In my last post I wrote about the frustration of losing my memory stick (Meaningless). After reading my post, my beloved wife took it upon herself to set out on a scavenger hunt. She found my memory stick (and life became meaningful again). This post is one of the pieces that I had worked the longest on and was most frustrated to have lost. It is longer than most - a full length article rather than a brief reflection. Actually, it began as a message I delivered at a men's breakfast at my church. I don't get many opportunities to preach, but this is a pretty accurate reflection of my style. I believe in the power of story and parables to proclaim truth. There is a lesson here, but it unfolds slowly. See what you think.
We take fresh water for granted. For most, it is as simple as turning on a faucet. We give little thought to what makes that possible. It wasn’t always so easily attained. In the early 1800s, before modern plumbing and sewage, the city of NY faced a severe lack of fresh water to meet the needs of their rapidly growing population. Aside from some scattered wells, the city had one major source of water - a large pond in lower Manhattan called the Collect. It served as a reservoir and increasingly as a sewage tank. People dumped all manner of things into the Collect - garbage, chamber pots, even dead cattle. Not an ideal source of fresh water.
In 1798 a Yellow fever epidemic caused 2,000 fatalities. Breakouts in 1805, 1819, and 1822 cost thousands of more lives. In 1832 it was cholera spread by contaminated water that cost 3,000 lives. Two years later a fire started near Wall Street in the dead of winter. The rivers were frozen and the firefighters had no way to quench the fire. It raged for more than 24 hours and ravished 700 buildings. More than a quarter of the city was reduced to embers.
All of these major disasters and many more minor ones contributed to the public pressure to find a solution, which in some respects is quite simple. What is lacking down state is quite abundant upstate. They just had to get the fresh water from the Catskills to the city, which is where it gets more complex. To do so would demand a network of reservoirs, aqueducts, and tunnels to store and transport the water.
So began work on the most extensive municipal water system in the world. The system begins with two giant reservoirs in the Catskills from which water is drawn through an aqueduct to supply a reservoir in Yonkers, just north of the city. From there, the water is funneled into the city by two giant water tunnels. Even today they continue work on a third water tunnel begun in 1969 and scheduled for completion in 2020.
As a construction feat, it depends on a group of workers called sandhogs. These are the men who blast the tunnels 200 – 800 feet below ground that supply the city with fresh water. It’s tedious, labor intensive work. In the past it was all done by blasting. You drill a hole, stick the dynamite in the earth, blow it up and haul it out. Manual labor with the added dynamics of confined space, low light, heavy debris and heights (or more accurately depths) make for dangerous work.
One of the most dangerous parts of the job was working in compressed air, used to build a tunnel under a river without it caving in as you dug. Air is forced through a shaft with such pressure that it holds the ceiling up. You have to get the pressure just right or you risked a blowout - a puncture hole that would start small and get bigger – anything not secured would get sucked out. In 1916 three men were sucked into the earth. Two died. The third, Marshall Mabey, was sucked through 60 feet of muck, through the East river, and launched twenty five feet into air, like a rocket. He suffered minor injuries and was back to work within the week.
Nowadays they have more advanced equipment. Much of their digging is doen with a 450 ton, 19 foot wide tunnel boring machine called the mole. It is so massive that it is lowered into the earth piece by piece and assembled on sight. With 27 cutters on its head, it can bore through fifty to one hundred feet of bedrock a day, twice what was possible with blasting. But even with all the advances in equipment and safety, this is still dangerous work. They say a mile a man - one life for every mile of tunneling completed. They are right on pace with that in this third tunnel.
But this is what it takes to keep up with the city’s demand for fresh water. When you turn on a faucet in NYC, water pours out because thousands of sandhogs have spent countless hours boring tunnels to transmit fresh water from the Catskills into the city. They’ve devoted themselves to this, inching their way through rock with little notice. David Grann, in his book The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, writes, “As an engineering feet, the water tunnel system rivals the Brooklyn Bridge or the Panama canal. Yet it has the odd distinction that almost no one will see it.” Almost no one will see it, but millions will use it. Over one billion gallons of water flow through those pipes every day.
