Listen to sermon here: Listening Like Lydia
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on May 5, 2013.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the Marin Episcopal Youth Group played a game called “Driving the Snakes out of Ireland,” which involved duct taping long balloons to our ankles and then attempting to pop each other’s balloons while making sure no one popped our own. We then drank some shamrock ice cream soda, ate green M&Ms and learned about St. Patrick and Celtic spirituality. We concluded our evening with a hike and Celtic prayers alongside a nearby creek. Because it was so windy, we were not able to light candles in our sand bowl as we normally do during our Compline prayers. So instead we offered prayers to our friends, families and others by gently tossing stones into the water. As we listened to the spoken and unspoken prayers plop in the water, we gradually grew more and more entranced by the calming ripple of the stream, as it flowed in between our petitions. We eventually stopped throwing our prayer stones and simply listened to the water as it trickled and murmured. For several moments, no one said a word. We let the brook do all the babbling. And if the water had been able to speak words, I imagine it would have said to us, “May the peace of the Lord be always with you” as it poured a gentle and quiet peace upon us, which was nothing less than miraculous, especially since many of the junior highers were filled to the brim with sugar. By listening to the water, we experienced what the Celtic monks called ‘the deep peace of the running wave.” And then we took up our instruments and walked, back to the church, singing and clapping, and feeling wholly refreshed.
In today’s readings, healing and transformation take place through the process of listening and responding to God’s grace, nearby water. In Revelation, the river of the water of life, “bright as crystal,” flows and feeds the tree of life, which heals the nations with its holy and medicinal leaves. In John’s Gospel, Jesus heals a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, a pool which was believed to be stirred every once in a while by an angel, who would then heal the first person to enter. The man is healed when he listens to Jesus’ charge to “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And in Acts, Paul and his companions arrive at a place of prayer, by a river, where, they meet a woman named Lydia, who opens her heart to listen eagerly to Paul’s message and is then transformed as she and her household receive from Paul the watery sacrament of baptism. And the Psalm today invites us to respond to God’s overflowing mercy and blessings, which are the “saving health among all nations” (Ps. 67:2). Each of the readings highlight a healing and transformation that take place through the process of listening and responding to God’s grace, usually nearby a body of water.
The one who embodies this listening presence best is St. Lydia, a saint that is easy to overlook during this liturgical season as we approach Mother’s Day, when other towering figures take the foreground such as St. Monica (the prayerful and patient mother of St. Augustine, whose feast day was yesterday) and Julian of Norwich (the English Mystic who experienced Christ as mother and whose feast day is May 8th). This year, the lectionary invites us to see Lydia as the third in the trinity of maternal and powerful female saints to be honored during this season (Monica, Julian and Lydia). Although the Scripture does not name Lydia explicitly as a mother, she clearly played a powerful leadership role in her household as she persuaded her family to be baptized and encouraged Paul and his companions to stay at her home, something most women, at the time, would never do on their own. St. Lydia reminds us to honor all women who exemplify maternal love and powerful leadership on Mother’s Day, and not just those who have children.
Lydia also reminds us about the power of listening. She made her living by selling cloth that was dyed with the purple secretions of sea snails. Her living was dependent upon life in the water and, when we first meet her, she is in a sacred space (“a place of prayer”) by a river. It is very likely that she had many moments like the one that the Marin Episcopal Youth Group had by the creek when the gentle trickle of the flowing waters arrested her attention, causing her to listen with a profound openness. Author Mindy Masters writes, “Listening to the sound of trickling water and watching the movement of water actually increases creativity, reduces stress, and even accelerates our natural healing processes. We feel this instinctively: we know that these sounds are just plain good for the soul!” She then explains how constantly moving water creates negative ions, which not only purify the air, but, when they reach our bloodstream, actually increase our levels of serotonin, thus relieving stress and anxiety and increasing energy. So it makes sense that we are drawn to the sound of running water. It is good for us.
The ancient Hebrews understood the inherent goodness of listening to water and articulated it in their own profound and concise way. The Hebrew word for “listen” is shema as in the famous Jewish prayer (Shema Israel Adonai Alohenu Adonai Echud – “Listen, Israel! The Lord our God the Lord is One!”) And the Hebrew word for “water” is mayim. When you combine the two Hebrew words for “listen” and “water”, you get the word shemayim, which is Hebrew for “heaven.” So for the ancient Hebrews, the best way they felt they could talk about heaven was by talking about listening to water and the best way they felt they could talk about listening to water was by talking about heaven.
Lydia enjoyed the heaven of listening to water and it was this heaven that primed her to listen wholeheartedly to Paul’s message. Now when we look at the Greek of this text we see that two different words are used for Lydia’s listening. Our translation tries to capture this by saying Lydia first listened and then she listened eagerly. The first word the author uses for “listen” is ἤκουεν (ekoo-en), from the verb ἀκούω, (akoo-oh), which basically means having the ability to hear and to pay attention, to not be deaf. I’m often trying to get the youth to simply ἤκουεν (ekoo-en), to listen and pay attention to each other, to their leaders and sometimes to the silence. Usually, they’re pretty good at this. And this is important because when we can do this, when we can listen at a very basic level, we open ourselves up to be arrested by another kind of listening, a divine listening. The Scriptures say that as Lydia was listening, the Lord opened her heart to προσέχειν, which is translated “to listen eagerly” but literally means “to bring a ship to land” or “bring your boat to harbor,” once again connecting listening with water. Προσέχειν means to commit oneself to, to attach, to hold, to cleave, to devote and is sometimes used to describe addiction. This is a powerful kind of listening. It was this kind of listening (προσέχω) that came over the Marin Episcopal Youth Group at the creek, causing us to cleave to the peaceful flow of the water. And what is amazing about this kind of listening is that God is the one who initiates it. As the text says, “The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to listen eagerly, to προσέχειν.” It was the Lord who opened the hearts of the MEYG to listen eagerly to the water and to the creative Spirit of God hovering over and within the water. And it is the Lord who opens our hearts to listen attentively to one another, to our children, to our spiritual mentors, to ourselves. And by listening to one another, we open up the potential for healing and transformation, both within the listener and the listenee (that is, the one speaking). Lydia and her entire household devoted themselves completely to Paul’s message and enacted this by having Paul immerse them all in water. And Paul and his companions “landed their ship” so to speak at Lydia’s home. And Lydia, now known to many as St. Lydia, is now recognized as the first European convert to Christianity.
And what was Paul’s transformative message to which Lydia cleaved? It was that the same Spirit which hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation, that same Spirit which courses through the river of life in Revelation, that same Spirit that stirs the healing waters and brings “saving health” to all the nations came to us in the person of Jesus Christ and offers healing and transformation to all who listen eagerly, to all who προσέχειν, to all who bring their ship to land in him. And so it should not surprise us that this same Jesus Christ began his ministry by immersing himself in the river Jordan and invites his followers to mark their devotion to him by drenching themselves with water, a symbol of the healing and transformation that comes from listening eagerly to Christ.
And Christ offers us more than just negative ions. All of the health benefits of listening to running water are mere shadows of the eternal benefits the come from listening eagerly to Christ, whose words form us like us stones in a stream, rolling us towards heaven, towards shemayim.
We open ourselves up to this listening every Sunday during the Liturgy of the Word, when we allow the words of Scripture to wash over us. Our basic listening (ἤκουεν) can become divine listening (προσέχειν), listening like Lydia, when God opens our hearts to be transformed and healed by his cascades of grace, inspiring us to bring our boat to land in him. Amen.
 I learned this from Pastor Brian Morgan from Peninsula Bible Church in Cupertino CA.