When I was around 15 or so I went to Evansville, Indiana with my best friend to visit her grandparents. We could go to the mall, but we had to be very careful because Evansville had been experiencing an epidemic of vampires. I realize now that the sight of 6-7 goth kids probably jump started the vampire rumor mill, but at the time I kept looking over my shoulder in the food court because my mama didn’t raise no fool and I was not about to go down like that.
I don’t remember much about that trip, but I do have one memory that has been permanently embedded in my mind.
Since we were super cool kids and cappuccino felt like a very upperclassmen choice, we found our way to this little coffee house that probably played Steven Curtis Chapman or Michael W. Smith or maybe Amy Grant over the boom box. As my friend Kara found her place in line, I wandered over to a framed drawing and my breath caught.
It was a pen and ink drawing of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery from the Gospel of John. There was no title that I can remember, but I knew immediately who she was. Her face, the tension in her body, the tilt of her eyes betrayed the emotion she felt. Her face spoke the universal language of the broken and I had lived just enough life to recognize the words. Her shame was palpable, her pain transferred into my body as I studied her.
The perspective of the artist allowed me to see her face but also, His face. His eyes were closed, his shoulders soft. His hands gripped her shoulders tightly but without force or fight. His face was calm, determined, committed, sure. He loved her, he offered liberation, restoration, freedom. He kissed her forehead.
But her face...
Her eyes were wide open and stricken with fear. Her years had taught her who she was and what she was worth. The insults that had been hurled at her clearly lodged in her soul. She was panicked, desperate, still looking for a place to hide. She had heard them tell her who she was and what she deserved. She was every girl, every woman who had lived on this broken earth. The odds were stacked before she drew a breath. She would hold up her half of the sky with a boot on her neck. The ancient world was a dangerous place for women and girls. The fall had its way.
They were being quite Biblical, following the code of the day, the letter of the law, when they pulled her into the street and tried to end her life. The group of men who drug her into town and wanted to stone the life right out of her got more than they bargained for. A few scratches in the sand and their eyes lowered, grips loosened, faces reddened. Jesus turned the world upside down in an instant and nothing was the same. The tormentors dropped their stones and the oldest led out. Their plan to use the word of God against the son of God betrayed them.
She could not see what I saw. She could not see that Jesus’ life and ministry would blow cannon ball holes in the sinful patriarchy that left her exposed to the abuse of strangers. She did not know what I know, that every time we open our Bibles and read the red letters and find Jesus with a woman, he is speaking words of liberation, broken chains, power, justice, and freedom. I have the benefit of transcripts of his life’s work at my fingertips to tell me exactly what he thinks of me and what he wants for me. She didn’t. All she had were the scratches in the sand and a pounding heart, fight or flight fully activated.
I think of her when I am face to face with a woman with a story to tell. People tell me their stories. I’m not sure why. Many times the stories come from familiar women, but just as often, near or complete strangers unload their guilt and shame and fear with very little prompting. When I type that out it sounds like a complaint, but I assure you nothing makes me feel more alive than being near people making sense of their pain and finding the path of the sacred in the midst of their mess. Barbara Brown Taylor describes her call into ministry as a simple desire to be near the really real, and I think I know what she means.
Very often, when I listen to the stories of women, I see the face of the woman in the drawing. Jesus came to make straight the crooked paths, but we are still spinning on the same planet and that old serpent’s tail still whips around, leaving real destruction in its wake. One in four women report sexual assault, but my conversations with the women I have known tell me unreported abuse would press that number skyward. Women are working hard and bringing home roughly seventy percent of the bacon their male counterparts can expect and the percentage of the pie for women of color is significantly lower than that. Many churches and whole denominations make quick work of silencing women using a handful of often misapplied verses. (I can tell you from experience that you absorb a special kind of shame when your faith leaders and co-laborers tell you, explicitly or implicitly, that you don’t exactly fit in the box you’re supposed to according to our plain reading of Scripture and could you just pipe down, you’re scaring the children and causing the old ladies to clutch their pearls and making some bros feel kind of uncomfortable. I digress.) Women are keeping the earth supplied with a steady stream of fresh, new, beautiful life and barely recovering before returning to their jobs, both paid and unpaid. Women and girls across the world are spending their days hauling water and taking up slack. I listen to women and I hear the stories of lack, of want, of never enough.
I go to a church where the leaders took a year to study the Scriptures on women in ministry. I think I held my breath the whole time. My pastor and friend has stood in front of our church and repented publicly and privately for the ways he held to the old ways too long. Healing is coming and making it’s way and I’m grateful to have been able to stick around and wait. But you know what? Twice now, he has had to stop me after communion and point to someone praying at the altar alone. I had seen the person and felt the tug of the Spirit and I froze. I am still hesitant to use my gifts, even though I know the path is clear and the way is made. I’ve internalized so much shame. Sometimes, I’m asked to deliver a short assurance of grace around the middle point of the service. It sets my soul on fire like no other thing and I always say yes. I pull from Scripture and life and experience and the Spirit but I can’t end my assurances with “This is the Word of the Lord” like most people at my little church do. My mouth won’t form the words. I have so much work to do in my own heart, identifying and dismantling the walls between us our sometimes troubling brother Paul tore down in Galations 3.
Jesus came to set women free from the old ways and give them abundant life, yet the struggle lives on. We are living squarely in the already not yet and we ask again thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Jesus, show us the way of your kingdom and your will for your children, and strengthen our arms as we hold the torch to light the path to wholeness for those crushed by the stones of disappointment, regret, shame, and fear.
I will never know who drew that picture, but I know seeing it changed my life. In it, I saw the good news in black and white. What the hard, cold world meant for harm, Jesus meant for good.
Because of the trustworthy account in Scripture, we know that she didn’t stay in that fearful posture forever. Jesus drew her into conversation, “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?” And she answered, “No one, master.” He treated her, perhaps for the first time, like a human being. He freed her to the abundant life with the power to go and sin no more. I am her and she is me. That’s the kind of life I want, a life marked by transformative proximity to the One with authority to send the accuser running and to give me life and peace and purpose. I will train my eyes to look to the hills, knowing where my help comes from. I will speak words of life and hope and healing and restoration and in that Holy work participate in the kingdom coming.