Of course, as Lutherans, when it comes to rivers we like to keep our rivers in scripture, literature, and firmly in the past. Shall we gather at the river? Maybe not. We’re sprinklers not dunkers when it comes to baptism. We prefer out water to be neatly contained and easily accessible in a nice, solid baptismal font.
But, gather at the river we pilgrims did on Sunday morning. We traveled to a small but swift moving river near Philippi at the possible site of Lydia’s baptism by Paul.
Do we know this story? Maybe, maybe not. In Acts 16, Paul is summoned in a dream to bring the teachings of Jesus to Macedonia. He travels by boat, landing at Neapolis, now Kavala, and then travels overland to the city of Philippi. On the Sabbath, Paul goes to a place of prayer outside the city by, you guessed it, the local river. Paul speaks to the women gathered there, one of whom is Lydia, a dealer of purple cloth and a believer in God. Lydia is inspired by Paul’s words of proclamation. She and her entire household are baptized, maybe even in the river.
So who exactly is Lydia? A woman of means and some agency. She has a business in the city, selling purple cloth. Her business is profitable enough that she is able to host Paul and his friends in her home during the rest of their stay in Philippi. Her identification as a God Believer or God Fearer suggests that while she believed in the God of Israel she was not Jewish by birth. She is the first European to be baptized and from the church planted in her community, the gospel of Jesus spreads through Greece and beyond. Most importantly, Lydia is baptized making her, above all else, a child of God. She is one of us, and we are one of hers.
It is not an easy thing to go down to the river to pray. We struggled to hear one another over the roar of the water. The steps were quite steep and we had to be careful as we made our way down to the water dip our hands in remembrance our own baptisms. In fact, I spent more time making sure my fellow pilgrims were able to get up and down the steps to the waters than I did splashing in the water myself. Many required a hand up or a stabilizing arm to participate. Beautiful and holy does not always mean easy and accessible.
And following Lydia’s example, we went down to the river to pray, sing, and share communion.
The Baptistry of Lydia is a beautiful and holy place. It consists of a series of steps built into the side of the riverbank surrounding a cross-shaped stone channel. The water flowing through this channel is used for actual baptisms a couple times during the year. The larger river flows next to the channel. Water rushes quickly through the channel and over the rocks, making it hard to hear anything else.
Such was the community that Lydia and her fellow believers entered that Sabbath Day at the river. Lydia did not go down to the river alone. She was part of a larger community that carried each other and leaned on one another. That is our community too. Lydia is one of us and we are one of hers. Staggering, picking our way carefully down steep steps, offering steadying hands and supportive shoulders, we all go down to the River of Life together.