text :: Acts 8:26-40
theme verse :: “Philip commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” (Acts 8:38)
Every time the waters of baptism are stirred, there is a stirring of the Spirit. It never fails. It’s just water and it’s a bit messy as each brave soul steps in one foot at a time until even the tips of their heads are dripping wet. They slog back out and the floor becomes slippery and creates a potential hazard but it’s worth every step. The Spirit moves. There’s just nothing like being in the water. As a number of our own stir those waters this day, may we all, like Philip, be willing to get in the water with them.
offertory :: 'On Eagle's Wings' (M.Joncas) : Kelly Ford & Barry Epperley, vocal; Susie Monger Daugherty, piano
reader :: Connie McFarland
preaching :: Rev Mark Briley
special music :: 'Christ is Risen' (P.Wickham) : The Rising Band; Isaac Herbert, leader
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Have you ever been at the pool or the lake or something and had that feeling of “I don’t really want to get in the water.” I’m not really talking shark phobias or fear of swimming or anything as much as that feeling of being poolside and simply not wanting to get in. You think the water’s too cold or you didn’t plan on getting wet or being wrapped in a beach towel is just preferred to the exposure of letting go of the towel. I feel like that sometimes. My kids generally won’t have any of that sentiment, however. Before long, they’re hollering, “Dad! Get in the water! Get in the water!” I’ll offer my kind decline and they’ll just fire up all the more: “Just do it! Jump in! The water’s great!” And before long, I’ve barreled in the water again… mostly to be the human floating device as they hang all over me, or the human canon launching the boys into the sky before they land again with a big splash. I know there won’t be many more seasons before they quit asking me so with a little coaxing, I generally get in the water with them again.
Water does have a certain draw to it. It’s Maycember as folks are saying these days – the end-of-school-year season which is as busy, if not more so, than Christmastime in December. All the school awards assemblies and recitals and concerts and ball games and tournaments and school talent shows and field day and on and on. We’ve been in and out and around all of these things most every night for a couple of weeks now. And… as you know, there’s been enough rain that there are mud puddles everywhere. Our boys can find every single one of them… even in moments when there’s one single puddle way off the beaten path. Somehow, it ends up right in their path to getting into wherever it is we’re going at the time. There’s just a magnetism I guess. I do remember. I saw this little clip this week of just such a little boy and his best friend as he couldn’t resist the draw to get in the water. Take a look…
Isn’t that the best? Today is all about getting in the water. Our buddy, Clint Briggs, has prepared the waters of baptism with great precision and care. Clint has been our go-to guy for this task in recent years and he has been faithful to do so. I remember the first year that he filled it for us… and more memorably when he drained it after the baptisms just before our traditional service started. If you’ve ever heard that sucking noise that your bathtub makes when it’s draining, magnify that by the volume of a ZZ Top album of your choice and you can imagine the sucking noise that comes from a tub this size. Of course, none of us thought anything about it beforehand. He asked me about draining it and I said, “Sure! Of course!” And there’s so much water that it takes a long while for much of the it to drain before you even hear any sound at all. But a good quarter of the way through the traditional service, sure enough: suction city. I thought the whole choir was going to get sucked down the drain. It’s one of my favorite worship memories. But Clint is a gentleman as you all know and takes on this task as an honor for there’s something about this water. It’s different. It’s holy. Eight of our students and one of our more seasoned members will be stirring these waters of faith today.
We re-join the book of Acts this week considering the draw of water for an unusual suspect. Philip has been on the preaching circuit. Big crowds. Fog machines. John Crist as an opening act to loosen up the crowds. He was living it and loving it in a big way. But God puts it on his heart to take off down the road heading to Gaza. Parenthetically, the text says, “This was a wilderness road.” Philip’s taking the back roads… the scenic route… the long way around. The description may be less literal and more literary. The wilderness road, in this case, may refer to the wild sprouting growth of the faith. It was an out-there time for the movement. Outsiders were finding their way inside the faith day after day and while this raised cultural and theological challenges for the Jesus movement, they were digging it. It was beautiful and amazing and inclusive… nobody was out of the reach of grace. So Philip’s taking the back roads to Gaza.
