“The Scent of Water” by Naomi Zacharias,
(Zondervan, 2010)

Before I read this book, which Zondervan provided free of charge for a review, I thought it would be about Naomi Zacharias’ adventures working for a humanitarian organization. Reading the prologue and first chapters, however, convinced me it was more about the suffering she encountered. And now that I have read the whole book, I realize it isn’t either of those things, but something deeper and more difficult to define. I think perhaps the progression of themes I felt mirrors the growth and change Naomi herself experienced through the telling of the story.

In “The Scent of Water,” Naomi chronicles her attempts to rediscover her worth after an emotionally painful divorce. Threaded through her narrative of self-learning and growth are stories of the physical, emotional and spiritual suffering of women she meets in numerous countries while working for Wellspring International

Though she often does not speak the same language as the women and children she meets, she learns of a universal language that speaks beyond their shared pain – the voice of hope, the discovery of grace, and the assurance of the intrinsic value of each person.

The voice of hope

Throughout the book, Naomi describes her visits to women who work in the red light district of Amsterdam, a city where prostitution has been legal since 2000. In one chapter, she shares the story of a woman named Elise, who was born in the Czech Republic to a drunken mother, raped in an alley as a teenager and a single mother of two by age 18. To buy security, she married a man she didn’t love, who ended up selling her into prostitution in Amsterdam. She couldn’t run away because she had no passport or money. 

After years of standing behind a window on display, she met a taxi driver who began to love her for herself and offered her the priceless gift of freedom from the brothel. She married him eventually, but she still was plagued by nightmares of what she had been through. One day, she learned of an organization called Scarlet Cord, whose mission was to help former and current prostitutes in Amsterdam. The rest of the story, in Naomi’s words:

She talked. She cried. They helped her apply to school. They helped her travel to the Czech Republic so she could obtain proper papers. They saw her as human; they treated her with respect. They didn’t ask for anything in return. … But they spoke of a gracious and loving God, and for the first time, Elise wondered if he might actually exist. ...
When Elise was diagnosed with leukemia, she fought to save the body she had once hated. She had not found all of the answers. She still wrestled to understand a God she believed was there, but one she desperately struggled to understand. Perhaps Elise understood more than she realized. Approaching death, she found rest from a life that had been fraught with pain. She looked back on her childhood, hurting and alone, being told she would never amount to anything. She was used and discarded, treated as less than human. But she was leaving this world as a woman who had loved and had been loved in return. …
Elise’s story was recorded to help other women in prostitution. Shortly before she died, the only thing that remained incomplete was a title. For this, she had an answer. “Call it Hope,” she said. “I often had very little hope. ... I need people who hope for me when I am losing hope myself. I live in hope. May my story bring you hope.”
In many ways, knowing of Elise’s suffering makes me feel angry, which, I suppose, is a natural reaction. But since, at the end of her life, Elise felt trust in God, peace and hope, I marvel and am grateful.

The discovery of grace

Naomi soon is surprised to discover grace for her own pain, and the narrative shifts away from other women’s stories to the truth of what she needed to grapple with about herself.

After a series of moves, Naomi ends up living in San Diego. One weekend, a friend suggests a two-day adventure in San Francisco. She unexpectedly ends up catching the eye of an Italian waiter at a restaurant they visit. He writes down his phone number and says he would like to talk to her someday. Naomi eventually calls him, and describes the time they spend over dinner together thus:

With each course we progressively moved to new stages of a life journey. I found myself sharing some of the details I normally kept closely guarded because of the palpable fear that someone would discover their truths and look down on me. … But I sensed he wouldn’t judge me, and it was nothing short of utter relief. …
Setting down his knife and fork at one point, he folded his hands and said, “You see yourself in this very small way … these horrible things … because you are divorced?” I nodded, and as he put it into plain words, something about it didn’t seem to fit in with the ultimate message of my faith, but I could not let the burden go either.  …
Then he looked at me intently, and his tone became quiet and serious. “I am so sorry for what happened to you,” he began. “I am so sorry for how you hurt. You … are angelic. I look at you and that is what I see – someone who should be protected.”
… The caring statement from my new friend was disarming. … People say there are things in life that can’t be explained or fully described, that you will just know when you see it and when you experience it. They say love is one of those things. And now I know that grace is another.
I am thankful Naomi chose to share this exchange. I’m not sure everyone would have the insight to recognize this kind of grace, but she did, and shared it, despite how it exposed her insecurities. We all have them – but how many of us, after being vulnerable, can accept grace when it’s offered?

The intrinsic value of each person

Perhaps one of Naomi’s points that struck me the most as she told so many sad, painful stories, whether of prostitutes, violence victims, tsunami survivors, divorcees or bereaved mothers, was that those in ministry have a very fine line to walk between healing/helping and control.

 Violence especially, she says, crushes the spirit of its victims and dehumanizes. Whether physical or emotional, it is a form of control, and the last thing a ministry should do is perpetuate it. 

[Compromise and manipulation] is what we can do in the name of ministry when we try to shape someone into God’s calling on our lives, into what we think she should be and because of what we have done for her. … Rather than releasing her to discover her own purpose, we can sometimes be quick to define it for her. … Yet her calling may be entirely different from ours. ... We are given the privilege and the opportunity to participate in her life. And implicit in the opportunity lies significant responsibility.
I’m not sure if the message of this book, and the cry of Naomi’s heart for suffering women, can be better described than by this verse from the Old Testament, from which the book derives its name:

“For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant.” (Job 14:7-9, ESV)

I would recommend this book to anyone struggling to overcome a part of her past that seems insurmountable. Naomi’s story is not easy to capture in a snapshot, but that also is its strength. God is not done with any one of us, but he blesses those who diligently seek him.