With the deep chill of a Maine February upon us and five children hanging around our house on a one-week school vacation, it was time to get out and have fun. So, while our older children played a board game around the kitchen table, my husband, Dana, and I gathered our two youngest boys and headed to a local pool. No sooner were we in the water, than 5-year-old Ezra spotted his former swimming teacher and paddled over to join her class.

When this dear lady instructed her students to sit on the edge of the pool and kick their feet, Ezra plonked himself on the wall and kicked his feet too. When she asked the children to float on their backs, so did Ezra. And when it was time to grab a noodle and splash through the water, Ezra eagerly grabbed a noodle.

So confident was Ezra that this class was where he belonged, that he ignored my wriggling finger motioning him to come back. Embarrassed, I splashed over and apologized to the teacher. Only, instead of sending Ezra away, she asked my son his name. Then she turned to me and said, “He’s fine.”

As someone who bends toward following the rules – rather than bending them – had I been the teacher, I would have likely asked Ezra to find his mom or dad. But instead of booting Ezra out of her group, this gracious lady made him feel accepted.

“Isn’t it great,” I said, swimming back to Dana as Ezra completed the lesson with the class, “to be an age when you feel like you fit in anywhere?”

The teacher’s response brought to mind a couple of recent incidents where someone broke the rules. Only instead of seeking to understand the offenders’ needs or acknowledging their efforts, the person in charge responded with criticism. Ouch! I too have responded harshly to small offences – particularly when tired or stressed or hurt. But this swimming teacher’s answer to my son’s ignorance reminded me of how Jesus might have responded.

It wasn’t those who broke the rules that Jesus criticized. Rather, he reserved his harshest words for those who thought they were righteous will imposing a heavy burden of rules on others. To the woman caught in adultery, about to be stoned, Jesus pointed out the sins of her accusers, freeing her to live a new life with a gentle correction, “Go and sin no more,” (John 8:11 NLT).

As one who was truly righteous, Jesus alone had the right to condemn this woman (not to mention the man involved with her). Instead, he offered her grace. Christ’s actions, like those of Ezra’s swimming teacher, say, “You belong” – a reminder to be less critical when someone breaks the rules and instead to discover their deeper needs.

In Ezra’s case, his deeper need happened to be swimming lessons, which I promptly resolved by registering him for classes. But even when people’s needs are more complicated, I hope to respond with grace.

Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Backward Easter Egg Hunt, from her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available for preorder now.