Photo via Flickr user Garry Wilmore
The other day I was tasked with teaching the story of Jesus and the Adulteress to seventh graders (John 8:1-11). In the heart of the story, Jesus does what he does so well throughout his ministry: He reframes the situation, and in so doing, he elevates the conversation. The Pharisees are trying to catch him yet again, and instead of engaging in their line of questioning, he addresses the heart of the matter. The woman, according to the law, deserves to be stoned to death. But Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument about the law. In elevating the conversation to one about sin, the woman is able to walk away. We talked about this for a bit. I asked where the adulterer is, and why the punishment is so unequal for the two consenting parties.
Then I admitted that with these stories of Jesus that we know so well, I sometimes like to stray from the center of the tale and imagine my way into the periphery to see if there are any other details that teach us about Jesus. I re-read them:
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger in the dirt. They kept at him, badgering him. He straightened up and said, “The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone.” Bending down again, he wrote some more in the dirt.
The quote by Jesus is the heart of the story, the part is repeated again and again as Jesus’ lesson. On either end of it, though, bookended, we hear that Jesus wrote in the dirt. I love this detail. I meditate on this detail. Perhaps it is inconsequential. Sure. I like, however, picturing Jesus writing in the dirt. The image for me, conjures up a child in the corner of a sandbox drawing in sand, a student intently doodling on a piece of paper, a T-ball player picking dandelions in right field instead of watching for a fly ball. The image makes Jesus seem human to me.
What was he writing? We don’t know what it said in part, I assume, because words in dirt are temporary. As the story teaches, words and particulars, lessons and law aren’t always the point. And the not knowing what he wrote continues to invite us into the story to wonder. He was not dictating things to get etched in stone, but chose dirt that day instead. It has for me, the feel of him holding on loosely, confidently, and embracing the temporary like the man who writes poetry with water on stone. He was okay with his words, his drawing, his doodles, washing away without being captured.
Am I projecting too much into the story? Maybe. But imagining in front of the seventh graders, I saw some smiles and some minds start daydreaming. They were wondering, too, about Jesus and his personality. Was he the type of guy who liked to doodle? To draw in the sand? To pick dandelions? Maybe. Even the wondering reminded us that Jesus was fully human, with a personality all his own, and for just a moment, that brought this man who saved a woman’s life, this Jesus, a little closer. It invited him to be more fully present in the room with us.