May 22, 2022 Sixth Sunday of Easter
As I went down to the river to pray
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way
O sisters, let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sisters, let’s go down
Down to the river to pray.
Traditional American Hymn
Lydia and her sisters went down to the river to pray, and they became part of a historic moment in the story of our faith.
Water is life. Water is power. Water in the wrong place can be destructive and deadly – dramatically, as a flood; or as our friends at Good Shepherd Church in Hemet recently experienced, sneakily, as a slow leak, that can ultimately bring down a building. Water is the most ordinary substance in our world but it is also miraculous and symbolic. Water draws people to the spiritual. You cannot spend time by a body of living water and not be drawn to contemplate what lies beyond the physical.
Today we hear two stories of life-changing encounters, one with Paul and the other with Jesus. Both of these transformations take place beside water and both are made possible by the living water that flows from faith in Christ.
Before it was renamed by King Philip of Macedonia, the original name of the city of Philippi was Krenides or Fountains, named for the springs of living water that abounded there. Acts tells us that Lydia and her household gather at the river on the Jewish Sabbath to pray and praise the unknown God. Lydia is a successful business woman, a community leader, a gentile, not a Jew, with connections to the top tier of society – the only people in the Roman Empire who were allowed to wear purple. But Lydia was looking for something more, something to make meaning of her life. Why did she worship outside the city walls? Is it because her God-seeking status put her at odds with both the Jewish and pagan communities, especially as she was an immigrant? She may have been successful in business but that doesn’t mean that she belonged somewhere. No wonder she was looking for something more.
What were the odds of Lydia and the missionaries being in the same place at the same time? It had to be a God thing. Paul had different plans altogether for his missionary journey, but the Holy Spirit nudged and pushed him towards Macedonia and Philippi. Lydia was already seeking a relationship with God and was ready to hear and embrace God’s word of love and salvation. And, perhaps unexpectedly, Paul the Pharisee was willing to sit down and talk with this group of unorthodox women as they prayed by the river.
This story marked a turning point for the emerging Christian mission, with the first converts on the European continent. Lydia’s open heart and generous hospitality started something. Her response to the blessing of baptism created a community that became a congregation. Philippi remained a key community for Paul: he wrote an affectionate letter to the Philippian Christians later, when he was imprisoned, possibly in Rome. Lydia, like Dorcas who we heard about two weeks ago, was a crucial figure in the development of the new faith.
Our Gospel story directs our attention to water again, as Jesus comes across a public pool in Jerusalem fed by natural springs, bubbling up randomly from underground. The local people believed that invisible and magical beings stirred the water and gave it healing powers. Individuals with various ailments hung out near the pool, and whenever the water moved, there was frenzied competition to get into the water first and receive its healing qualities before the water calmed down. The man whom Jesus addresses evidently can’t move fast enough to get to the water before his neighbors. When Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, he can’t even imagine what that would mean. He assumes that Jesus is offering to help him into the water and responds at that level. He can’t imagine a life beyond the life he has now. But we know that Jesus can offer so much more.
Do you want to be made well? To be made well is more than to be able to walk. It means being able to imagine a life, to have self-determination, to be able to work and gain self-respect and identity. Do you want to be made well? It’s a question that seems simple but has hidden complications. Being made well means having to take responsibility for your life. Being made well means losing the justification for complaining of helplessness. Being made well means being changed, and change can be upsetting. As our Collect for today reminds us, God has already prepared for us such good things as surpass our understanding. What are the good things that God has prepared for you? What do we dare to hope for, wish for, dream about? God’s promise of eternal life is beyond what we can ask or imagine. I suspect that sometimes we ask too little of God, unable or even unwilling to imagine the true extent of how God can change our lives.
Do you want to be made well? That’s a question we are asking of ourselves as a culture, as a nation, as we wrestle with the long legacy of racism and injustice. Being made well in this sense will take more than a commandment from Jesus. It will take introspection, generosity, grace, a willingness to imagine something different from the way things are now, a willingness to be changed in ways we cannot imagine and perhaps do not want. And that’s why we need the vision of Revelation, to give us hope and remind us of God’s promise, that all of us will be brought to the living water, the river that flows from the throne of God, where all injustice will be reversed and all suffering will be healed. Can we imagine such a world? Do we dare ask for such a world? Do you want to be made well?
Here’s a prayer composed by Bishop Deon Johnson of Missouri in response to the Buffalo shooting.
Eternal Giver of Life,
Remind us that a single water drop has the power to shape even the hardest stone.
Remind us that a single act of hope has the power to inspire a world to be transformed.
Remind us that even a single light has the power to dispel the longest shadow.
When our hearts break, when lives are lost,
When violence threatens to overcome,
When division and disunity looms large,
Call us to be drops of water, acts of hope, lights of love; in your name we make our prayer.
Amen and Amen.