On the way, Philip meets a man who scripture has named only by his home country and sexual differentiation. Wish we had a name but such we are not afforded. I’m going to call him Earl if that’s alright with you. I’d rather do that than call him by some label the rest of the sermon. Deal? The important point about this label was that Earl was not on the inside whatsoever. He was from Africa, considered unclean and yet Philip is compelled to engage him. Now… we know some other things about our new friend, Earl. He’s the Finance Manager for the Ethiopian Queen… not a bad gig if you can get it. He’s also literate which was a rarity for most at this time, indicating some education and status. Interesting enough, he was also returning home from having been in Jerusalem to worship so he’s already bought into the monotheistic, Judean God, at least he’s curious.
When Philip comes across Earl in his Chariot, he hears him reading a familiar passage from Isaiah. Presumably Earl’s alone in this chariot given the exchange he would soon have with Philip – save the Uber driver at the helm of the chariot. First question – why is Earl reading out loud? Seems a tad odd. I may read something out loud to myself, I suppose, if I’m confused by what I’m reading (always try the slower and louder approach when we don’t understand). But… generally I don’t read out loud to myself. Turns out that reading out loud was a very common practice at the time so no big deal. Philip uses his when-outside-running-alongside-chariot voice: “Whatcha readin’?!” Surely a tad startled by the appearance of this strange man running alongside of his ride, Earl quips back, “The Memoir of Isaiah,” as he flips the back of the book in Philip’s direction, so he can see the cover art. Philip knows it well of course… it was a bestseller. “Do you get it?” Philip calls back? Still a little weirded out by his presence like a skeptical reader on an airplane confronted by the stranger sitting next to him, Earl is honest. “Truthfully? Nope. I don’t get it.” “Permission to board your chariot, sir!” Earl lets him on and says, “I need a guide. Can you tell me the truth about this stuff?”
Now… this is not of subtle importance. This is a big deal. Two guys… vastly different and essentially prohibited from being in much relationship with each other and Earl says, “I’d like the real deal scoop about this. What is he talking about? Who is he talking about?” We need to engage this sort of discipleship more as people of faith. Mike Breen says, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely make disciples.” When the church gets too focused on the institution, the rules of it all, the membership qualifications, the conformity clauses, the image over authenticity, we miss the heart work of becoming a disciple of the Way. We’re quick with our answers because of the group or the politic or the radio talk show host we subscribe to but the Spirit works differently… and if this interaction doesn’t encourage our own openness to such a possibility, I’m not sure what will. This takes vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to admit that sometimes we’re Philip and sometimes we’re Earl.
You may remember the story about thirty-three Chilean miners who were buried underground a collapsed mine for sixty-nine days – trapped in complete darkness. Hector Tobar wrote a book about the experience entitled, “Deep Down Dark.” The title alone says a lot. After a few days of being trapped in the dark, uncertain of the future, one of the miners most ardent in faith was asked by some of the others, “Would you pray for us? Preach a word even?” And so he did. “Thank you, God,” he prayed, “for being among us in this dark place. Even though we are afraid, forgive us our sin. Hector drinks to much,” he prayed. “Jose has been cruel to his family.” Now… you’d think this would have upset the guys but it didn’t. United in darkness and fear; in confrontation of seeing themselves for who they really are, they received these prayers. Every day they prayed like this. After a while, the men themselves began praying like this – confessing their sins to God and each other. Hector said to another man, “I’m sorry for the way I’ve treated you. I’ve been rude and arrogant.” Back and forth like this for two months until the best day and worst day. A hole was cut at the top, food and water were dropped down… rescue teams also sent down iPads so the men could see what was going on in the world and share messages back and forth with their loved ones. That was sweet but there was a shadow side to this as well. They began to see they were famous… and dream about what fame could do for them. The money they would get. Potential opportunities to exploit their experience. All of the sudden, things changed. The confession, the praying, the intimacy, the closeness they had experienced? It was gone. What those men discovered in the dark was not the answers to all of their questions but a willingness to face themselves. But it’s tough to stay in that place. Are we willing to face ourselves or are we too comfortable? Do we already have all the answers?
