Sunday, May 09, 2010
"At the River": A Monologue of Lydia, Acts 16:9-15
Ever since I was a child I have felt the sure sense of something greater when I am in the presence of running water. I was always drawn to the river… it put me in mind of the eternal, as I saw the cool, crystal tides flowing fast from an unknown source and proceeding in an unending course to the sea. Even as a little girl, when my mother would clothe me in my finest robe and take me to the temple for the ceremonies in honor of Athena, I would hang back, dropping a stone into the water to watch its ripples. I knew the gods and goddesses were not in the temple. I knew they were playing along the riverbanks, frolicking in the water.
I grew up in Thyatira, the eldest daughter in a family with many generations of membership in the venerable guild of dyers. Thyatira was known throughout the world for its exceptional indigo dyes; that meant our city was frequented by the emissaries of lords, chieftains and kings. Every royal family had need of our luxurious purple cloth. They needed to let the world know. To clothe yourself in purple is to announce: I am royalty. I am king.
I was schooled in the trade by my mother. While my brothers learned the art and craft of creating and using the precious indigo dyes, my sisters and I were learning the fine art of selling our goods, whether to brokers or directly to the very, very wealthy and powerful. Because I also married—as did most girls and women—I was a working mother, once my children came along. My daughter, Maia, proved a particularly good traveler. She came with me on my many trips to Philippi, when, with an entourage of two or three men, we would travel the 250 miles to trade, to sell our dyes and our cloths to those who could afford them.
My travels took me to many rivers and even to the sea. And my travels led me into the presence of others who felt the presence of the gods in different ways. I remember well dealing with a Jew from Samothrace, who puzzled me by being unable to make an appointment on the seventh day of the week. When I pressed him, he said “It is a day holy to my God. It is a day of rest, not of work or trade.” When I heard those words—a quiet thrill pierced my soul. And I tried to imagine what would be the shape of a life in which one day of the week —one entire day—was so sacred that no work might be done on that day, no trade, but only a kind of holy rest.
It became my custom both at home and in my travels to find a place where I might gather with others who worshipped the God of the Jews. I took particular pains to do this on the Sabbath—that was what they called the seventh day, the Sabbath. And to my delight, I found that in many places where there was no Jewish temple, such times of prayer took place at the river. This to me seemed a sign from the gods—or was it, simply, God?—that the worship of the Jews was right and good, and I decided to learn from them as much as I could.
It was a particularly trying journey, that year, the trek to Philippi. The rainy season lasted longer than normal, and so we set out later in the year than we had planned. Add to that the fact that my daughter, my Maia, became ill—nothing serious, just the normal discomforts of a traveling child’s stomach. When we arrived at our usual place of lodging, the rooms had been given away, and we found ourselves scrambling for other accommodations in the busiest trading days of the year. On an impulse, I went to a neighborhood I knew to be a home to the Jews, and knocked at the closest door. A woman answered, just about my age, and I explained our plight to her. I could see curious children gathered behind her. She hesitated; I knew that Jews were loath to share lodgings with Gentiles. Finally she looked down and saw my little Maia, pale but upright, clinging to my skirts. Her face softened. “We will find a place for you.”
An hour later we were settled in modest but comfortable rooms, one for Maia and myself and one for the men. After I had soothed and sung Maia into a nap I noticed a flurry of activity in the household. Two little boys carried wood, laughing and teasing as they ran in and out of the house, one little girl swept the floors while another stood alongside her mother kneading fragrant dough for bread. I stood uncertainly in the kitchen door, and asked our hostess, Rebekah: “Please, tell me you are not going to all these lengths for us; we do not want to impose.” Rebekah looked up and laughed. “Not at all. The Sabbath approaches. This is how you will always find us as evening draws near on the sixth day of the week.”
The Sabbath. Of course! I had nearly forgotten. And we would be in a household of Jews as they went about their observances. I was thrilled. I set out with an assistant to meet one of my buyers, with a firm promise to be back before the sun had set. Rebekah in turn promised to look in on Maia if she should stir.
I returned as promised, and found that Rebekah’s husband was home with the meat for the evening’s meal. As we gathered at the table, I heard Rebekah’s quiet explanation to her husband of our presence, and saw with relief he responded with a smile. “Our Lord Yeshua never turned away a stranger, Jew or Gentile alike. You did well, wife.”
This was the first time I heard the name which is above all other names. But I did not know that yet.
That Sabbath meal remains as one of the highlights of my life. How can I explain it? It was not the food, though the food was delicious. It was the soul, the spirit of the meal. I remember the flickering light of the Sabbath candles as Rebekah lit them, and then waved her hands over them, as if to welcome the Sabbath as a beloved guest. She intoned the Hebrew prayers that brought the Sabbath in words:
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe,
who has sanctified us with his commandments,
and has commanded us to kindle the lights of the Sabbath.
And then a similar blessing over the shiny brown loaves of bread and the cup of sweet wine. And finally, a blessing I found most mysterious:
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe,
Who sanctified us with his commandments, and commanded us to be a light to the nations
and Who gave to us Jesus our Messiah
the Light of the world.
As I tucked Maia into her bed that night, she said “I love the Sabbath” in her sleepy child’s voice. “So do I,” I murmured, as I kissed her on the forehead… I loved it, and I hardly knew what it was.
We rose early in the morning. W followed Rebekah and her daughters as she took the winding streets of the city and followed them through the city gate, to a wooded path that wound gently downhill, bringing us, finally, to the location we were seeking: a place of prayer at the river. There was a circle of rocks there, just the right size upon which to sit, and we took our places as a group of about a dozen women gathered there. A breeze whispered through the leaves of the trees as the river swept freshly across the rocks below.
Rebekah spoke: “It is written in Torah: ‘When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.’” [Leviticus 19:34-35]. As she spoke three men walked slowly down the hill and stood at a slight distance, listening. One of them was quite young—hardly older than a youth. Another man, perhaps a bit older, was tall and pale; he hung back and seemed disinclined to speak. But the man who arrested my attention was older still, small of stature, with thinning hair upon his head, and a somewhat twisted, limping gait. But these were not the first things one noticed about him. The first things I noticed were his eyes. I have never seen such fire behind a man’s eyes, before or since.
Rebekah looked up, expectantly, and the man with the fiery eyes spoke: “Grace and peace to you, sisters, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the Christ. I am Paul of Tarsus, and these are my companions Timothy and Silas. We are following the leading of a vision granted by the Holy Spirit. We believe the Spirit brought us here to Philippi to share the great Good News with you. Let us tell you about Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, he who is full of grace and truth…”
For the next hour—or was it more? I have no idea—I listened to the story of a man who had no need to clothe himself in purple in order to show that he was a king; a man whose royal nature expressed itself in miracles, in healing, in acts of love towards the least of his brothers and sisters. I listened to the story of the one who was the true child of God. I listened, and finally, I knew.
I understood, at last, what the river had been telling me since I had been a child. It was then that my heart opened like a flower in the spring sunshine, and I knew that I had found the answer I had been seeking all my life: the river was calling me. Paul led my daughter and me, and the others of my household to the water’s edge and asked whether we wanted to be baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ, and I answered, yes, we did. And one by one he led us into the cold, swirling water, and lowered us into it so that we arose, breathless, gasping for air, and so filled with the Holy Breath of God. And since that day I have made it my one goal to live a life—a busy, active life, the life of a mother and a wife, the life of a merchant of indigo dye and cloths—to live this life in a manner worthy of the Good News that took hold of my heart that Sabbath morning at the river. I invite you to do the same. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.