I was a guilt-stricken child. Whenever I did something wrong, it weighed on me so much so that I’d often confess before anyone even knew I did something wrong. But I had one “wild” year. I remember it well. I was in first grade. Yep, that’s right – first grade. The first offense was on a spelling test. I blanked on the word “was” and so, after some deliberation, I leaned over and looked at my friend’s paper. I had spelled it “w-a-s”, she had spelled it “w-u-z”. She was smart I reasoned, and it sure did sound like “w-u-z”, so I erased my answer and changed it to hers. Strike one. The teacher confirmed her suspicion when we turned our papers in and moved my desk one row over. And, she warned, if I did it again, my desk would be moved to the last row… a row that was currently occupied by only one other kid. I didn’t know the student well, but I knew I didn’t want to be in his row. He was off by himself after all and it would mean I, too, would be outcasted, different. And, in first grade, I wanted nothing more than to be just like everyone else.
A few days later, now a row apart from my friend, I was busily working on a math worksheet. “How far you get?” she whispered across the aisle. I tried to whisper the number completed back to her but she didn’t hear me. So, figuring it was not wrong to just have her glance at my paper to see what number I was on, I angled it in her direction. “Gretchen! Again?” The teacher exclaimed. Before I could deny anything, she immediately began the slow move of my desk through the other rows. Oh man did it seem to be an incredibly slow process, moving a desk or two out, pushing mine one more space right, then moving them back in line. And then, it was complete, and I was in the last row with him.
Immediately, I felt all the kid emotions come over me – shame, guilt, embarrassment, red heat spreading across my face. This was always the threat – get moved to the last row. Every kid knew what it meant. And it had happened to me. In front of everyone, and now he and I… we were a pair. And everyone knew why.
Here’s the thing though, I started out embarrassed and upset about being in that special row. But, over time, my row-mate and I bonded, at least a little. The teacher would give lollipops to the row that changed their shoes and got seated the fastest after gym, and he and I would win a lot. There were only two of us after all, and we could get seated like nobody’s business. It became almost fun to be in that spot, a row of two teaming up. In a way, it made the punishment seem less bad… and perhaps, the greater good, it made him feel less alone. We did not choose our spots in the room, both of us were there for our own distinct reasons. Both of us had our own emotions about the placement, and both of us realized that it was a mark of separation from the rest of the class.
In today’s Gospel, a woman is brought to the center of the crowd in front of Jesus, all her sins laid bare. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I imagine, like my desk’s slow progression across the floor, she also felt the progress to the center of the group was achingly slow… people moving right and left to get out of her way. And then, suddenly there she was in the center awaiting her condemnation. The threat of stoning had always been there, a known consequence. But when she got to her place to accept her punishment, she found instead compassion and mercy. Jesus, also an outcast to this crowd, chose to stand by her side and offer her the support she did not expect to receive.
Jesus invited the crowd to look inside themselves and recognize their own sins first, to recognize their own failings first. Everyone has something that needs repairing when they take a look inside themselves – everyone has their own version of “w-u-z” moments, even if more or less severe than the one I just relayed. Jesus invites us, as He did the crowd that day, to look inside ourselves and find what needs to be fixed before we fix our gaze on others. And, then, when ready, He invites us to open our hearts to those around us who are also suffering from shame and guilt similar to our own. Open our hearts in compassion not guard them with condemnation.
May we all look for ways to stand with one another in our brokenness and in our shame lifting each other up so that we may celebrate together our shared, imperfect humanity.