"A Stream in the Desert" by Claire Helton
“An angel of God spoke to Philip and said, “Be ready to set out at noon along the road that goes to Gaza, the desert road.” 27 So Philip began his journey.
It happened that an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in charge of the entire treasury of Candace, the ruler of Ethiopia, had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage 28 and was returning home. He was sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and meet that carriage.”
30 When Philip ran up, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31 “How can I,” the eunuch replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” With that, he invited Philip to get in the carriage with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture being read:
“You are like a sheep
being led to slaughter,
you are like a lamb that is
mute in front of its shearers:
like them, you never open your mouth.
33 You have been humiliated
and have no one to defend you.
Who will ever talk about your descendants,
since your life on earth has been cut short?”
34 The eunuch said to Philip, “Tell me, if you will, about whom the prophet is talking—himself or someone else?”
35 So Philip proceeded to explain the Good News about Jesus to him.
36 Further along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is some water right there. Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?”
38 He ordered the carriage to stop; then Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch didn’t see him anymore, and went on his way rejoicing.
40 Philip found himself at Ashdod next, and he went about proclaiming the Good News in all the towns, until he came to Caesarea.”
This is one of our sacred stories,
Thanks be to God.
The chariot of the Ethiopian high court began kicking up dust as it reached the outer gates of Jerusalem and picked up the pace on the journey out onto the wilderness road. The wealthy official sitting inside it saw the dust clouding outside his window and felt it was an appropriate metaphor. He shifted and re-crossed his legs unconsciously as the expression entered his mind, Shake the dust off your feet. The heated fury he had been holding back ever since he was turned away at the outer court of the temple now rose to the surface as hot, angry tears streamed down his face.
It had been a long and expensive journey to get him to Jerusalem in the first place, and expenses were something he knew a thing or two about. As the overseer of the entire treasury of the Kandake, the Queen of Ethiopia, he had arranged this trip so that he could conduct the queen’s business in the region while also making his own pilgrimage to the temple of the god he had come to know through the ancient scriptures – the Torah, and the writings of the prophets, in particular. He had spent many hours poring over the poetic proclamations of the prophets, and had fallen in love with the vision of justice and mercy that they painted, had fallen deeper still for the kind of God who could inspire such things.
He was, then, understandably taken aback when he finally arrived at the end goal of his long journey only to be told that by virtue of the body he walked this earth in, he was unclean, could not enter, could not worship as other men did. You see, the temple courts were arranged in a kind of hierarchy of holiness. In the center, only the men of the tribe of Levi – the priests – were allowed to enter. The inner court surrounding that was only for Jewish men; beyond that lay the outer court of the women – Jewish women. And then there was the court of the Gentiles, that marginal space where the outliers could gather, the same space where Jesus had spent his time teaching so that all could hear. This was the only space open to the royal overseer of the treasury of Ethiopia, not only because he was foreign, but because he was a eunuch. Most likely castrated at an early age, before puberty had set in, he had been designated for the queen’s service from his youth, perhaps even without his consent.
Because of that intervention in his development, he also likely presented in a way that defies our gender binaries, not female, but not quite male either. And though his position carried much power and he was used to being treated with respect, at the court of the temple in Jerusalem, where he had come to seek the God of Isaiah, he undoubtedly received a hostile reception. After all his time spent reading the words of Isaiah calling for a cease to religious practices that ignored justice for the sake of piety, he was caught off guard to find that instead, the rigid application of the laws of Deuteronomy still held sway over the house of God. Face aflame with indignation and embarrassment, he had spoken not a word, but had turned on his heel, climbed back into the chariot, and set his face toward the road leading out from Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Philip trudged along the dusty, dry road toward Gaza, uncertain what exactly he was going to do when he arrived, or what he might be looking for along the way. The “why” was not entirely clear, but with every step he practiced trusting the nudge that had led him down this path. He had learned to be fairly attuned to the leadings of the Spirit, which didn’t always speak clearly in dreams or show up in bursts of wind or tongues of fire. Today he was out on this road toward Gaza because he had sensed it was the next right thing, but the desert sun could beat the conviction out of stronger men than Philip, and each time he raised a weary arm to wipe his sweaty brow, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake.
