Lent 5 C ~ "Say Her Name" ~ Susan McGurgan

Say Her Name is a movement that emerged

from the stories of women

affected by institutional violence,

particularly women from marginalized communities—

women with no power,

no voice,

no easy path to justice.


Say her name.

It invites us to remove the distance

between “her”

and “us”,

to move beyond “otherness”,

remove privilege,

level the field,

place someone in the context of relationship and community.


Say her name.

She is somebody’s daughter.

Sister.

Lover.

Friend.


Say her name.

Naming someone lifts her story

from the anonymous and impersonal

to the concrete.

The visible.

The real.


Say her name.

The very title of this Bible story,

“A Woman Caught in Adultery,”

found in the heading for John 8: 1-11,

primes the pump in all the wrong ways.

It tells us to focus our gaze upon the accused—

(and presumed guilty)

woman.

On her sins,

her failures,

her shame.

Yet, the story unfolds quite differently.


It is the end of the week-long Festival of Tabernacles,

a time when those who are able

are commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple

to celebrate the gathering of the harvest

and the exodus from Egypt.


“For seven days, live in temporary shelters,

so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites

live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt” (Lev 23:42-43)


During this celebration,

Jerusalem is packed with joyous crowds

filling the streets,

crowding the marketplace,

jamming the roads leading to the Temple.

Tents and temporary booths dot the landscape.

Merchants and pickpockets

scan the crowds for strangers with heavy wallets

and a taste for adventure.


In this chaos,

a group of scribes and Pharisees

drag a woman into the temple area where Jesus is teaching

and thrust her

into the center of the crowd.


Teacher, this woman was caught

in the very act of committing adultery”

Disheveled,

perhaps half dressed,

terrified,

shamed,

she stands silent and alone before a crowd of men

eager to throw stone after stone

until her body breaks open.


We hear no backstory—

no explanation of who she is

and how they found her.

Where was she when they caught her “in the very act?”

Who are the witnesses?

Where is her equally guilty partner?


Was she set up?

Betrayed

by a man she loved?

Used

by one of her accusers for this very purpose?

Was it simply bad luck,

or was it careful planning

by men intent on silencing Jesus?


In the eyes of the accusers,

she is not a person at all.

She is simply the means to an end,

a useful but disposable commodity--

a Molotov cocktail

about to be lit and tossed.

She is bait,

and the trap is set.


Say her name.

Jesus refuses to be drawn into their game.

He writes in the sand

while the mob shifts heavy stones from hand to hand,

ready to punish,

hoping to finish what they started.


If Jesus agrees she should be stoned,

his reputation for mercy is in ruins,

and his standing with his followers,

diminished.

The Romans might accuse him

of taking the law into his own hands

and inciting violence.


If he argues she should be spared,

he is repudiating the Law of Moses

and undermining the social order of his people.


Perhaps what this Gospel story really needs

is another title—

a title not written by those in power.

A title that more closely captures its heart.

Maybe something like,

The Hypocritical Leaders,”

“Dangerous Double Standards,”

“Caught in Their Own Trap,”

“Throwing Stones in Glass Houses”

Or even,

“Woman, Has No One Condemned You?”


This encounter

is not at all about the woman’s alleged adultery,

her guilt,

her innocence,

her past associations.

This encounter is not about the “right” or “wrong” answer

to an impossible question.

It is about seeing our lives more clearly,

and embracing a future of mercy and possibility.


“Let the one among you who is without sin

be the first to throw a stone at her.

And hearing that, they went away,

one by one,

beginning with the elders.


Did she feel the thud of a dozen stones

dropping to the ground?

Could she hear the voice of Jesus

over the pounding of her heart?

How long did it take for her fists to unclench

and her body to stop trembling?


Woman, where are they?

Has no one condemned you?


Woman.

Jesus stands,

and for the first time in the story,

she is addressed directly.

Given a name of dignity.

A name of honor.


Woman.

The same title Jesus used to address Mary at Cana.

The same name he used to commend his mother

to the Beloved Disciple as he hung upon the cross.


Woman,

is there no one left to accuse you?


Some scholars argue that this story

doesn’t even belong in the Gospel of John.

It’s not found in the earliest manuscripts,

and appears in a variety of places in later ones.

But I wonder if that matters.

Whatever its origin,

this story captures something

true

about Jesus

and also about us.


It invites us to look deep into a mirror

any time we have the urge to pick up a rock,

or use someone else as a pawn

in a game of privilege and power.


This story reminds us

that despite choices,

despite sin,

despite injustice,

despite forces that would deny our humanity,

we are—all of us—

invited into an encounter with Christ

that offers us dignity and freedom.

We are invited into a relationship

rooted in forgiveness, justice, love and hope.


I do not condemn you.

Go, and live a life free of sin.

Be free of whatever binds you.

Be free of whatever caught you.

Be free of the need to use and discard others.

Be free of those powers that threaten to bury you

under the weight of a thousand stones.


Woman, I do not condemn you.

Go, and sin no more.


Say your name!

Child of God.

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