Down by the River to Pray

Acts 16:1-15[i]
Lauren J. McFeaters
May 16, 2021
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Not too many women have ever prevailed upon Paul.

Not too many women carried the day when Paul was on the loose for the Lord.

Not too many women have ever faced Paul and upped the ante.

But somewhere between a riverside prayer meeting, a conversion, and a baptism, came the establishment of the first church in Europe.

Lydia prevailed. She prevailed upon Paul and the traveling Apostles to be her guest; to agree that her home would be the best place to set up a new missionary center; a refuge for traveling evangelists; a harbor for worship, a port in the storm.

Before there was Iona or Rajpur; before there was Taizé or San Juan Capistrano; before there was Santiago or Changhua Ching Shan, followers of Christ found their way to Lydia’s home. [ii]

And it’s not just any home. It’s a home located in Philippi – an epicenter of trade and prosperity. Lydia has a hefty share of the city’s affluence. She’s a professional; a commercial success; a business woman; an importer of costly fabrics, a producer of rare textiles.

Eric Barreto describes Lydia as an entrepreneur with vision and initiative. She’s strikingly self-sufficient: bright, creative, industrious. And apparently, even though she depends on its adherents to be her customers, she doesn’t bow to the established religion of the Roman Empire.

Because in Philippi it is Caesar who is “lord and god.” We can’t be sure there was a synagogue in the area or an organized place for Jews to worship. Jewish communities might be tolerated elsewhere in the empire, but not here. Any Jew had to go outside the city gates, and down by the river to pray. Lydia and friends gather there. Paul and his companions in Christ do too. [iii]

It’s a treacherous walk to the river’s edge when you want to worship God. There’s been talk in Philippi. The streets are full of murmurs about Jerusalem, gossip about a Messiah who came alive after death; whispered rumors about a prayer meeting outside the gates, evidence that something’s afoot; danger’s ahead.

Beverly Gaventa says, “The Acts of the Apostles is a dangerous document. It appears to be a harmless account of people, times, and locations. Yet its twists and turns prove …ensnaring. Opening the Acts of the Apostles, she says,  takes travelers beyond domestic borders into unfamiliar territory where passports are invalid, and embassies afford little protection…

Travelers who desire the predictability and organization of an interstate highway system…will find this journey more closely resembles A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” [iv] And nowhere more so than in Philippi.

Paul, Silas, and Timothy have hitchhiked from another galaxy across the sea and landed on the shores of Macedonia. It’s the Sabbath and they’ve heard the same rumors in the streets about the goings-on in Jerusalem, and a secret prayer meeting down by the river.

It’s the very thing God’s Chief Apostle wants to hear. Paul is on the loose; on the move, and ready to preach.

And when he does, he preaches through lips that only a short time ago had ordered the stoning of Stephen; the annihilation of any Christian; the eradication of any hint of a resurrected Messiah.

But now as Paul speaks words flow. He speaks as one Rehabilitated, Altered, Persuaded, Re-Formed. He comes down by the river and speaks as one Converted by Christ Jesus.

We don’t seem to talk about Conversion very often. We don’t easily share about the experiences of God’s unwrapping our hearts and renovating our spirits.

  • For many it’s a private and intimate experience;
  • For some it happens over the long haul, so that one day you wake up and realize that your very being has altered and you belong, heart and soul to God.
  • For some it happens in the blink of an eye; a dramatic and fully realized moment when life will never be the same.
  • For two of my sisters-in-law, neither one raised in a family of faith, it came because someone invited them church.

Conversion can seem like a long-gone ritual; something that happens while you’re traveling the Holy Lands, or at the Lake Side after a week of church camp. For a chosen few, maybe conversion is a reward; an act reserved for those in the early church like Paul on the Damascus Road.

When Maya Angelou speaks of her conversion to Christ, she proclaims:

  • Gratitude became the pillow upon which I kneel in nightly prayer. And faith (in Christ) the bridge built to overcome evil and welcome good.
  • She says, I (have been converted) through the rhythms and imagery of the best good Southern black preachers. The lyricism of the spirituals, and the directness of gospel songs, and the mystery of blues, are in my music, are in my poetry, and prose. [v]
  • Maya Angelou comes down by the river to pray.

When Makoto Fujimura, the contemporary Japanese-American artist, speaks of his conversion experience, it is in the context of being a student, while completing a Master of Fine Arts at Tokyo National University.

  • As he was moved to paint a project called, the “Four Holy Gospels,” he says, it was life-transformative. I was working on this for a year and a half and each day I would read a segment of the Gospels, meditate on it, and paint. The creative process was aligned (a conversion) with the Word of God.
  • It was like I had a map given to me, but I couldn’t read it. It was as if I was walking into a foreign country with a foreign language.
  • So I had to take baby steps, and trust my training, and in all my work, so it would capture and give honor to the biblical text.[vi]
  • Makoto Fujimura comes down by the river to pray.

Anne Lamott says her conversion to Christ, did not start with a leap, but rather a series of staggers

  • “Everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to open the door and let it in.
  • But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.
  • So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming the doors of my life.”
  • “When I went back to church,” she says, “I was so hung over that I couldn’t stand up for the songs.
  • But this one time I stayed for the sermon, which I thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of extra-terrestrials.
  • But the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape.
  • It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices were rocking me and holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.”
  • Anne Lamott comes down by the river to pray.

And she adds this:

  • “I began to cry… I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said . . . ‘I quit.’
  • This was my beautiful moment of conversion. I took a long deep breath and said out loud,

All right. You can come in.’” [vii]

“All right. You can come in.”

That’s what Lydia says too.

That’s her beautiful moment of conversion.

Can you say those words? “All right. You can come in.”

Can we?

The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly, intensely. And the Lord gave her a new heart, a trusting heart—and she believed in Christ the Lord.[viii] And along with her family, her entire household – everyone is baptized. They are received into Christ’s church: Sealed by the Holy Spirit;

and belong to Christ Jesus forever.

Come down by the river to pray.

Our Lord says, “Come on now.” “Come on.”

  • Because loving us so deeply
  • Reaching so far inside
  • Re-ordering what’s broken and lost
  • Taking us home
  • Forgiving out transgressions
  • Annihilating our shame
  • Releasing our fears
  • Conquering our pride
  • God prevails.

Such freedom. Such beauty.

Such tenderness.

Such upheaval. Such a gift.

Thanks be to God.



[i] The Acts of the Apostles 16:11-15 (NRSV) We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. 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.” And Lydia prevailed upon us.


[ii] Christian communities around the world: Iona, Scotland; Rajpur, India; Taize, France; San Juan Capistrano, California; Santiago, Spain; Changhua Ching Shan, Taiwan.


[iii] Eric Barreto. “Acts 16:9-15 Commentary.” www.workingpreacher.org, May 9, 2010.


[iv] Beverly Roberts Gaventa. The Acts of the Apostles. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, 17, 25.


[v] Yolanda Pierce. “Maya Angelou and the art of the outcast.” The Christian Century, June 4, 2014, christiancentury.org.


[vi]  Makoto Fujimura. “Interview on Why We Need Art in Church: The Function of Art.” Faith and Leadership, May 9, 2011, faithandleadership.com.


[vii] Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Random House Inc., 1999.


[viii] Eugene Petersen. The Message. Colorado Springs, CO:  NavPress, 1993, 274.