What, exactly, did he hope to accomplish out here in the desert? This business of following the Spirit’s leading did not always make for a neatly packaged answer to that question, And what is it that you do, Philip? Well…hard to say, from day to day. Philip was a follower of Jesus, and alongside his four prophesying daughters, he had made it his work to go and share the story of this boundary-breaking, boldly-loving messiah with all that he met, and while it was the work he was called to do, that didn’t make it an easily identifiable vocation. But right now, he reminded himself, what I’m doing is taking a walk in the desert because I woke up this morning and knew I couldn’t feel peace about doing anything else. (Sometimes he had to say things like that out loud, just to hear it for himself and remember that it was really true.)
His throat began to feel parched and scratchy but he tried not to drink too much from the small waterskin he carried. Not knowing what it was he was out here to do, it was hard to have an idea of how long…whatever it was…would take. And if there was one thing he did know for certain, it was that water is hard to come by out on that dry wilderness road.
The eunuch’s chariot slowed abruptly to round a sharp curve in the road, and when they did, Philip leapt aside, only nearly avoiding the loss of a leg. Jolted into confusion, the chariot’s driver pulled to the side and hopped down to make sure Philip was alright. That was when Philip heard a sound coming from the inside of the chariot that told him he was right where he needed to be. The words were familiar, words that were dear to his own heart, read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but in a voice unlike any he had ever heard.
“Forgive me,” he called out, ignoring the driver who was anxiously wringing his hands, and approaching the chariot’s carriage instead, “Forgive me, but may I ask, do you understand the words you are reading? Only, I notice your accent is so different than the one in which I’m used to hearing those words read,” he said, refraining from commenting on the tone of the voice as well. He couldn’t quite put a finger on what was different about it anyway.
The eunuch looked surprised to see Philip in the first place, he had clearly been so engaged in his reading that he had barely noticed the chariot had stopped at all. After a moment taking in the scene, he invited Philip up onto the seat beside him, waiting to see if Philip would reject him, as well. When Philip gratefully climbed up into the chariot, the eunuch asked him for an explanation of the words on the scroll before him:
You are like a sheep being led to slaughter,
you are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers:
like them, you never open your mouth.
You have been humiliated and have no one to defend you.
“Whoever this man is,” he said to Philip, “his story is my story. Please, tell me more.”
The book of Acts does not specify what it meant for Philip to share the good news about Jesus to the eunuch, but it does say that that is what he did. And I can imagine that there was much about the life and teachings of Jesus that came as good news to this man. Philip, the evangelist, who spent his life sharing the story of the boundary-breaking one, began breaking boundaries the moment he set foot in a Gentile chariot of an unclean eunuch. And I imagine that he told that unnamed eunuch all about the one who came to save us from the tyranny of legalistic religion, the one who came to liberate us from judgment and from shame.
I imagine how much laughter must have filled the chariot when Philip told how Jesus had marched into the very temple courts into which this dear, sweet child of God had been denied entrance, and had driven the moneylenders out with a whip he had fashioned himself by hand, sending them running like sheep without a shepherd.
I imagine the depth of sorrow and understanding in the eyes of the eunuch when Philip told how Jesus had been betrayed, how he had suffered at the hands of those whose religion required four walls containing smaller walls that contained even smaller walls that they somehow imagined could contain the holy one – if they could just keep the space, and the people in it, “clean” enough.
I imagine the sacredness of the moment he laid eyes on the water. The moment the eunuch discovered that sacred mystery: a stream in the desert. Surely he heard the words of Isaiah 58 echoing in his mind, declaring that when the people “removed the yoke from among them, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, when they offered their food to the hungry and satisfied the needs of the afflicted, then their light would rise in the darkness and their gloom be like the noonday; then the holy one would guide them, and would satisfy them in parched places.”
Looking out on that parched and dry wilderness, the eunuch’s voice nearly gave out as he uttered the longing of his heart, and Philip heard the woundedness that would ask in such a way: Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?
No, beloved of God. There is nothing to prevent you from embracing the Spirit of Love that already embraces you. For we are convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the Messiah.
As the prophet Isaiah has said, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters.”
Come, and know yourself a beloved child of God.