Unexpected Grace

March 1, 2019 by Emily Snell

One summer I participated in a ten-week Bible class at the Tennessee Prison for Women.  Each Wednesday I sat in a classroom with 25 other women, sharing life stories, studying scripture, and considering God’s work in the world.

I had never been to a prison before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The women I met there became my teachers, my faithful companions, my restorers, and my friends.  They spoke of their pain and sorrow with vulnerability and courage.  And as we engaged in the spiritual practice of listening, their stories opened my eyes.  My friends in prison taught me what it means to recognize a person’s full humanity, to see the whole person — insecurities, mistakes, talents, wisdom, trauma, and resilience.

As I think about my friends in prison, I’m reminded of the story in John 4 about the Samaritan woman at the well who encounters Jesus.  Jesus knew the woman’s story and despite societal norms, he chose to enter into relationship with her, offering her living water.  I believe Jesus enters into relationship with all of us in the same way he entered into relationship with that woman.  He knows our mistakes, our secrets, our pain, and he offers us a better way of life.  He offers us living water — the spiritual freedom found in him.

Jesus’ living water frees us to be in relationship with God.  It frees us from hopelessness, from finding our meaning only in temporary and material things, and from basing our own sense of worth on what other people think about us.  It opens for us a pathway to experience God’s grace in our lives.  My friends in prison seem to have a much deeper understanding of spiritual freedom than anyone else I’ve encountered.  Even though they sometimes feel confined and forgotten, they know that Jesus values them and offers them the truest freedom available to us. In relationship with Jesus, our souls are set free by God’s grace to truly live.

I don’t know all of what the woman at the well had gone through, what society thought of her, or what she thought of herself, but I see that Jesus broke the rules to offer her a new way of life.  And I saw Jesus do the same at the Tennessee Prison for Women, where he continues to break down barriers, extend grace, and open the doors to spiritual freedom.

Despite the horrific experiences we sometimes endure, we can trust that God is with us and working among us.  Knowing my friends’ stories, I am amazed at how much hope they have and the forgiveness they offer. The woman at the well would ultimately lead many people in her town to faith (see John 4:39).  Similarly, the women I met in prison lead many others to encounter Jesus.  As they share their stories of heartache and hope, they point other inmates, visitors, and volunteers toward faith in Christ.

I believe the redemption that exists in their life stories only happens by God’s grace.  And grace is what I received when I shared a small part of my own story of brokenness with my friends. I received unexpected grace in the words they offered me.  They saw me and — through their compassionate words — helped put some of the pieces back together.  I had known God was at work, but a prison wasn’t where I had expected to encounter such a deeply healing message.

My Wednesdays in prison taught me that those who are incarcerated are not more broken than me.  Our brokenness may be different, but we are in this broken human mess together.  And through life’s sorrows and joys, God’s grace is there to sustain and heal us.  We can all partake in the living water Jesus offered the woman at the well and continues to offer each of us today.

I pray that in whatever setting we find ourselves, we will keep our eyes open for moments to receive God’s grace.  It’s through God’s grace alone that we experience the truest freedom.  As we embrace these moments of grace, may we be a tangible reminder to one another that God is always working.


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