Friday, November 25, 2016

Giving Thanks, Meeting Jesus - Behind Bars

It's Thanksgiving Day today. It's a time that Americans give thanks for the many blessings we've received--and in recent years it marks the start of the craziness surrounding Christmas!

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, many people are cooking the pies and all the side dishes, and frantically cleaning their homes before the massive family gatherings on Thanksgiving Day. However, my parents and I went to the local jail instead.

Mom, Dad, and I have been involved with jail ministry for the last two years. I remember the first time I walked through the doors of our local county jail, through the metal detectors, past the guard station, and was escorted down the long hallway with separation cells on each side, all the way back to the multi-purpose room in the female wing. I remember that I wasn't afraid of the inmates themselves, or of any physical harm; I was scared that I wouldn't have anything to say, that the inmates would right me off as a "goody, goody two shoes," and that everything I said would fall flat. While none of that happened, the first couple times Mom and I did a tag-team approach until I felt comfortable enough to lead the group.

We never know if we'll have a group of 3 or 13, if there will be one group or 5, if we'll have 15 minutes or over an hour with a group, and if we'll be all together in the multipurpose room, sitting in the middle of the hall, or talking with ladies in separation cells through the slit in the door. I never know if the inmates will be antagonistic towards the gospel, have a vastly different view of Scripture/God (as was the case with several Mormon inmates we spoke with), if all they remember of the Bible is from stories learned at Grandma's feet, or if they are indeed Christians and are using their time in jail to draw closer to Him.

But I know that I can count on God to show up. I know that the presence of God is not bound by cinder block walls or high security systems. I know that Jesus loves these women like He loves every other human. I know that God answers prayers prayed kneeling on a concrete floor from the mouth of a convicted person just as much as He answers prayers from the pulpit in the largest church. And I've experienced a little bit of what Paul and Silas went through as they were singing in the jail at midnight (Acts 16). I tell you, these women can sing!

Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake so that all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. He took them home and brought them food. He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God" Abridged from Acts 16:22-34 NIV

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I usually try to talk about a Bible story when it's my turn to go to the jail. Only a few of the inmates have a Bible, or one that's in a large enough print or in an easily understood version. And we all like to hear stories, especially when we can relate to some of the characters.

I bought this book about 9 years ago, and it's always been one of my favorites. Andrew Snaden takes familiar accounts from the gospels where Jesus interacted with women, then embellishes the story with historical and cultural information to help modern day readers get a deeper meaning. I decided to share about the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4. Here it is in a slightly bridged version:


Abigail paused at the doorway and looked back at the bed. The man snored under the covers. It was nearing noon, and he was still asleep.

She picked up the water jar by the door. When he awoke, he’d want water, and if it wasn’t there, she’d hear about it all day long. Why did she keep making the same mistake with guy after guy? They’d all seemed so nice to her at first. But this one was a loser, just like the rest.

She took a deep breath at the door. Outside, she would have to face all the whisperers. What a life.
Once she stepped outside, Abigail kept her eyes to the ground in case she accidentally made eye contact with any of the other women. They hated her, she hated them.Was it her fault that men found her attractive or enjoyed her company? But at least they had their original husbands.

After walking across town in the hot sun, Abigail was ready for a deep drink herself. She rounded the corner and stopped in her tracks. A man sat on the stones by the well, and by the looks of him, he was a Jew.

Just great. What should she do? She picked this time of day to avoid talking to anyone, and this Jew was sitting right there. What if some of the women walked by and saw her standing there alone with him. They’d draw all sorts of conclusions.

But Abigail couldn’t go home. If she returned without water, the loser back home would just send her back out again. She took a deep breath and walked to the well, as if the man wasn’t even there. She stole a glance at him, and realized that he looked tired. She started to lower her jar into the well.

“Will you give me a drink?”

She froze. The Jew had just talked to her. Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans; they seemed to think that her entire race was a bunch of half-breeds. And no man ever talked to her without expecting something in return. Was this guy trying to stir up trouble?

She paused and looked at him. “You’re a Jew, and I’m a Samaritan. How can you ask me for a drink?”

But instead of the usual sneer Jews gave Samaritans, he replied with a gentle smile, “If you knew the gift of God and who I am, you would have asked me and I would have given you living water.”

Huh? The Generosity of God? The sun must be making him lightheaded!

“Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and that well is very deep! And what do you mean ‘living water?’ Our own forefather Jacob dug this well and drank from it, along with all of his livestock. Are you better than him?”

The man shook his head, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will become like a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.”

Abigail was puzzled. At any other time, and with any other man, she would have simply ignored him as a crazy person. But as she studied his face, she realized that he wasn’t crazy. And strangely enough, in this man’s presence, she felt safe!

“Sir, give me this water, so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

The smile faded from his face and he replied, “Go get your husband and come back.”

Abigail looked at the ground. She couldn’t bring the loser. He’d accuse her of being involved with this man. He’d blab to the whole town and maybe even throw her back out on the streets. She said the only thing she could, “I have no husband.”

The man replied, “You are right to say that. The truth is that you’ve had 5 husband, and you’re not married to the man you’re with now.”

Abigail’s eyes widened. How could he know that! She’d never seen him around before. And as a foreigner, he couldn’t have been hanging around town and listening to the gossips. Surely, he would have been discovered. Abigail took a deep breath and steadied herself. There was only one way that he could know this about her. But she still felt the need to remind him how different they were.

“Sir, you must be a prophet. Our forefathers have worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews say the only proper place to worship is in Jerusalem.”

The man smiled, just like her father used to when she tried to “teach” him something.  “You Samaritans worship what you don’t really understand. But we worship what we do know—and salvation is coming from the Jews. There will come a time when all of God’s worshipers will not have to go to a specific place to worship Him.”

Could this man really mean what he said? “I know that the Messiah is coming, and when he comes he will explain everything to us.”

He held her eyes for a moment. “I am he.”

She went numb. This was all too incredible. The hope of the centuries claimed that he stood right before her. Surely he was toying with her… But no, he knew about all the other men, and how could she explain how she felt in his presence? Part of her felt like a little lost girl whose father found her in the woods, and part of her felt very, very afraid. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, she saw other Jewish men approaching.

The looks on their faces showed they weren’t too pleased to see their friend talking to her. And it was well known that Jewish men didn’t tolerate a woman with a lifestyle like hers. She dropped her water jar, turned around, and ran back to town.

She ran past the women standing outside the market, and right up to the men of the town. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath.  They looked at her like she was crazy, but boy did she have a story to tell them. She’d just met the Messiah and this was something she couldn’t keep silent!

“Come, see a man who told me everything I’d ever done. Could this really be the Christ!?!?”

Mom and I talked through the story with the women, asking questions and pausing to place ourselves in "Abigail's" shoes. We thought about why Jesus "needed to go through Samaria," why He planned to arrive thirsty at the well so He would have something to talk about with the woman, what tone He might have used when exposing her past failed relationships, why He might have chosen to speak to her in order to reach the men of the village, and how the gospel spread throughout the region because of her.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for a God who goes out of His way to talk with the lowest of the low. I am thankful for a God who looks beyond my past as simply fact. I am thankful for a God who exposes my true needs, even when I throw up smoke screens and try to distract Him. I am thankful for a God who invites us to worship Him in our hearts, doing away with the need to go to a specific place. And I am thankful that even though these women may be behind bars, we can worship this great God together.

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