Just after world War I, there was a great need for medical personnel in Europe. Several American nurses went to Poland, and one went to a small town and became very beloved for her kind and compassionate work there. She stayed in that town until she died, and when it came time to bury her the problem was that she wasn’t Catholic. Rules were very strict at that time, and the local pastor ruled that she couldn’t be buried in the cemetery because she wasn’t in the Church, but she could be buried just outside the fence. So they had a funeral service and buried her just outside the fence. The next day, a remarkable thing happened: the fence moved, and her grave was now inside the fence.
Today’s Gospel is about moving a fence, ultimately. The setting is the Temple, and the woman brought in is a test case for Jesus: one where there is no right answer. The woman’s guilt is beyond dispute, she was caught in the act and her partner got away. Mosaic law is also very clear on the punishment, as the scribes and Pharisees say. The problem is where they are. The Romans ruled the Holy Land at this time, and they were the only ones allowed to put anyone to death. They had a large fortress that overlooked the Temple precincts and a stairway down in case trouble broke out. The rule of the time wouldn’t allow for someone to be stoned in the Temple court: that would make the entire Temple impure, and brought the Romans down the stairs. They would have had to drag her out in order to stone here, but the soldiers weren’t far away.
So Jesus is stuck with a seemingly impossible situation. If he says that she should be stoned, he rebels against the Romans and can be arrested for treason. The place is full of witnesses. If he says that she shouldn’t be stoned, then he says that the Law of Moses doesn’t mean anything and Jesus has just disqualified himself as a teacher of the Law. Either answer is the wrong one.
Consider what Jesus does: in a high tension situation, he acts nonchalantly. The Gospel doesn’t tell us what he’s writing on the ground, it isn’t important. He is master psychologist, he knows if He goes into slow motion, the crowd won’t be able to stay at the height of anger for long. What he has to say: “let the man without sin cast the first stone” turns the tables on the questioners. The Law is not some arbitrary standard; the Law is rooted in human experience and human relationships. The Law is not something that is in search of enforcers, but believers. The Law is not a fence.
The crowd doesn’t know what do to with this. Who would dare to profess his righteousness publicly by throwing the first stone? They’re indecisive, their momentum undercut. So they leave one at a time, dropping their stones.
And the woman? One moment she believes she’s going to die and the next she’s free. She has a new chance at life. This is our chance as well, we have received the same mercy she has.
As we undertake the great work of Lent, we are called to be people of reconciliation. We are called to move fences; we are called to drop our stones. To be people of reconciliation doesn’t mean that there are no standards and that there is no sin. Jesus doesn’t accuse the woman after her accusers leave, but he does tell her to avoid sin in the future. When we try to move the fences in our lives to include people who are outside it, we aren’t called to condone everything that folks have done. That isn’t possible and it isn’t reasonable. We move the fences so that we can come to new relationship by being on the same side of the fence.
Making things new is something is that God is doing in the first reading from Isaiah. The passage recalls the deeds of the Exodus, the deliverance from slavery, and then God says not to remember what has been done, but what is happening now. God is doing something new: making the desert bloom, creating a new home for the promised ones. The reading comes from the time of the Babylonian exile, when hope of return to Jerusalem was dim. The promise here is that God would create a pathway in the desert for a new Exodus, a return to a promised land that is made fruitful.
If we are open to God working in our lives, we can make something new in our relationships. The past is still there, but it is changed in the light of the new relationship. For us it is what we share around this table that help bring about these transformations. For a village in Poland, it was a group of people who shared around this table who were able to move the fences to bring someone inside who was left out. Our challenge is to let this table be a means by which God makes the deserts of our hearts bloom, and make us people who move fences.