On Sunday, March 1, I had the immense privilege of delivering a sermon for the first time in the Women’s Correctional Facility at the Orange County Jail in Orlando. I have spoken in public before, but I have never taught on the Bible or in church, so this was a very new experience for me. On the Wednesday prior, I read my sermon for the pastoral teaching team at Summit Church and I was WAY more nervous in front of them than I would be in the jail! I had no reason to be nervous – the men and woman in the room were incredibly kind and I am getting to know them well, but I have developed a certain level of friendship and familiarity with the women in jail that I don’t experience anywhere else. Even without knowing the details of each other’s stories, brokenness knows brokenness in others and can sense it.
I was curious if my words would make sense, if I would talk too fast, if the message would resonate with the women…basically I was being selfish. As I prayed on my way into the jail, I realized I needed to get out of my own way. This wasn’t about me. It was about delivering a word of hope and truth to those who feel hopeless.
The sermon went over well. I stumbled a few times, and they asked me to repeat things a few times. It was more like a big conversation, which is what I was hoping would happen. What really struck me where the moments of sharing that followed. One woman, who I have come to know well over the past several months, started off by tearfully saying, “You know I am that Samaritan woman.”
I guess it would be important to note here that I had taught from John 4:1-39, the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. She was a woman of “ill repute”, an outcast, mostly because she slept around. When we meet her, she is gathering water from Jacob’s Well in the middle of the day, as opposed to early morning or evening when all of the other women would be out. She did not want to be spoken to or seen. Jesus, however, meets her in broad daylight and invites her to a conversation which leads to so much more.
By identifying with the Samaritan woman, the ladies in jail were all saying, “I have been an outcast, and I don’t want that for me or for my family anymore.” For the next 30 minutes, several of the women told stories about their lives. They expressed all the ways that they have felt like outcasts, but rather than blaming other people for making them feel that way, they admitted how they have lived in the darkness of shame and have refused to let light in.
They poured their hearts out and encouraged each other to open up and to not hide in shame and darkness. We talked about how shame can’t live in the light, but our secrets will kill us. We talked about how we are not defined by what we’ve done, who we’ve slept with, or what we have put in our bodies.
I walked away in complete awe of what I had just experienced and of the women who spoke. They are not wasting their time behind bars, but rather using it as a chance to wrestle with their stories and, hopefully, do life differently on the other side. I am not naive enough to believe life will be a dream for them when they get out. Far from it. For most, if not all, life will look more like a nightmare. I do believe, however, that they will walk back out with different tools to do things differently, and big change starts with small steps.