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Welcome by the River

Acts 16: 9-15

Rivers are pretty special places in the Bible…and they are for many of us as well. We love to sit beside the St Laurent…so wide it forms Lac St. Louis at this spot… Sitting beside a river, it just seems natural to pray; to reflect on the flow of life; where life has been; where it is heading; where the Spirit is flowing freely; where it is dammed up/blocked.

John of Patmos, writing to sustain a church under terrible persecution invites the early church, and us to dare to imagine outrageously; even in the face of very hard times. He invite the early Christian communities to imagine a different way…a Holy Way…a new heaven, a new earth. He visions that there will be no temple in the holy city – not because people will no longer be religious, but rather because God will be present everywhere. The river of life-giving waters will flow in the middle of the city. People will know and experience God right in their midst, not through the intermediary of the temple. All the peoples of the world, will walk in the light of the presence of God, and the gates of the city will not be shut. What an incredibly welcoming, inclusive vision.Not just some of the people of the world…not just those who follow MY religion or think like me. All peoples…will know themselves to be filled with the light of the Holy. It’s a vision we still need. What we can imagine, we can work to create.

Can you begin to imagine what would it be like to live in a world where the light of God’s presence shone with absolutely no barrier, in our families, our relationships, our communities, our governments, our economics, our justice, and health and education systems? What would it be like to live in a nation where one did not need to shut the gates against outsiders? Imagine a city where the river of the water of life flows freely right through the middle of the city… healing, life-giving energy, peace and power available to all, right in the centre of our context, right where we live, where we do business, where we make political decisions. God’s healing, transforming power permeating all life, not locked off in a holy temple- Everywhere. And the trees of life which flourish on each side of this river of life, producing fruit in extravagant abundance and leaves for the healing of all people. Nothing evil, no oppressor, no violator, no exploiter would be allowed to enter.

Even catching a glimpse in our imagination is healing.

Imagine hearing this vision if we lived in fear for our lives as did the congregations to which it was written.

What would it be like in your own life, if you were aware of this river of sacred life flowing freely- through every act, every decision, every relationship? flowing through your anxiety and fear, flowing through the places where you felt inadequate, flowing through the painful memories that have wounded you, flowing through your hopes, through your desires, through your giftedness, through your awareness of God calling you, and nurturing the tiny seeds of growth and hope and possibility in you? Imagine resting in God who has this desire for fullness of life for you- for the whole of creation? The river of life flows freely in our midst.

In Acts, we come to another river of life…a river of prayer; a river of community; a river of welcome and encounter. Paul had been heading in the opposite direction, but because of the dream, of all things, he heads west to Macedonia. Have you ever changed direction in your life? Have you ever left a path you were taking to go a different way? Have you ever experienced yourself, as was Paul, called in a particular direction in a dream?

Paul journeys to the Roman colony of Philippi. Outside the city he comes to the Gaggitas River, a meeting place, where women gathered to fetch water, to do washing… This ordinary place is also the place where a group of religious women gather to encounter God in prayer; to share spiritual needs on the Sabbath. Their activities are well enough known in the city for Paul and Timothy and Luke to go looking for this established place of prayer.

One of the women was Lydia, a merchant of purple dyes. A pound of wool dyed with her special costly dye would cost 100$. The snail that produced this rich purple dye was found only in the area from which she came. Royal purple, the highest quality of her cloth, was called that because only someone of royalty could afford this cloth, created by the women of the area, with secret formulae passed from generation to generation. Lydia was undoubtedly, a woman of independent means, quite wealthy, and, as head of her household, was responsible for the immediate family, slaves, former slaves now clients, hired laborers, and sometimes business associates or tenants.

She was a foreigner in Philippi. She had left her home in Thyatira, across the Aegean Sea, so she was already a woman who knew how to make changes in her life. We know that she was a worshipper of God, probably born Gentile but attracted to Judaism. Lydia was a seeker. Because of the high cost of the goods Lydia dealt in, she had to be a person who had an eye for value and quality, and able to drive a hard bargain in the market place to support her household. She welcomed Paul and Timothy, though they were strangers, and in listening to them, she found something of great value. Scripture says God opened her heart to what she was hearing; she heard with her heart. Soon Lydia and the whole household were baptized. My guess is that this happened over time rather than in one afternoon, but that is how the story is told. Lydia became the first convert in Europe.

Paul was willing to take seriously a group of women gathered to pray- and to meet Lydia where she was; something those who quote some of Paul’s statements about women seem to miss. The heads of many of the house churches Paul founded were women.  

I wonder what Paul spoke about. Did he speak about meeting the risen Christ, on the road to Damascus? Did he talk about his own transformation, what he had learned from the disciples who had known the living Jesus? What did he share that drew Lydia to his message?

Whatever he said, it connected with her spiritual seeking. It resonated with what she already knew of God through her prayer life. Something that she heard was good news and transformed her life. Christianity was a brand new untested idea at that point. Lydia was willing to try something new.

When have you heard something that transformed how you lived or thought about your future? Have you ever heard another tell a story that opened your eyes to see yourself in a new way? Lydia prayed beside a river with other women. Where do you go to listen for God? Where do you find spiritual companionship? Lydia was willing to listen to a person from a different faith-Paul. How do we meet people who have taken different spiritual paths from our own?

After her baptism, she welcomes Paul and Timothy to her home. Her household becomes the centre of the first group of Christians in Europe.

Lydia sets the tone of generosity and hospitality and welcome for the entire Philippian church. She supported Paul and Timothy so well that while they lived with her, Paul did not have to engage in his craft of tentmaking as was his usual custom, and it was to her home later that Paul returned after being in prison.

Lydia had intellectual, spiritual curiosity. She was a woman open, eager to discuss and learn. She was a woman who trusted her own judgement and acted on it. If we had a gospel according to Lydia, it would be interesting to read about that day. What called her to become a Christian? It would be interesting to hear about the hours of conversation between her and Paul and Timothy and Luke, while they stayed in her home. It would have been interesting to hear how it was, that she attracted and welcomed people to her new house church, how she developed community, how she shared her faith in her work situation and with her contacts.

We do not have a gospel according to Lydia. We do not know what became of Lydia. We do have a later letter to the Philippians, and know of a journey 5 years later that Paul made to visit this church, which was apparently thriving, and steadily growing, and giving liberally to support the poor of Palestine.

We know that Lydia was the first Christian in Europe, founder of the first Christian community there, and that she used all of the skills she had built up in her business life to set up and continue a house organization which welcomed others into faith. Lydia acted on her experience of God and shared the good news she had found.

How do we do that? Do we know what our good news is? How would anyone know that we were people of faith? What do we say, or how do we act that would invite and welcome friends or neighbours or work colleagues into a journey of faith? What would you want others to know about God, about Christ from the wisdom and the experience you have had?

Lydia founded a community. The river of the Spirit of Life flowed through her. All because she welcomed strangers and paid attention to an encounter when she was praying beside a river.

Come gather by the river and pray, the women invite and welcome Paul

Come gather by the river and hear an amazing story, Paul continues the invitation.

Come enter the river and be baptised

Come gather by the river and teach

Come gather by the river and become church community

Come gather by the river, then go to serve.

I invite you to come forward to this living water, reminder of the river of life, reminder of the river of baptism, reminder of the river of prayer and of the flow of God’s Spirit in your own life. Come remember your baptism/ remember God’s life that flows through you.

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