Here Is Water

Here Is Water
Photo by Tim Marshall / Unsplash

St Philip is the first disciple recorded as preaching the good news of Jesus Christ outside of Jerusalem and Judea. Of all places to go he heads to Samaria, a land of people not well-disposed to receiving Judeans. These two groups have a common origin and many shared cultural and religious practices, but there is a stark division between them in spite of the similarities. (This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been in the Church a while.) To the surprise of the other members of the Jerusalem community, Philip returns unharmed and with news of many Samaritans receiving the gospel with joy and being baptized. There is a substantial and growing Christian community in Samaria.

Good work begets more work and Philip is shortly told by an angel of the Lord to head out along a road through the desert wilderness. Along the way, Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch and we inherit this record of their meeting.

There is a lot of play with language and juxtaposed ideas in this story. Philips is sent south of Jerusalem, but the Greek implies both the direction and a time: midday. Philip is traveling along a road through the desert in the heat of the noon sun. Most inhospitable. While there he meets the eunuch, who is a collection of contradictions. He is a man and no-man, on account of his castration. He is an Ethiopian but also a worshipper of Yahweh, returning from worshipping at the Temple. He is the master of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia and has purchased an expensive scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies such as many Jewish people would covet, but he cannot be admitted as a full member of the covenant because of his mutilation. (Deuteronomy 23.1) He is reading the scroll but, as Philip’s question reveals, he does not truly know what is revealed in the scripture.

The eunuch’s request for instruction from Philip is part of a larger theme in the Acts. People are encountering God in the world. The Spirit is at work and those who get caught up in her whirlwind are left awestruck, changed, and often quite confused. The apostles are like storm chasers for the Spirit, sharing the good news and what wisdom they have to help people make sense of what they’ve experienced.

In this case, the eunuch is meeting God in a visceral way through Isaiah’s prophecy. You can imagine how a passage about a man compared to a sheep shorn of its wool, humiliated and treated unjustly would resonate for the eunuch. He has been shorn of part of his physical self and, with it, many of the possibilities that make him who he is in this ancient world. Isaiah’s prophecy asks of the reader, “Who can describe his generation?” We often read this and think of his peers, those who have treated the victim so poorly. But, in Greek, this word primarily means that which the man has produced, literally what he has generated: his children. A man’s offspring, or lack thereof, are an important part of the measure of his value in this world. The Ethiopian eunuch’s generation is also indescribable, like that of the victim in Isaiah, because it does not exist.

The victim in this portion of Isaiah (53.7-8) is the section that we read regularly during Passiontide. The suffering servant, the scapegoat who endures humiliation and pain for the sake of his community which we relate to the story of Jesus’s unjust execution. Eunuchs were made in several ways in the ancient world. None of them were pleasant and the process frequently ended in a painful death. These men were thought to be wise and trustworthy, as they were not distracted or susceptible to so many of the pleasures of the flesh. As a result, eunuchs were often given positions of great trust and power. Care of money, of women and children, and serving as advisors to the highest offices. At the same time, eunuchs were not whole men, as we’ve seen. They were very useful, but not the sort of people one would socialize with or invite over to dinner. They were distinctly “other” and they endured both the pain of their making and their living for the sake of service to their communities, their countries, or their masters. Useful for what they could do, despised for who they were.

When the eunuch asks Philip whether this passage is about Isaiah or some other man, we can easily imagine the hope in his voice. Here, in a prophecy from the God he worships, is a description of one who is critical to the safety and salvation of the community and that one sounds like him! The eunuch, perhaps for the first time, sees a sliver of himself in the telling of the story of his God. We do not have a record of how Philip replies, but I have no doubt that he spoke of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and confidently connected this prophecy to those events. A connection which outlines the solidarity of Christ with all those who are treated unjustly, violently, who are stigmatized and cast out for their natures. All those who were despised for who they were, even if they were useful in what they could do.

At this moment, when the eunuch’s hopes for a revelation of his own place within God’s plan of salvation are being fulfilled, he and Philip come upon water and he asks to be baptized. A spring in the desert at just the right moment. Philip takes him to the water and the eunuch is baptized. The detail not recorded here is how early Christian communities did baptism. This moment was understood to be such a radical change—a death and rebirth—that baptisms were often performed naked. This is a moment of vulnerability for anyone, but for the eunuch to have in full sight, under the noonday sun, the mutilation which marks him as man and no-man, useful but ostracised, the very feature that excludes him from full participation in Yahweh’s worship under the Mosaic law, is a moment where he can only be himself. His usefulness fades away and his humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is all that stands.

The eunuch and Philip together descend under the water and rise up from it as members of the same community. They are, from that moment on, members of the same body. They are full brothers in Christ, joined to God by the same means, in the same way. This is what is possible in a world where Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and where the Spirit moves. This is what is possible for us, today. 

When we meet someone who is seeking good news or who has heard it and is seeking the community that lives it out, we rejoice in what we have to share. We do not ask what they can do for us, which committee they might serve on, do they sing, or are they good with children. We celebrate who they are and that God has led them to Jesus and to deepen that relationship in our midst. We say "Here is water, my new sibling found," and give thanks for the image and likeness of God that they bear. We rejoice in them for who they are, for their created goodness, for their very being. And that celebration of belonging, for everyone who has been humiliated, hurt, excluded, exploited for their usefulness, and had their inherent goodness denied, is good news indeed.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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