education this summer, I came across a reading of this story which pointed out that one of the biblical stories taught at the Festival of Tabernacles is from Jeremiah.  Jeremiah 17:13 reads, “All who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the underworld” or “written in the earth,” or… “written in the dust.”  While some of the experts in his tradition are trying to catch Jesus violating the tradition, Jesus kneels to the ground and demonstrates that Jesus’ testers are ones who have turned away.[2]  The law was meant to protect the dignity of the community, but in their execution of it, these Scribes and Pharisees have made a spectacle of a woman.  Jesus calls them out on it, but turning the tradition back on them.  Humbled, or at least embarrassed, they leave and Jesus is left alone with the woman. 

            The positioning of Jesus and the woman is not lost on me that at this point.  Jesus is on his knees with, as the passage puts it, “the woman standing before him” (v. 9).  The scribes and Pharisees want to put down the woman, metaphorically and literally, while Jesus bows before her.  It reminds me of an interpretation a youth pastor Maria Stroup used to offer of this passage.  When teaching it, she used to reenact it, showing how in bowing down and writing on the ground one of the things Jesus did was take the eyes of the scowling men off of the woman who has been accused of sexual indiscretion.  Never mind that indiscretion takes two.  Too many women know what it’s like to be humiliated in this way, to be sexualized, then be shamed for being sexual or perceived as a sexual being.  Jesus gets the glaring eyes off her. 

               Where’d they go, says Jesus, “Has no one condemned you?”

            “No one,” she responds.

            “Neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus.

            “You.”  Commentator Francis Moloney reminds us that this is the first time the woman is addressed. She is a person, not an object, the bait for a trap, or an object lesson.  She is a human being, and that, not her purity, means she can be in relationship with Jesus.[3]  Purity culture destroys people.  Jesus does instruct her to change her actions, “…do not sin again,” (v. 11), but he doesn’t shame her.  He simply sends her more powerful accusers away in the shame they’ve brought on themselves. 

            It is a passage riddled with questions, of transgression, of retribution, violence, human dignity, integrity, prophetic truth-telling, allyship with the powerless, and mercy.  Jesus meets the potential for the tradition to cause harm and oppress with the tradition’s capacity to lift up the beaten down. 

“We lost four elders that day the planes flew into the buildings,” the pastor recounted.  I may have told this story before, but you might hear it anew here.  One woman whose husband Bill was in one of the towers two days before was understandably having trouble accepting Bill had been killed.  The pastor called the hotline that had been set up for priests, rabbis, and ministers.  They told her to bring her down to the pile--that which we called ground zero.  So she did.  When they got as close as they could, the woman got out of the car, ran her finger along the guard rail. Holding up the dust, she asked, “Is this Bill?”

          “No,” said the pastor, “but he’s here.”

          The woman understood and asked, “Can you tell Billy (the son)?”

          She said yes, but on the condition that mom stand outside the room because he would need her.  She agreed. Taking Billy on her lap – a child she had baptized years before, the pastor said, “Something bad happened at your daddy’s work.”

          “I know,” Billy responded, “I think he died and went to be with God, but mom thinks he’s lost.”

          Taken aback by how quickly and clear-headed the child’s response was, the pastor said, “I think you’re right, but why do you say that?”

          “Because my dad doesn’t get lost.”

          Oh, how sometimes people get lost. People get hurt, are attacked, and they want revenge or justice – the lines get blurred with all the smoke in the air. People want to lift up the best of their own culture or tradition or way, while holding up the worst in a another, while overlooking their own ways of falling short and the gifts in the other. In trying to be righteous, it is so easy to get lost.

          This passage may not belong to the Gospel of John, but it surely belongs to us.



[1]Andrew Harvey, Son of Man:  The Mystical Path to Christ (New York: Putnam, 1998), 33.

[2]This interpretation appears in Rob Bell’s, Everything’s Spiritual:  Who We Are and What We’re Doing Here, 2020, Audiobook.  Other scholars share this interpretation as cited in Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B Sacra Pagina:  The Gospel of John Daniel J. Harrington, S. J. ed. (Collegeville:  The Liturgical Press, 1998), 263. 

[3]Moloney, 262.