If you were asked to name a Roman author.....
Great is thy faithfulness
If you were asked to name a Roman author, Frontinus is probably not the name that you’d come up with first – if at all. He’s the author of a technical treatise that was forgotten until the renaissance, called de aquis. It is the book which explains how Rome engineered its aqueducts to bring water to the city. It’s remarkable that, over 2000 years later, some of them are still serving the same purpose, and have done so almost without stopping throughout that time.
Water is, of course, one of the essentials of life, and in large cities the provision of clean, drinkable water is necessary to the health and wellbeing of the population. John Snow, in the 1854 used maps to chart the instance of cholera in London and was able to link the spread of the disease to the particular pump in Broad Street which was the source of the infection.
Water, health and wellbeing are recurrent themes in our readings this morning. Starting with baptism in Acts, we have the rivers of the water of life as imagined by the writer of Revelation, and, in our Gospel, we have the healing of a cripple in a healing pool. Water, in each of these three examples, is the agent of salvation as well as healing.
There is also another, slightly less obvious theme which also runs through these three readings; that of community.
Today it’s difficult to imagine religion as anything other than a personal choice. Some people believe; some don’t. Nothing compels one in either way – except perhaps God. There are some who would like to say that one isn’t a ‘proper’ believer unless one has had a personal and life changing encounter with God, as St Paul did on the road to Damascus. Some of you will undoubtedly have had this sort of experience, but it isn’t, by any means universal, and not having experienced such an event doesn’t make one any more or less a Christian than anyone else. We don’t have to have a deus ex machina moment to believe.
A bolt from the blue certainly isn’t what we’re told about Lydia. From a few short sentences, it’s possible to know quite a lot – but not everything - about her. She was wealthy – a dealer in purple cloth – one of the luxury items in this society. Its use was restricted to certain classes of people, and was a marker of ones status in society. Lydia was no dealer in cheap pleblon.
A striking note for me is that there is no mention of a husband, father or children – though there may well have been. She is the head of the household, and clearly a powerful woman. These few short sentences challenge much of what we think we know about the lives, opportunities and influence of women in the ancient world.
The most curious part of this though is not that Lydia was baptised – she is described as a worshipper of God – but that once she had made the decision to be baptised, this was something that she and her whole household did too. There is a corporate nature to this decision. It is also the same sort of thing that happened after the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury in 597 – he baptised thousands of people on Christmas day, who all converted as a group – possibly a tribe - of people. In both of these examples, the individual is subsumed within a wider community. The community transferred their allegiance to God from their pagan gods as one unit.
It’s difficult, living as we do in an individualistic, post-enlightenment world, to envisage this happening. For us, the individual reigns supreme, making decisions alone and potentially without reference to anyone else. I do this, rather than we do this. However, this isn’t necessarily selfishness, more the way that our society is currently conditioned to think and act.
It is, though, a major difference between our world and that of the time of Christ. Religion wasn’t a personal choice, and it wasn’t particularly about whether one followed the Jewish God or any of the other panoply of pagan deities. It was, res ligio – the thing that binds. Religion was viewed as something that bound communities to their god, the one who protected their community, city or nation. Being in a right relationship with God ensured success, harmony, peace and prosperity. Being in a disjointed relationship with God resulted in war, defeat, exile, famine – no wonder so much of the Old Testament is devoted to prophets encouraging Israel to turn away from their wicked ways, and once more follow the laws which will put them and the whole community in a right relationship with God.
And this was true of all pagan religions as much as it was of Israel. The Romans even had a special rite – the evocatio – where a general outside the city walls called on the protector gods of the city to desert for the pietas of the Roman people, and thus ensure the total destruction of the city and people within.
Relationship with God was mutable on both sides, but it was a community relationship, not a personal one.
In today’s Gospel it’s possible to see the effect of a disjointed community. The cripple is left by the healing pool. Rather like Tantalus in the Greek legend, the water was just too far away for him to reach. No-one from the community was there to help; to place him the water; to enable the healing to take place. Instead we have healing coming to him, rather than he to the healing. Jesus, at this point is the deus ex machina – who appears from no-where and alters the course of this man’s life. Abandoned by his community, he is found by God.
Community is at the heart of who we are. Like it or not, we are bound together in mutual need and support. None of our great projects – be they Roman Aqueducts, Bazalgette’s London sewer system, or putting men on the moon – are solo efforts. They all require communities to come together for a greater good; putting off the individual and taking on the corporate. As the liturgy says, we were all baptised into one body, let us then pursue all that makes for peace and builds up the common life.
Baptism brings us together in the community of Christ – whether Jew or Greek; slave or free; man or woman; rich or poor. Whilst our allegiance to God may be mutable, his covenant with us is changeless and everlasting. His mercy is everlasting, and flows down like rivers. How might we respond to this life-giving and life-sustaining invitation?