back to list

Shall We Gather at the River


Passage: Acts 16:9-15

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!
Oh, sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down.
Oh, sisters, let’s go down, down in the river to pray.

Can you imagine a pair of purple-stained hands praying by that river? If Lydia was truly from Thyatira and had a business selling purple cloth, more than likely she had participated in the act of dying fabric. Lydia, this named woman, this important woman, this business woman, as women weren’t often any of these things in the Bible, she had either inherited the business from a husband who had died or she was a shrewd entrepreneur who built a business from the ground up. Either way, she was strong and resourceful, she knew the art of dyeing fabric and had the purple stains on her fingers, wrists, and hands to prove it. Her hands and wrists bore the marks of hard work and dedication.

And Lydia was not only dedicated to the craft of dyeing fabric, she was the leader of an entire household. She guided her household to go down to the river, with their purple-stained hands to ritually wash themselves and to worship God. You see, if there were not ten Jewish men in a city, then a synagogue could not be formed. It is assumed that since Lydia was the head of the household that it was possibly a family made up entirely of women. And since Lydia is called a worshipper of God, it is also likely that she was monotheistic and even Jewish. So, this wealthy Jewish woman with a household following her every move, went down to the river to pray.

Jews that wanted to worship God in that time period, when no synagogue was available, would often find the nearest river to worship God. The river was a way to ritually wash before entering the presence of the Lord. And so, in the absence of a synagogue in town, those first missionaries, Paul and Silas, headed down to the river in Philippi, one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire. They were there because they were summoned in a dream to bring the life-changing story of Jesus to the region. According to archaeological documents, Philippi, in the Macedonian area, was home to 10,000 people of differing racial and ethnic groups. It was a cosmopolitan city and a place of trade and the production of gold coins because of its many gold mines. Philippi was considered a strong Roman colony because the people there were mostly retirees from the Roman army. And, as previously said, Paul was led to Philippi by a dream in which he saw a man from Macedonia begging him to bring the gospel to the city.

And, as we have talked about on Wednesday evenings, Jesus began his ministry in the Gospel of Luke by going into the synagogues in his hometown to open up the Isaiah scroll and proclaim that the eyes of the blind would be opened and the oppressed would go free and the year of the Lord’s favor would be at hand. We see this same tactic in Paul’s missionary journeys when early evangelists of the Way of Jesus first found the synagogues, the places of worship, in the towns to which they visited. It was easier to talk about God and to share the stories of Jesus in places of worship, because many of those early would-be Christians would’ve been Jews who knew and respected Jewish customs and culture.

If there was no synagogue in Philippi, what was God up to by telling Paul in a dream to take his companion Silas and go there? Where would they find worshippers of God among the Gentiles in that Roman colony? Who would be open to the good news of Jesus? Well, since there was no synagogue, they went to the next best place of worship, they gathered at the river. They found that there was a prayer group that met by the river. And although we may associate rivers with the countryside and the easy life of catching crawdads and skipping stones, cities depended on rivers for life. Cities needed rivers for commerce, the delivering and trading of goods, for water to satiate the thirst of the people, and for beauty, which added to the value of life itself. So, in the absence of a synagogue, Paul and Silas gathered at the river.

We see the symbols of rivers running all throughout scripture. Water is life, after all. And wherever there is life in the Bible, you can bet on there being a body of water. There are rivers that run through the Garden of Eden. There is the river Jordan that flows through the biblical narrative, as well as the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile, and of course the river that runs through the New Jerusalem. There are rivers in the Psalms when it says, “By the waters we wept as we lay down our harps.” Or “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” Namaan was cured in a river. Elijah took flight near a river. John the Baptist called people to repentance in a river. And Jesus was baptized in that same river. And, in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? the throngs of people came forward for baptism, stepping into the river singing that old traditional folk hymn, “Down in the River to Pray.”

Gathering at the river was important. And we see a group of women that went down to the river to pray, to organize themselves into a worshipping community. It is clear by the Greek translation of the text that this wasn’t some random and disorganized group. No, these women went down to the river to pray and to worship God in an orderly and planned way. The shrewd and wealthy Lydia not only created a thriving business, she formed a community of faith and worship. Maybe these were women who wanted to be Jews but couldn’t because they were Gentiles. Maybe it was because they were single. Maybe, simply because they were women, they weren’t welcome in places of worship. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a bunch of God-worshipping women took it upon themselves to go down to the river to experience the living God, to create a worshipping and a praying community all on their own. And Lydia was the one who welcomed Paul and Silas into her home as an act of hospitality, generosity overflowing from her worship of God. As one commentator says, “Lydia is a rich businesswoman and worshipper of God. God opens her heart to the gospel and she immediately demonstrates the Christian trait of hospitality, opening her home.”

