It had begun raining. Of course it had; a perfect accompaniment to this less than perfect day. Julia had only grabbed a light jacket as she ran out of her brownstone apartment and down the steps into the city. She wanted the city to swallow her up like it so often did. No matter what was falling apart in her marriage and her life, the city could make her feel anonymous and numb. The city didn’t stop the hustle and bustle because her life was in a twist. She could just become part of the scene and lose herself. She was doing that more and more these days. Losing herself.
So she had run out again. Out into the city to lose herself, and now it was raining. The November sky was grey. Perfect. It felt like her heart and mind. But it was chilly, and now she was wet as well as cold. Still, Julia kept walking, lost in her grey thoughts. Thoughts of defeat moving in and out, making no good sense of her life. It was the loud clap of thunder that broke her out of her thoughts, and brought her back to her current situation. Suddenly, she noticed the rain was coming down harder. There was no way she could get safely back home now in this weather. She had run out of the apartment without anything. No phone, no money, no umbrella, nothing.
She darted across the street to a covered doorway and stood there a few moments, looking out at the dismal downpour. She zipped her jacket up to the neck and backed her way as far as possible into the small alcove, and watched the world continue to go by, like it does, in spite of the rain. In just a moment, the door next to her pushed open, a bell rang, and she turned sideways to let a man with a rather bewildered look on his face pass her. It was then that she noticed she was standing outside a small oriental restaurant. It was nothing fancy, a small mom-and-pop place with pictures of the food on signs that hung in the windows, making it hard to see inside. As the door closed, she caught a whiff of the food cooking. It smelled… delicious. Suddenly, she was starving.
But she had no money. None. No purse, no wallet, nothing. So she sighed and settled back into the alcove away from the wind and rain. Shoving her hands in her pockets, she felt something. Pulling her hand out, she saw a five-dollar bill in her hand. It was only five dollars, certainly not enough for much, but it might buy her a table inside and a hot cup of tea. She pulled the heavy door to the restaurant open and stepped inside. It seemed a bit dismal in the restaurant. The lanterns that lit the place up were on the meager side, but it was warm and dry. A sign indicated that she should seat herself, so she did. She made her way to a small booth away from the windows, and sat down.
She picked up a menu from the table and began looking for tea options. In a moment, a small, old oriental woman shuffled up to the booth. She was bent over with age, and her gray hair was pulled out of her face and fashioned into a tight bun at her neck. The old woman sat a small bowl of soup and a glass of water down on the table in front of the young woman.
Looking at the bowl, and then quickly at the old woman, Julia said, “Oh. No thank you. I’ll just have some tea.”
Motioning to the window, she replied, “It cold and wet. You need soup. Eat soup. It good soup.” With that, the old woman shuffled away and back into the kitchen.
Sitting there, unsure of exactly what to do, she decided to try the soup. She could pay for the soup with her five dollars, surely. She found that the old woman was right. It was good soup. Actually, it was great soup. It was warm and comforting. The aroma filled her nostrils and seemed to warm her from the inside. It was a unique feeling. She cupped her hands around the bowl and inhaled its goodness. Far too soon, the soup was all gone, and the young woman found she felt a good bit better.
The old woman appeared shortly, and took away the bowl without a word. In a few moments, she reappeared and sat another dish down in front of Julia. Surprised again, she placed her hand on the old woman’s arm and said, “Honestly, the soup was wonderful, but I really don’t need this, too. I’ll just pay my bill for the soup and go.”
The old woman paused, looked at the hand on her arm, and then up into the young woman’s eyes. Gesturing to the steaming plate on the table with her head, she simply said, “You need. Eat. It good food. You see.”
And without further hesitation, the old woman disappeared once again into the kitchen. Looking around the restaurant for some help or an answer to this odd little woman and her behavior, Julia only saw a few other patrons minding their own business. No one offered a word of explanation. She looked around for a manager or someone to talk to, but no one appeared.
Turning her attention to the plate of food in front of her, she simply couldn’t help herself. The food looked and smelled delicious. Picking up the fork on the table, she helped herself to a bite, telling herself she would run home, get her purse and come back to pay for her food later. Again, she found the food unusually good. She must really be hungry, she told herself. As she ate, she couldn’t remember being so satisfied. The plate of food in front of her really hit the spot. How had she not seen this restaurant before?
As she ate the food, Julia began to notice some of the other patrons in the restaurant. She watched as the little old woman would come from the kitchen and bring out food as if on cue, but she never saw anyone place an order. She noticed the other people speaking with the old woman, but like her, they seemed a bit perplexed by the whole affair. She caught the eye of a man sitting across the room, and they both shared a shoulder shrug. Apparently, he didn’t get this system either.
She watched as a well to do woman seated alone by a window offered the old woman money for her food. The old woman simply gestured to a man seated in a dark corner of the restaurant, shook her head, and explained something to the woman. Then the woman, holding up money, insisted that the old woman hand her a bill. Eventually, the old woman did, and when the woman looked at the bill, the color drained from her face. Shaking her head, the woman was obviously questioning what she owed, but the old woman simply gestured to the man in the corner once again. With a look of panic, the woman placed her money into the pocket on the old woman’s apron, stood, and began clearing the dishes from her own table. Shrugging her shoulders, the old woman turned and pushed through the kitchen doors.
After a while, the old woman appeared again beside Julia’s booth, and took the empty plate and glass. “You satisfied? Feel better?”
“Yes. Of course, the food was delicious. Really delicious. But I must tell you, I cannot pay just now. You see, I foolishly ran out without my purse. But I live just a few blocks away. I can come right back with some money.”
Shaking her head, the old woman said, “You no have money? It okay. You no need money. Your bill paid already.” Once again, gesturing with her head, this time to the man in the corner.
The young woman squinted at the dark corner, trying to see the man who had paid her bill, but really couldn’t make out much.
“No. I mean thank you, um, thank him. But really, I can pay. Honestly, I can. I know I must look a mess, but it’s like I said, I just ran out without my purse. It was a dumb thing, really. I just needed to get out for a bit, you see? I can pay. That man over there doesn’t need to cover my bill.”
“Already paid. You want to pay bill already paid? Very expensive bill you owe. Take you lots money and much time to pay. Bill already paid, though.”
Waving an arthritic hand over to the table where earlier the woman insisted on paying her bill, she said, “Some want to pay their own bill. Don’t see bill already paid for them. Insist they pay bill, only they don’t see it is bill they cannot hope to pay, and that it paid already.”
“It’s just that I’m used to paying my own way. I’m not used to accepting handouts.”
“No handout. Is grace. You no deserve. You get anyway. He pay your price. Is grace.” Once again, gesturing to the corner.
Grace. The young woman let the word settle over her. Settlement for a debt she could not pay. She slowly began to realize that grace changed a lot of things. No, it changed everything. Now she understood the bewildered look on the man’s face as he pushed by her and out of the restaurant earlier. Grace changed everything.
Many people miss this concept of grace. We want to pay. We want
to make our own way. Many never understand that it is by grace alone that we find our way into God’s forever family. We really end up in one of two places when it is all said and done. We accept the offer of grace so sacrificially given by Christ and let him pay our debts. Or we insist on paying our own bill for eternity, a bill that will never be satisfied.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesian 2:8-9