down to the river

Down to the River to Pray

            When I’m trying to sort things out or I need to go to a place that soothes my soul, I always head to the water. For me it’s the ocean. Mostly because except for a few years in Toronto and one year in Northern Ontario, I’ve always lived by the ocean. For others it might rivers, ponds or lakes. I love the ocean when it is stormy and wild. I love it with the waves wash calmly to the shore. There is something powerful about the sound of water. It doesn’t surprise me at all that significant, life- giving things in the bible happen by the water’s edge. 

            Moses divides the Red Sea and people walk to freedom. Naaman the great commander is healed in a river. And when it seems that all has been last when the people of Israel are held captive in Babylon, the go to river, face their home in Jerusalem and sing a song of lament. Psalm 137 is a lament. There is no temple to turn to for comfort so they sit on the river banks of this foreign land and wonder how they will find God. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked of us songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1 – 4) Over time they learned. They learned that God was not only with them in Jerusalem but in this foreign land. 

            But people don’t just weep by the river. When God is about to do a new thing it is like rivers in the desert. Isaiah bold proclaims God’s word, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19) That new thing that God does interrupts the status quo and helps to bring healing and home to our world. Which is what happens when John the Baptist is preaching on the banks of the River Jordan. He is talking of the one who is coming who will change the world. That is when Jesus arrives and is baptized in the River Jordan. As Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

Turn to the book of Acts, the book devoted to telling the story of the early Christian community. We learn in Acts how the good news of Jesus spread from person to person and community to community. For Paul, the way of Jesus changed everything. He went from breathing threats and murder to sharing the good news. Paul’s travels take him to every corner of the Roman world. In our reading for today, Paul is asleep on a boat when he has a vision of man from Macedonia. In Paul’s vision, this man is saying, “Come over the Macedonia and help us.” (Act 16:9) It then says, “When he had seen this vision, we immediately tried to cross over the Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” (Acts 16:10) Without so much as a thought about the logistics or making a plan, or some kind of pros and cons list Paul and Silas head to Macedonia to share the good news of Jesus Christ. They spend a few days learning about the community and then on the Sabbath they leave the city and go down the river to a place of prayer.

It isn’t surprising that they go down to the river to pray. The river is a place where God’s abiding promise echoes in our hearts and our lives. They also went to river to pray because it was too risky to worship within the walls of the city. Being Christian was risky business in that time. Not too long after this account, Paul is arrested and taken to Rome.

At the river, they meet others praising God and that day by the river, lives were changed. At the river, they meet Lydia – a woman who is a dealer in purple cloth. Someone who is a believer in God but it seems that she is new in faith. What Paul said, what Lydia said – we don’t know. Here is what we do know, “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” (Acts 16: 15) Amazing things happen with the simple act of going down to the river to pray. Hearts are opened to the stirrings of faith and Lydia and her whole household are baptized. 

            Today, where we live, we aren’t likely to be arrested or persecuted for being a Christian. Although there are places in the world where it is dangerous. It may not be dangerous to be Christian for us today, but we face as followers of Jesus are many. Being Christin is no longer the norm in our community. Probably the new term “Spiritual but not religious” or “nones” or “dons” fits more people than Christian. There is no expectation or social pressure to go to church. It’s a hard change for us in the church. We’ve grew used to having time set aside for church. Now we must make time. 

            An added pressure for the church comes with living in a world that seems to change on a daily basis. It is hard to adapt to these ever-changing realities in our lives and in our church. I am not without hope. Because I know that the people who come each week, don’t come out of obligation. We come because we want to. We come because we need to. We come to be part of the community. We come to hear the stories of Jesus. We come for the music. We come for that moment that will help us get through another week. We come to be surrounded by that community of believers who remind us that we are God’s beloved children. 

We are not without hope. As a people of faith we need to reclaim some ancient skills for new world we find ourselves in. Paul shows us how it is done. Step One: We listen to where the spirit is calling us to be. Step Two: we go to out into the community. Step Three: go to where the people are. Step Four: tell the story of Jesus and how that makes a difference in your life. 

            That’s why Lydia and her entire household were baptized. Paul shared what God had done in his life. Silas shared the joy of being a follower of Christ. It’s an ancient practice but one we haven’t used in recent years. It’s hard to talk about our faith, why we come to church and what we believe or don’t believe. 

It is time as a church for us to go down to the river to pray – to be evangelists. Not like the bible thumpers on street corners. But in the true sense of the word – sharing the good news by offering invitations and sharing our own experience. That is what Paul did in every place he stopped. 

            Brothers, Sisters – let go down to the river to pray. Let those precious words first spoken to Jesus at the river, “you are my beloved” echo in our hearts and lives so that we have the courage to share the stories of Jesus. Let us go down to the river so that our hearts may be touched and lives may be changed. Let us go down to the river to pray and we trust that the good Lord will indeed show us the way. Amen.