With an open ear and open heart, Earl receives what Philip has to share about Jesus. We don’t hear the whole story but he clearly included baptism in his chariot sermon because Earl spots a mud puddle or perhaps a stream or larger body of water and points: “Hey, there’s water right there. What’s to stop you from baptizing me right now?” He commands the Uber driver to stop and Earl and Philip find their way into the water together. Philip doesn’t text the other disciples first for clearance. He doesn’t take the request to the Board Meeting or make Earl read Strength Finders and discover his spiritual gifts. None of those things are bad of course and can be important when we’re finding our way in faith but there are times when the moment matters. When there is a need and you can meet it… you do it. A homeless man in a Portland laundry mat was quoted as saying, “When we reduce Christian spirituality to math, we defile the Holy.” The formula was less important than the Spirit. Earl and Philip get in the water together. This is the beautiful thing of our faith history and our faith future. We’re all coming along at different times and different speeds but every path in is a beautiful one. Don’t compare your starting point with someone else’s finish line.
I met individually with each of our pastor’s class students on the last day of our class to see where they were, what they were thinking, what questions they had and about their desire, or not, to be baptized at this time. Each of them processed the opportunity a little differently but in beautifully sweet and unique ways. One of the students, when I asked why they want to be baptized paused in a way you do when there’s so much passion you want to share but your not sure how to speak to it with any justice. She finally said with deep sincerity, “I just know it will be all joy.” And as she continued with this effusive pouring out of gratitude, I’m not gonna lie… I welled up a bit. We can get bogged down in the minutia of it all and miss the joy, the gift of the moment, the stirring of heart that comes when you’re in the water with such a spirit. I walked my buddy Jim through the motions this week as we prepared for his baptism today and he just grinned the whole time and said, “I’m really excited.” I have a minister colleague who says it’s unfair that ministers get this chance to get in the water again and again and I know what she means. It’s not just the water but it’s something to be in that space with someone who’s saying, “I’m in.” “I’m in for the mystery. I’m in for the struggle. I’m in for the companionship. I’m in for the service. I’m in for the joy.” It’s why we celebrate these days… not just for another who is making their way in the Way. We celebrate because we’re in the water too… we’re in this together. The joy is ours too.
After Philip baptizes Earl in the water they spotted, Philip disappears… he’s off spreading the word elsewhere but Earl wasn’t bothered by his absence. The text says, “He went on his way rejoicing.” It was all joy. And none of this means that all of life’s troubles were gone. Being in the water doesn’t bring perfection or total comfort. Earl got back in the chariot with soggy shoes and wet underwear… and I imagine that got a little uncomfortable. But it’s a marked moment that matters. It’s an invitation to see the world through a different lens.
One writer said, “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. And when you stop expecting material possessions to complete you, you’d be surprised at how much pleasure you get in material possessions. And when you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.” 
Being baptized in the water is not a cure… it’s an invitation to a whole new way of seeing the world.
Maybe you’ve been in the water before and will remember your own baptism in the waters today. Maybe you will someday; you’re not sure about the whole thing but ‘Never say never.’ Maybe you’re getting in today and, my, my, we will rejoice with you in such a moment. We blow the rafters off this place in our celebration of you because, doggone it, people deserve to be celebrated and this moment should be all joy. And in such joy and celebration and elation for another who makes this big “Yes!” in their lives, may you embody such a joyful spirit, smile and cheer and holler as if you are in the water with them. Because in this mystery and joy of faith… you are my friends. You are.