I met an extraordinary woman several weeks ago. Her name is Julie Woodley. She is middle aged with shoulder length auburn hair and a smile that makes you want to tell her your deepest secrets.
I knew Julie’s history before we met because I read her book, a Wildflower Grows in Brooklyn. If I hadn’t known her story, I never would have believed it when we met. She looked as though life had been good to her. She had very few wrinkles on her face and she stood erect- as one who has nothing to hide.
As far back as she can remember, Julie’s father sexually abused her. If that weren’t bad enough, he forced her brother to do the same. He beat her regularly. As she got into her young teen years, her father decided to make money from her and he “sold” her to men who snuck away from their homes to seedy hotels. Her mother knew these things were happening and she, like many women co-conspirators, simply said nothing.
Julie vowed to leave home as soon as she graduated high school. She did. The day after graduation, she boarded a bus bound for Minneapolis without leaving word to anyone where she was going. When she arrived in the city, she worked as a prostitute to earn money. As she told me, women who have been sexually abused either become promiscuous or they avoid sex altogether. There is no middle ground. Soon, she began using drugs because that’s what many prostitutes end up doing to keep going.
Several years passed and Julie decided that she’d had enough- not of her business, but of life. She lay down and wanted to die. And she meant it. She thought of ways to end her life. Then something other-earthly happened. She heard a voice in her heart (not an audible one) repeating “I love you” over and over. It got louder and she says that she can remember the sound to this day. She didn’t know God but somehow upon hearing the voice, she knew that it could be no one other than God.
That moment changed her life. She met a young woman shortly thereafter who began teaching her about God’s love for her and Julie fell hook line and sinker. She left her work, her life style and eventually, years of pain and shame that had choked the life out of her for too long. A few weeks ago, she came to tell me about her pain, her horrible shame and her God that erased it all.
Those who experience the anguish of sexual abuse, psychological trauma or physical pain and hear God in the midst of it are never the same. Why do some get the voice and others don’t? I have no clue. But I can tell you this. I have heard this from the lips of other men and women from different states and different decades who heard the exact same voice. These are people who have felt the hand of God reach into their chests and get their frozen hearts moving once again.
I love being with men and women like Julie – abuse survivors, recovering alcoholics or folks who have kicked a drug habit. These are tough men and women who understand what life is really about. No nonsense, unpretentious people who are willing to take you as deep as you want to go.
Mostly I like being around them because they are givers. They have received so much that they yearn to give back. Their lives have been so radically transformed that they can’t wait to help transform other’s lives. It’s like those who have near-death experiences who have been altered to their core. They need to tell others what they don’t know, but need to know.
Julie works with thousands of women and men now, who have been sexually abused and trafficked. Sadly, they creep from the woodwork because in this hyper-sexualized culture sexual abuse (especially in children) is going up not down.
Jesus talked about a woman like Julie. She didn’t wear a beautiful yellow leather jacket like her but she understood shame. We know this because she hid from other women. At noon she went to collect her daily water because she knew that her women friends collected theirs in the morning. When she looked up from the well and saw a peculiar man staring at her, she was shocked. He caught her hiding. Then he did something that probably made her feel worse. He asked where her husband was, knowing that she didn’t have one- she was just promiscuous. Ouch. She wanted to run more than ever.
But Jesus, being Jesus, didn’t leave her that way. He pulled her pain from inside of her and said, “Let me take it. Give me your shame too. I love you, I love you.” The woman got it. She heard the same voice that Julie heard two thousand years later. Imagine- the same voice over time and space. The deep voice of a God- man who promised to love her like no other man ever could. He would never hurt her. He would never let her down. This woman was so moved with joy that she dropped her bucket of water and ran to town to tell what had happened. Just like Julie reaches out to men and women wrapped in the tarry darkness of abuse to tell them that they don’t have to live with the hurt any longer.
Here’s my question to you and me. What would these women’s lives have been like if That Voice never came? If Julie never heard God’s voice saying how much He loved her? What about the woman collecting water?
I believe (this is speculation but I think Julie would agree) that she would have followed through with committing suicide and the woman at the well would still be a prostitute. But they aren’t. They lived transformed and then they transformed others. All because they opened their broken hearts to Grace.