But this isn’t really a story about the NYC water system. It’s a parable of grace -because as tragic as the lack of fresh water was in NYC in the 1800s, far more devastating is the dearth of God’s grace in the world today. This is a world surviving on the Collect - a reservoir infected by selfishness, greed, pride, deceit, anger, slander, lust. Sadly, you’ve had to drink from that pool, gulping on the consequences of someone else’s sin. You get stuck with a mouthful of their sewage. But don’t fool yourself. You’ve made your contribution, adding your own polluted muck to the watershed. The effects of sin are far greater than any outbreak of cholera or yellow fever.
The irony is that God’s reservoir of grace is abundant, but far removed from the world that so desperately needs it. Which brings us to the crux - how does God transmit his grace to this needy world? Fresh water in upstate does little good in NYC until the sandhogs dig the tunnels. So, when speaking of God’s grace, who are the sandhogs?
The obvious answer is Jesus, and it’s right, as far as it goes. Jesus is the preeminent sandhog. As it says in John 1:14, “The Word (Jesus) became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth.” When it says that Jesus is full of grace, think of a reservoir spilling over. John goes on to say, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16) The cresting reservoir of grace spills over into our blessing. Jesus is a conduit of grace into the world. That’s the obvious answer.
But there’s another conduit – this one more surprising. 1 Peter 4:10 says “Each one should use whatever gift (charismata) he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace (charis) in its various form.”
There’s a word play in the verse that is lost in translation, like when you translate a poem into another language and it doesn’t rhyme anymore. In this case the issue is not rhyming, but roots. I’ve flagged it with the corresponding Greek words in paratheses. The root is “charis,” which means grace, God’s undeserved favor. The derivative is “charismata,” which means gift. A gift is a tangible expression of grace, something received that is undeserved. Peter brings these words together and suggests that we are to use our spiritual gifts (charismata) to administer God’s grace (charis). That means that I am God’s sandhog, laying a pipeline through which God’s grace flows from his abundant reservoir into the world. This puts my service in perspective, redefining what I do. When I use my gift faithfully – whatever that gift may be – I am a channel of grace. Let that truth sink in – it is mind blowing. Just consider these three implications:
First, everbody is invited. Listen to the 1 Peter 4:10 again. “Each one of you…” that’s all inclusive. “..should use whatever gift…” that’s all inclusive. No matter who you are, mo matter what you do, you are invited to join God’s team of sandhogs.
Second, there is no small job. I suppose the sandhogs inching his way through bedrock can feel like his job is pretty small. He’s just digging a tunnel and, even at that, is doing so at a snail’s pace. That’s one perspective, making the work feel small, futile, and insignificant. From another angle, he is providing fresh water for the one of the greatest cities in the world. In that case, the work is bloated with purpose and significance.
Our service is bigger than we realize. Peter goes on to say, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides.” Speaking is not just speaking, it’s being the mouthpiece of God. Serving is not just serving, it’s divinely empowered serving. I have no idea how God can use what in my eyes is a small thing.
The sandhogs may be underappreciated, but they recognize the importance of the work. In the words of one sandhog “We could survive the Trade Center. We could survive the stock market crash. We could survive almost anything. But we couldn’t survive without water. The city would stop on a dime and we’d have to evacuate” (Anthony Aviles, quoted by Renee Valois in her article “Sandhogs”, on the website www.thehistorychannelclub.com).
Third, there is one factor determining how much grace gets through my pipeline. If this is how God is going to transmit grace, then I’d rather be a fire hose than a dripping spigot. The rate of flow is not determined by where you serve, but how you serve in that role. The key word is faithfully. Be faithful. Give it your best energy. Are you constant, firm, loyal, resolute, steadfast, steady, true, reliable? Are you living up to Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 15:58 “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor is not in vain.” It’s not in vain. Because you’re laying a pipeline for God’s grace to flow through you.
Who is God’s sandhog? I am. And so are you. The reservoir is full. It’s up to us to distribute that grace through tunnels we lay as we serve – faithfully.