He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. (Ps. 18:16)

 

Whenever I read this verse in Psalm 18, memory takes me back to a large, shabby room in Santiago, Cuba. It’s September, 1996, and the four of us who make up the female part of this mission team are meeting with several local women, while the men in our group hold a conference with local pastors at a nearby church.

At this time, Cuba was emerging from the decades-old attempt to wipe out Christianity on the communist-ruled island. Cubans were now allowed to meet for worship, and the Bible was no longer banned. For years previously, anyone who had a Bible would cut it up into 66 pieces, keeping each book of Scripture intact. This made it much easier to hide it from the authorities. The parts were usually carried under clothing, and exchanged with other believers or seekers after each part had been read.

Santiago now had several Protestant churches. Some had their own buildings; others used homes or other spaces in the evening. One congregation we visited met in a large vehicle maintenance shop, where the gas and oil fumes were almost overpowering. Whatever the venue, services were held six nights a week and twice on Sunday, and every service was full. The spiritual hunger was palpable.

On the day I’m remembering, it was my turn to lead the morning study. My Scripture was John 4 — Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. I was focusing on the cultural no-no that Jesus had reached out not only to a woman, but to a Samaritan woman. Worse, this woman was disparaged by her own community for a lifestyle that included multiple marriages and living without benefit of matrimony at the time she met Jesus. That probably explained why she was at the well in the heat of the day, when she would be least likely to be harassed by other women. I was feeling uneasy that my simple reflections were probably too basic for these women, and not particularly applicable.

One woman spoke up during the discussion that followed. She had grown up in hard circumstances that led to bad choices. Twice she had tried to flee Cuba by boat, but had been forced to turn back both times. She was in a desperate place, mired in sin and hopelessness, by the time she asked God to help her. I’ll never forget what she said — and acted out — next:

“When God reached down for me, He had to hold His nose while He was doing it.”

It’s a vivid picture, and, I think, an accurate one; it can apply to each of us. When we think about our sin at all, we seem predisposed to categorize it as minor. midline or major. Somehow, other people’s sins often seem to come off as more serious than ours.

Scripture makes clear that all sin is serious, because it separates us from God. Unrepented, it leads to death. Therefore, the smell of sin is the smell of death — a stench unlike any other. God holding His nose with one hand while taking hold of me with the other is an image I do well to keep in mind. It helps me not to minimize, rationalize or otherwise excuse what is offensive to God and harmful to me.

This verse also points to the truth that, like the young woman’s failed attempts to escape an oppressive government, my attempts to remove myself from the sin that rules over me will fail. I can’t make myself righteous, and any mode of transport I  try to use to get me where I need to be will not be able to complete the journey. It’s too far and the water is too deep. Only the hand of God is loving enough and powerful enough to reach me, draw me out of the deep waters, and give me a firm place to stand. Only as I walk with God will I know the freedom that forgiveness brings.

At that point, I didn’t know what anyone else in that room got out of the study on that September morning, but I was given a tremendous lesson I’ve never forgotten. God also revealed that my concern I may have failed in my attempt to bring His Word to light was unjustified. Whatever my shortcomings, God’s Word never returns to Him void. Just before our sessions resumed that afternoon, the same woman told me she’d gone home and shared the lesson with three of her neighbors over lunch. All three decided they wanted to know this Jesus who reached out to the sinful Samaritan woman.

He reached down!

Oh, Father, how can I ever thank You enough that You achieve Your desires in ways I can’t begin to imagine. Thank You for Your grace, and the favor of letting me hear that others were impacted — people I never met, but were known and loved by You. Please, Father, may You use the words You put at my fingertips to contribute to Your purposes. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.