Sermon: By the Water

May 22, 2022

Acts 16:9-15
John 5:1-9

by Eric Anderson

In 2013 I went to Japan. I wasn’t supposed to go to Japan. I was supposed to go to South Korea. I ended up arriving in South Korea, but a day late, because I stayed overnight in Japan.

It was the result of a set of circumstances that can – and did – arise in the experience of traveling people. There was an exceptionally heavy thunderstorm in Chicago. It delayed the departure of my flight from Connecticut to Chicago, but it didn’t delay the departure of my flight from Chicago to South Korea. As a result, when it left neither I nor my traveling companion, a fellow delegate to a church meeting near Seoul, were on it. We were placed on a new flight to Narita Airport in Japan, and that was delayed, so we missed the last flight from Narita to Incheon. And thus I spent a night in Japan, and arrived a day late for the church meeting in South Korea.

I’m sure some of you have had vacations that went like this, for which I am really, really sorry.

This morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles starts after – just after – a pair of sentences that tell a story in themselves. The story might be titled: The Time None of My Travel Plans Came Together, or, why I didn’t get to the church meeting in Bithynia.

In brief, the Apostle Paul and some companions wanted to go to Asia, which referred in those days to a part of the Anatolian Peninsula, which is modern Turkey. But they didn’t, because, they believed, they had been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to do so. Then they tried to get to Bithynia, along the Black Sea coast of Anatolia, but the Spirit of Jesus prevented them from going there. The book doesn’t explain how they recognized these prohibitions. They might have been simple words, like, “Don’t go there, Paul and Company,” or they might have been interpretations of the fact that there weren’t any boats heading in the right direction. Something like a storm in Chicago.

Then Paul had a vision at night. I guess I’d call that a dream. He had a vision that a man of Macedonia wanted his help. Ancient Macedonia was on the northern portion of the Peloponnese Peninsula, that’s the northern section of modern Greece. They needed to cross a portion of the Aegean Sea to get there.

And it was “they,” not “he.” Brian Peterson observes at Working Preacher: “Paul received the vision, but verse 10 says that ‘we’ concluded what it meant and what to do about it. The vision must be interpreted, and that task does not fall to Paul alone. The small community contained in ‘we’ is involved in discerning that this is God’s call not just to an individual, but to ‘us’; that the ‘help’ which is needed is the preaching of the gospel; that the call was for immediate action.”

Off they went. Now the itinerary came together. They got a boat to the island of Samothrace; they got another boat to Neapolis. Then they went inland to Philippi, named by King Philip II of Macedon after, well, himself, so the text isn’t kidding when calls Philippi a leading city of the district. At last Paul and his friends would meet and help this Macedonian man they’d been inspired to seek.

They ventured out of the city gates to a place of prayer by the river, where they met a group of… women.

As Jennifer Kaalund writes at Working Preacher, “It is important to remember that this hospitality and generosity may be found in the expected places, coming from those who we do not anticipate will extend it. Paul sets sail looking for a man to share the good news with in Macedonia. Instead, he encounters a group of women.”

It gets better, too. The woman who heart God opens, the woman who leads her household to baptism, the woman who prevails upon Paul to accept her hospitality… isn’t from Macedonia. She’s from Thyatira. That’s back on the Anatolian peninsula.

Paul came to Philippi to help a Macedonian man. Instead, he found himself being welcomed by, and being helped himself by, a woman from the place he’d just left. There by the water he found his vision fulfilled in a way that looked almost entirely unlike his vision.

The remarkable thing about Paul was that, there by the water, he recognized God’s fulfillment of the vision.

One of the skills Christians work at is to interpret the guidance we are given. As Dr. Peterson reminded us, evaluating revelation may sometimes be an individual task – it always begins with the individual – but at its best we do it with one another. Paul and his associates considered the possible meanings of his dream. Paul and his associates examined other evidence of God’s direction, I’m sure, such as the fact that they seemed to be prevented from going the places they wanted. Paul and his associates concluded that this direction and this destination was the next thing to try – and if it didn’t work, they’d reconsider their interpretation of the vision.

Even the best minds working together don’t always get things right, you see. A lot of great minds over the years have ponderously concluded all sorts of preposterous things. Some of them haven’t caused a great deal of harm, things like believing that the Earth is flat. Some have caused a great deal of harm indeed, things like the European medical belief in “balancing the humors” by bleeding, or the subordination of women to the domination of men so common in so many cultures, or the ongoing persistence of racist beliefs, actions, and systems. One of the skills of Christian discernment is to be willing to introduce that unpopular contrary idea into the group, ideas like Peter’s notion that God wanted to welcome new people into the Church without putting up great barriers to their participation, ideas like Jesus’ notion that God was far more interested in loving one another than winning by violence, ideas like Paul’s recognition that a man of Macedonia might just be a woman of Thyatira.

Discerning God’s will together sometimes means learning from the majority will of others. Sometimes it means that the single voice is right. That’s why it’s such a hard skill for Christians to learn.

It’s that other skill Paul displayed there by the water, by that riverbank in Philippi, that intrigues me. It’s that skill to recognize God’s grace – not just God’s will, but God’s generosity – in unexpected places and in unanticipated ways. God’s grace, you see, is much like the air you can’t see, the air that supports the wings of the noio whether he understands it or not. The skill is not to bring God’s grace to a situation. The skill is to recognize that God’s grace is already there.

It’s there by the water of a river in Philippi amidst a group of women. It’s there by the water of a healing pool outside Jerusalem, where you’d know if a healing angel was present when the water ruffled in the breeze of its wings. It’s there by the waters of Hilo Bay – but the point is that God’s grace doesn’t always look like we expect. God’s grace to the man by the pool of Beth-zatha was supposed to look like rippling water. Instead it looked like a visiting Galilean, and I promise you those things don’t look alike. God’s grace to the Apostle Paul looked like a Thyatiran woman, not a Macedonia man, and they don’t look much alike, either.

I can’t really claim a great discernment of grace in my one night’s stay in Japan, except to say that the hospitality I received was as gracious as I’ve ever known. It was also considerably better than the experience I suspect I’d have had if that first flight had left Connecticut on time to arrive in Chicago along with that heavy storm. There’s a sign of grace in that, I think.

I wish God’s grace was easily identifiable all the time. It is sometimes, of course, at times like sunrises and sunsets. But at other times it is not. I wish, for example, that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic looked like the dropping of precautions and the end of mask mandates and a return to pre-pandemic life. The problem is that we’ve got that life without precautions and mandates right now, and we don’t have the end of the pandemic. As of last week in the Hawaiian Islands, we reached the second highest peak of new infections per 100,000 population averaged over seven days. That means it was worse than the highest level of the Delta wave last year, and only surpassed by the Omicron wave this past winter. The question we won’t know the answer to for a while is: are we at the crest of the wave, or is it still rising?

God’s grace expressed in people these days looks like a face mask.

Work on developing those skills of Christianity: discerning God’s will, alone and with others; and identifying God’s grace when it is not what we expect in the world. God’s grace is always there to be observed and appreciated. It is there when, like Paul, we find the unexpected by the water.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

Perhaps the changes from the prepared text to the sermon as delivered are unexpected manifestations of God’s grace? We can hope and pray for it.

The image is a contemporary photo of the site identified by tradition as the place of Lydia’s baptism. Photo by Explorer1940 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on May 22, 2022

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