And this story of Lydia doesn’t come around in the lectionary cycle very often so I want to highlight several interesting things about the awesome Lydia. First, Luke makes it clear that her conversion to Christianity is due entirely to the work of God, not Paul’s perseverance or skill. It said that the Lord opened her heart to all that Paul was saying. I think it is clear that Lydia was malleable to the work of the Spirit because she was already a worshipper of God. She worshipped God by the river, the place where there was a group of people meeting to live into their religious values and actions. And because Lydia gathered her friends and family at the river, that place where she experienced the presence of God, her heart was softened and opened to hear the words of the story of Jesus, the good news of the Way of Christ.

The second interesting thing we need to celebrate about this text regarding Lydia is that she is a woman. And although women didn’t have the status of men in the Near East during Paul and Silas’s missionary journey, we notice that the inclusive spirit of Jesus empowered women specifically to spread the gospel. Twice in Luke’s Gospel, Luke mentioned women who followed Jesus from his home in Galilee. And Luke, both in the Gospel and in the book of Acts revealed his inclusion of all people, women, men, Jew, Gentile, rich, and poor. And we see that women, although low on the social scale, were the first evangelists who ran to tell the hiding male disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.

So, we see that the early church had leaders who were women, like Lydia. And, according to scholars, the early church must have seemed radical in the way it welcomed and featured women as leaders and prophets compared to conventional Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas about women. And I wonder if Luke gave a higher profile to Lydia to reassure the early church that the leadership of women was vitally important to the furthering of not only the gospel message, but the good works of inclusion and hospitality. Which is why I think it is interesting that just this past week the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary made some remarks that women do not belong in the pulpit. It is clear from this text that in the life of Lydia and as the spirit was going out and transforming the world, that women were leaders and preachers and conveners of synagogues and respected business people. Instead of having Twitter fights with Beth Moore, maybe Al Mohler should read about the empowered life of Lydia.

The third interesting thing about this text regarding Lydia was that she was a rich woman, a businesswoman. And, although in Mary’s Magnificat that we’ve studied during Advent and during our Luke Bible study time on Wednesdays, we know that Luke gave a warning to the rich, saying, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” But we notice in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts that the rich will be converted to a law of love rather than money. In the Gospel, Jesus redeemed the wealthy Zacchaeus causing him to give half of his riches to the poor. The Good Samaritan parable is in the Gospel of Luke and it shows the mercy that can happen with the use of wealth. In Acts, all resources were shared in the early church so that wealthier members could assist those in need. And also, in Acts, Cornelius, the first Gentile convert of Peter, was depicted as a philanthropist who used his riches to help others. And today we get a wealthy businesswoman named Lydia who worshipped God and found that her conversion to the Way of Jesus led her to acts of hospitality and service. Paul accepted Lydia’s hospitality as a sign that the barriers of Jew and Gentile, man and woman, rich and poor were no longer barriers when following the Way of Christ.

The presence of God’s spirit at the river where the women gathered is important for how we understand Christianity today. For you see, when Lydia and her household were baptized, there is no mention of the Holy Spirit like in other baptisms in the Gospels and in Acts, even at Jesus’ baptism. I would say that’s because the Spirit was already at work in that worshipping community of women. Rev. Mitzi J. Smith says, “The absence of any mention of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit may also be an acknowledgment that the Spirit was already operative in Lydia’s life and ministry. In Acts, God’s Spirit moves as it choose, inhabits whom it will, and is not confined to a particular routine or pattern. Sometimes the Spirit falls on Gentiles before they are baptized as with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44-45). God’s Spirit precedes us; God is omnipresent. God looks upon and hears all people; [God’s] attention, power, and compassion are not limited to those who call themselves Israelites or Christians.”

Church, we cannot limit the power of God to create hospitality and inclusion. We are called to worship God. And when we worship God, the outpouring of that worship will be hospitality and inclusion. And so, these worshipping women gathered, gathered at the river to pray. They gathered because they were equipped by God and open to the good news of Jesus. And when they gathered, they were changed to be people of peace and to be people of hospitality. Maybe, this week, we need to learn from Lydia and we too need to gather at the river.

As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show US the way!