Revelation 21:10; 21:22-22:5
Gathering at the Waters
Whether we go to an ocean beach, walk along a lake shore or traverse a river, there is something powerfully refreshing and renewing about water. Water figures often in the biblical story. Seas and rivers must be divided so peoples can cross to the other side, so a new age can begin. Baptism serves a similar function. We go into the waters as one person, and come out the other side a new person. Waters have healing properties, or at least it appears that God uses water to provide healing. Such is the case with two of the lectionary texts for the week. As we hear these texts, what is the message to be found in the waters?
The previous lectionary reading from Acts 11 signaled a sea-change in the ministry of the church. Having spread from Jerusalem out into Judea and Samaria, after the baptism of Cornelius’ household the focus moves to the Gentile mission. The Gospel will move out toward the ends of the earth. We jump with Paul straight into this Gentile Mission. The first Council is now in the past. Some agreements have been made to legitimize in the eyes of the Jerusalem church Paul’s ministry. He has a new ministry partner – Silas – and they’re trying to explore new territories in Asia Minor, but for some reason the Spirit of God is impeding their progress (Acts 16:6-8). You get the sense that Paul and his companions are frustrated. They don’t know where to go, but then Paul has a vision. A man from Macedonia appears and invites Paul to come to Macedonia, to cross the Aegean, and take up a new ministry in Europe. Another boundary, a geographic one, must be crossed. So they immediately set out by ship, landing at Neapolis, and from there head toward Philippi, a leading city and a Roman colony. Mention of its status may signal Paul’s ultimate destination – the imperial capital.
Water figures again in the biblical story when Paul and his companions arrive at Philippi. Paul and his companions go to the river, seeking a place to pray. The Greek word proseuchē can mean both a place of prayer and synagogue. What Paul is looking for isn’t clear, but when he goes to the river he finds a group of women gathered for prayer. Among them is Lydia, who is described as a Gentile God-worshiper. She’s also a merchant who deals in purple cloth. Whether that means she’s wealthy or not is a matter of speculation. But, in this moment, gathered at the river, she hears the Gospel and the “Lord enabled her to embrace Paul’s message.” Having received the word, Lydia prevails upon Paul and has companions to receive her hospitality and stay at her home. Paul graciously receives this offer of hospitality. This brief story reveals few details, but it is a reminder that God is directing the mission. God has a vision, and the actors in this drama are moving along as God is opening and closing the doors.
I will move on to the reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem for a festival, and as he enters the city he comes to a pool of water, the pool of Bethsaida. It is a pool of water known for its healing properties. Those needing healing would gather there, hoping to enter the waters and receive healing. As Jesus passes by he notices a man who according to John had been there at the pool side for thirty-eight years. Such a long time waiting, but nothing to show for it.
Jesus asks the man – “Do you want to be healed?” What a silly question. That’s would been hoping for these thirty-eight years. Of course, Jesus was asking for him to express his desire. The man says, sure, but I don’t have anyone here to put me in the water when it’s stirred. Apparently the healing waters are only available occasionally – when God stirs them – and only for one person at a time. There is, it would seem, competition for these healing properties. Jesus tells the man – well just pick up your mat and get up and walk. And “immediately the man was well.” What is interesting about this passage is the Jesus doesn’t wait for the man to have faith. The healing is pronounced ahead of any sense of faith. This is an act of divine grace. And it occurs on a Sabbath, which raises the question – what is the purpose of Sabbath, if not restoration of body and soul.
Finally we come to the word from Revelation. John enters a “Spirit-inspired trance.” He views the city of Jerusalem coming down from heavens. And as he looks at this city – the New Jerusalem – he notices that there isn’t a Temple. That’s because God and the Lamb of God is the Temple. There isn’t a sun or moon, because the glory of God shines on the city. The nations gather in this city, and peace is present. The gates are never closed. Nothing unclean is present. I wonder, is it because the unclean have been excluded, or is it because God has declared all things to be clean? The reason for separation is past. All peoples find their hope in the One whose glory and light fills the city.
And then there is the river of life – the waters at which we shall gather. This river flows from the throne of God and the Lamb, down through the middle of the city. The Tree of Life sits on both sides of the river, providing crops each month to feed the city – so no hunger – and its leaves bringing healing to the nations. And when we gather at the river we’ll sing:
“Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God? Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.” (Robert Lowry).