By Philip Huber
We take fresh water for granted. For most, it is as simple as turning on a faucet. It wasn’t always so easily attained. In the early 1800s, before modern plumbing and sewage, New York City faced a severe shortage of fresh water to meet the needs of its rapidly growing population.
Aside from some scattered wells, the city had one major water source—a large pond in lower Manhattan called Collect Pond. It first served as a reservoir of drinking water but then increasingly became a sewage tank. People dumped all manner of things into Collect Pond—garbage, waste, even dead animals. Not an ideal source of fresh water. Numerous outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera caused by contaminated water led to public pressure to find a solution.
The answer was really quite simple. What was lacking down state was quite abundant upstate. They just had to get the fresh water from the Catskill Mountains 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 nicknamed sandhogs. These are the men who blast the tunnels 200 to 800 feet below ground. It’s tedious, labor-intensive, dangerous work. They say it used to be a mile a man—averaging one life lost for every mile of tunneling completed. Even today, with newer equipment and better safety standards, that danger is still real. But this is what it takes to keep up with the city’s demand for fresh water. When you turn on a faucet in New York City, water pours out because thousands of sandhogs have spent countless hours boring tunnels to transmit fresh water from the Catskills into the city, over a billion gallons a day.
A Parable of Grace
But this isn’t really a story about a water system. It’s a parable of grace—because as tragic as the lack of fresh water was in New York City 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 Pond—a reservoir infected by selfishness, greed, pride, deceit, anger, slander, and lust. Sadly, you’ve had to drink from that pool, gulping down 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 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 the city until sandhogs dig the tunnels. So, when speaking of God’s grace, who are the sandhogs?
The obvious answer is Jesus, and that’s half right. Jesus is the preeminent sandhog. As it says in John 1:16: “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (NIV, 1984). The cresting reservoir of grace spills over into our blessing. Jesus is a conduit of grace into the world.
But there’s another conduit—this one is more surprising: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).
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. The root is charis, which means “grace.” The derivative is charismata, which means “gift.” 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 when you use your spiritual gift in ministry, you are God’s sandhog, laying a pipeline through which God’s grace flows from his abundant reservoir into the world. This puts your service in perspective, redefining what you do. When you use your gift faithfully—whatever that gift may be—you are a channel of grace. Let that truth sink in—it is mind blowing.
Consider these three implications:
First, everybody is invited. Consider 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, no matter what you do, you are invited to join God’s team of sandhogs.
Second, there is no small job. The sandhog inching his way through bedrock can feel like his job is pretty small. He’s 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 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” (1 Peter 4:11). 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.
Third, the key is faithfulness. This is the one factor determining how much grace gets through your pipeline. If God is choosing to transmit his grace through us, then we are better off acting as a fire hose rather than a dripping spigot. The rate of flow is not determined by where we serve, but how we serve. So be faithful. Give it your best energy. Are you constant, firm, loyal, and resolute? It’s not in vain. You are laying a pipeline for God’s grace to flow through you.
Who is God’s sandhog? I am. And so are you. Each of us can be a world changer. The reservoir is full. It’s up to us to distribute that grace through tunnels we lay as we faithfully serve.
Phil Huber is a freelance writer in Baldwinsville, New York.
Vessels of Grace
God calls each of us to help direct his grace into people’s lives. Pray that God helps you see and believe this.
• List people in your day-to-day life who you are uniquely situated to relate to. This includes family and close friends, but you don’t necessarily need to have a deep relationship with them; you may hold a place in their lives, however small, that no one else does. You may be the only parent who volunteers in your child’s classroom or the only one who asks your hairdresser what’s going on with her family or the only customer to learn the barista’s name. Don’t assume that because a relationship is small that God can’t use it.
• List your spiritual gifts plus activities that you enjoy and do well. Ask God to show you places where your abilities and position intersect. Prayerfully listen to where God is working around you, and join in the work as a vessel of grace to others.