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As I went down to the river to pray.

Easter 7 Common Lectionary Year C

Acts 16:9-15, Revelation 22:1-5

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

This is a tight little story, one of a whole string of exploits of Paul, (along with Philip, Timothy, Luke and others) as they seem to be blown hither and yon by the Spirit of God, like dandelion seeds on a spring wind, spreading the Good News of Jesus from “Judea and to the ends of the earth.”
Forgive the sexism inherent in my next remarks, but doesn’t it sound like a ‘guy’s story’?  We get more details about the itinerary, more of a sense of the adventure of the sea crossings, than we do about their destination; it’s all action and adventure, and thin on conversation and nuance, and emotion.So it’s striking, really striking, that in the middle of this guy’s travelog, in the middle of the Book of the Acts of the male apostles of Jesus,  Luke, the writer, lets slip the name of a woman. Lydia. In fact, if truth be told, this story is not so much Paul’s story as it’s hers.It’s the story of her encounter with the Dream of God in the Gospel of Jesus.

Trouble is, other than her name, her occupation, her ethnicity, do we get enough from this story about her to be inspired by her? Luke, so intent on capturing the video clips of the guys’ next stop on their missional mapquest, simply leaves her, baptismally newborn; named, but unknown, when iftruth be known, we share more affinity with her, trying to live a Gospel life close to home, than with those adventuresome peripatetic preachers.

So, this is my tip of the hat to Mother’s Day. Lydia will take centre stage.We’ll engage in the risky business of midrash, of holy imagination,asking questions of the text, and where there are unfillable gaps, we’ll spin a tale, so that Lydia lives enough in our imagination to inspire our own faith in the Gospel of Jesus and the Dream of God.

Let Lydia speak.
 As I went down in the river to pray,
studyin’ about that Good old way,
and who shall wear a 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 in the river to pray. 

What do you do,
with three children around your knee,
a household to run,
when your husband is drowned
in one of those spring storms that rake the sea
and smash boats against the rocks?

He was a good man, really.
Took over his father’s business, back in Tyre,
crushing seashells to make purple dye.
Messy as all get out,
but worth its weight in silver, that stuff.

When he went down
with a boat load of it not yet paid for,
what was I supposed to do?
You can’t feed your kids with grief and regret.
I sold the business to liquidate
what was left of my assets,
and like a good widow, moved here,
to Philippi,
where my brother was stationed
with the Roman garrison.
Until he was sent on to Gaul, and we stayed on alone.
With all these retired Roman generals
and senators around these parts,
they needed clothing, and I knew cloth.
I knew Tyrian dye merchants too, from back in the day,
and so I set to, hand-sewing at night,
while the children were small,
making purple striped togas better than any in town,
until mine were the only ones in town.

That’s what you do, isn’t it?
You make do and get by,
and if hard work and the blessing of God allow,
you get along.
I don’t sew any more;
I have 12 orphaned girls who do that,
living and working alongside my own daughters.
I haggle with the merchants, and sell purple
to vain men to feed fatherless children.

You hear things, being in this trade,
because people travel far to get Lydia’s cloth these days.
I heard of trouble in Palestine
because of a man they crucified
about 20 years ago now,
but whose story won’t die.

A righteous Jew he was,
a believer in one Creator God,
like me, although I know that’s odd
here in this Pagan metropolis
with its statues to gods of everything.

I’m too busy to keep track of all those gods
who seem greedier than a pack of teenage boys!
Me, I come down to this river, to pray.
Here I feel connected to life, even to death.
I see water that drowns, and water that  gives life.
One of my sewing girls gave birth right here,
the water caressing her labour,
then lapping at her newborn,
soothing his cries while we tied the chord.

How can you not believe in the
Maker of Heaven and earth,
the sea the sky, the land,
Maker of all that breathes air and drinks water?

They say, those men,
the ones that came down to the river to pray that day,
that the  crucified man
liked to talk often of living water,
life-giving water,
and of one God of the living, and the dead,
holding all things, healing all things,
from palsied limbs to grieving hearts.
That spoke to my heart all right!

They told me about some of the things
this crucified one did.
No wonder they killed him!
He healed people, they said.
Broken people this world casts on the dung heap
when they’re no longer useful.
He touched them, looked into their blinded eyes,
smoothed their wrinkled hands,
and showed them love only a God can give!

They also said he could walk on water!
That’s foolish, but then there are days,
when this water is the most solid thing I know,
more constant than the fragile life
we try to cobble together for ourselves.

They said he ate with tax collectors and sinners,
that’s chutzpah in my world, I can tell you!
That he taught fishermen to catch people up
in the Dream of God,
that he touched and prayed for all the nobodies
who are pawns in this empire,
people like the fatherless girls I protect
from groping hands.
They say he fed people like the farmers around here,
whose crops are taken to feed soldiers
while the bellies of their own children growl with hunger.
They say he lashed at all the trinket sellers in their temple, saying God is about prayer and healing, not money-grabbing.

No wonder they killed him!

But the stories aren’t dead are they?
Those men, ordinary earthbound creatures
just like the rest of us,
were still fire-breathing his Gospel
as if it happened yesterday.
Talking of this Jesus as if he is still here,
down by the river, praying.
Still alive, free, generous, welcoming,
healing, mending,
salving like flowing water on a wound;
like a river flowing from a mountain in spring,
washing away the muck and mess,
the bitterness, the grief and the hatred,

everything the world needs, if only it knew it.

I suppose that’s why they’ve gone, those men,
to tell others.

I should too, I think.

[1] The sermon text comes from the Lectionary readings for Easter 6C, used one week out of sequence, thanks to our fiery detour into Daniel last week!

[2] Sermon title is a reference to the Appalachian song of this title, which may have its origins in the African American song tradition (see for more details). 

[3] The story of Lydia as presented here is fictional, but it is based on research into the social history of first century Asia Minor and Hellenistic Roman culture, as found in the following works: The Historical Jesus in Context, eds. Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison & John Dominic Crossan (Princeton UP, 2006); John Dominic Crossan,  The Birth of Christianity,  (Harper One, 1998); Richard Horsley, God and Empire, (Fortress, 2002).

[4] Down in the River to Pray.  Lyrics in the public domain.


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