Do You Know What A Sandhog Is?


We take fresh water for granted. For most, it is as simple as turning on a faucet.  However, it wasn’t always so easily attained. In the early 1800s, before modern plumbing and sewage, the city of New York 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, and even dead cattle. Not an ideal source of fresh water.

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 Catskills to the city, which is where things got more complex. From a reservoir in Yonkers, just north of the city, water was funneled into the city by two giant water tunnels. Even today, New York continues work on a third water tunnel, begun in 1969 and scheduled for completion in 2020.

As a construction feat, the tunnel depended on a group of workers called sandhogs. These were the men who blasted the tunnels 200-800 feet below ground. It was tedious, labor intensive and dangerous work. They say a mile a man – one life for every mile of tunneling completed. But this is what it took 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 spent countless hours boring tunnels to transmit fresh water from the Catskills into the city.

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 deficiency 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 and 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 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; Jesus is the preeminent sandhog. As it says in John 1:16, “From the fullness of his (Jesus) grace we have all received one blessing after another” (NIV). 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 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 forms.”

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 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, everybody is invited. Listen to 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. I suppose 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 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 is a small thing from my perspective.

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, 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 serve – faithfully.

Phil Huber is a freelance writer from Syracuse, NY who blogs regularly at

Share this article