I teach a Bible Study at the jail. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. A woman, I’ll call her Amy, has come to my class several times now. There’s something about her, something deep inside, that I absolutely loved from the moment I first met her. The first week she sat there and just cried. Tears streamed down her face, as she sweetly declined to comment. “That’s OK. No one has to talk.”—but oh how I wished I knew what was going on inside. Over the next few weeks, the tears slowed and her gentle smile began to appear more and more often. Still quiet, but that’s her way. One week I shared an illustration with the group, in response to something another inmate shared. I had planned to write it down, but hadn’t gotten around to it.
I didn’t see Amy for a couple weeks. When she finally made it back to our study, she shared with me after the study, “I’m still working on that illustration you shared with us, about the water.” Her eyes were lit up as she bashfully looked at the floor, then peered up to catch my face. “It really touched me.” “Oh it did?!” I exclaimed. “I’m so glad! …I hadn’t written it down, but maybe I should.” She grinned from ear to ear and nodded that I should.
I was flying home not too long ago and had a rare (for me, anyway) seat by the window. I admit; I wasn’t overly thrilled—I like the isle. But it was definitely preferable to the middle seat, so I considered myself lucky enough and sat down and got to work. Planes are cramped and awkward work spaces, but they are also uninterrupted work time—and that singular benefit far outweighs any and all negatives.
I had a window, just in front the wing, and at some point in the ride, I looked up from what I was doing so feverishly and saw. It was beautiful. The clouds were stunning, a blanket of fleece spanning the distance to the left, that suddenly reached its end to the right, revealing the setting sun. Why don’t I get the window seat more often?
I know the guy next to me was wondering about me – I kept taking pictures. Lots of pictures. At first it was the clouds that captivated me, and the strange shadows upon them.
But then it was the water. As the sun was setting, it was at just the right angle to reflect off the pools of water dotting the earth. A line of mirrored spots extending from our plane straight to the sun.
I was flying over the South, from Georgia to Texas, and as I now live in Colorado, I had forgotten just HOW much water there is in the South. The land was covered in irregular spots, as if it were a Dalmatian or a Leopard Appaloosa.
Then I was struck, not by how much water, but by all the “holes” in the ground there were holding all that water. What if there was no water? The land would be full of holes, pock marks and imperfections, awkwardly marking the land. We don’t see holes, though, we see ponds and lakes. We see these awesome places to cool off and be refreshed. Places to hang out in summers, to swim, to fish, to gather with friends and do all the crazy red-neck water stuff we love to do in the South…frog-gigging, noodling, water-skiing, tubing—and that’s just the normal stuff! But those wonderful watering holes are first and foremost holes.
Before they could be filled with water, before they could become something refreshing, they had to be torn up, destroyed, emptied, desolated. They land had to be emptied of itself before it could have room for the water.
My grandpa had a land-clearing company which my Uncle now runs. I have seen the process of pond-making, up close. It’s never pretty. It’s always an ugly mess when you’re digging a pond. There’s dirt everywhere, and even areas you aren’t digging get torn up by the dozers and dump trunks driving in and out . Once the ground is all torn up, and the unwanted dirt removed, then you wait. You have to wait while grass begins to grow again around the pond. You have to wait for the pond to fill with water, whether it’s from a well or rain water, or some other means. It takes time, but in the end it’s so worth it.
I’ve seen the process first hand this past year or so. My Dad bought a ranch. It already had a small lake on it, but the damn needed to be repaired. They had to drain the lake to repair the damn. Then, while they were at it, they dug out the lake, made it bigger and deeper, and added some structure (it’s a fishing thing). It was ugly. Truly. A monstrous mess of red dirt and tire tracks and piles. There was no more green grass, no water—just ugly as far as you could see. Not only was it a mess, but it made anyone who got near it messy, too. Red dirt clung to your shoes and permanently marked your clothes.
It was ugly, but my Dad didn’t see ugly. He saw the future, and it made him giddy with excitement. Every time I would go back to Texas, as we rode horses around the red hole in the ground, he would talk about his plans. He would talk about how great that lake would be, how beautiful, how fun, how fantastic the fishing would be, all the things we would do at that lake, and on and on and on. Little by little, the lake started to fill with water. He’d send videos—“It’s not there yet, but you can see, it’s got some water in it! It’s going to be beautiful!” “Look, it’s really starting to fill up! See how clear the water is?! And the grass is growing! It’s going to be amazing! The videos just don’t do it justice!”
He’s right. It’s still a work in progress, but now we swim the horses in the lake, and take the paddle boards out, and jump on the water trampoline, and the fishing is AMAZING. When I’m home, I rush out first thing in the mornings to watch the sun rise on the lake. It’s beautiful. NOW. But before it was just a great, big, ugly hole that covered any one who got near it in red dirt. The difference is the water.
Here’s what I told my girls in the jail. They were upset about the holes in their lives. Big, ugly, gaping holes, areas of inadequacy, shortcomings, sins, failures—pockmarks dotting up the landscape of their lives. When they looked at their lives, all they could see was the destruction and the holes. I get it. I think that’s why I was so struck on the plane by the view of the sun hitting all those water holes. Because I too have felt overwhelmed by the holes in my own life.
I know that to those girls in jail, my life doesn’t seem like it has any holes, but they’re there. I know them all too well. I think this is part of what I love about teaching in the jail; it reminds me of just how alike we all are. Their situations may be more dramatic or obvious than mine, but at the core, they aren’t all that different.
Here’s the thing about holes—they may be shameful to us, but when God sees them, he sees the future, and it makes him giddy with excitement. He sees what He can do with those holes. He knows that he plans to fill those holes with his living water. He knows that those places which look like disaster zones are perfect places to hold his grace and love—the water of life. He knows that it may take some time to get rid of the unwanted self that’s filling that space, and He knows that it might make a mess in the process—but He also knows that in the end, those are going to the very places where people feel most at home with us. Those are going to be the very places in our soul which nourish others, which draw people in and refresh. We just need to wait while His Spirit fills those places.
Once the living water fills our holes, we will find (as I did from the plane, or early mornings at the ranch) that they reflect the Son in the most breathtaking ways. We will find that those holes in our lives, those things we were most ashamed of, become the most beautiful and fruitful areas of our lives.
So that’s what I shared with the girls in the jail that day. Truth be told, it wasn’t even directed at Amy; she was just listening in. I’m not sure how she’s “working on” this, I think she means she’s trying to let the truth of it sink in, trying to accept it. I’m trying to do the same. It’s a struggle not to be ashamed of weakness and failure. I’m certainly not saying any of us should be proud of our sins, but I am saying that we should be thankful for a God who sees not the mess that is, but the future that can and will be, if only we let him fill us with His living water. (Did I mention that we happened to be talking about the Woman at the Well that day? Providential.) I am saying that we should glory in the fact that we have a God who can work ALL things to good, even our failures and weaknesses, even the “holes” in our lives. Paul writes that God’s grace is sufficient, because his power is made perfect in weakness. That’s what I saw from the plane that day, in a seat I hadn’t really wanted, but am now so thankful for. I saw in a pock-marked, hole-filled earth below, the grace of God, filling the holes with living water, making perfection out of weakness, and reflecting the light of the sun.