It was June, 1964 in my native state of Florida. The sit-in movement that started just down the street and around the corner from where we sit today had invigorated the Civil Rights Movement, reaching to various other cities and locales, including St. Augustine, Florida, where on that day, not only did demonstrators participate in a sit-in, but a swim-in, as some jumped in the private, whites-only swimming pool at the Monsoon Motor Lodge. In response, the owner poured acid in the water, in what is now an iconic and disturbing photo of the era. Thankfully, no one was injured by this act of hatred, but the photo did do some damage to Jim Crow, as after seeing the photo, President Lyndon Johnson was moved to sign the Civil Rights Act, 55 years ago this week.
Of course, the Monsoon Motor Lodge was not the only such instance of water-side racism and exclusion. After desegregation, many cities and counties closed their municipal pools. Some pools were filled with concrete, rather than be opened to all. Others pools would encounter mysterious “malfunctions” and close abruptly when a black person approached to swim.
Today, according to the Centers for Disease Control, black children are three times more likely to die from drowning than are white children. Our local YMCA is one of many that sponsors a learn-to-swim program to counter this stark reality, and part of what the YMCA notes is that such disparity is not a result of personal choice or an isolated incident, but tied to a history of structural racism and institutional exclusion. (1)
Historian Jeff Wiltse has written about this complicated history of swimming pools in America in a book entitled Contested Waters, and his central claim is that swimming pools serve as barometers or measurements of social relations. “If we want to know how we relate to one another and how we relate to people who are different from ourselves,” he says, “just look at our pools.” (2)
In the history of the church, we have our own contested waters, and we stand alongside them today with the story of one who wants to be baptized. He wants to tell with his own body the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He wants to be welcomed into a new community, with full participation in the work of the Spirit. He wants to feel the waters wrap him, and know the grace of God that claims his life. So, he looks at the water and asks God’s servant, Phillip, “What should prevent me from being baptized?” Actually, many things. By most standards this court official, this Ethiopian, this eunuch, was the last person one would expect to wade into the waters.
First, notice his status. It’s the first thing Phillip would have noticed. God’s servant, Phillip, has been driven by the Spirit to one of those places where only the Spirit would send you — the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Out from the central activity in the city, he’s been sent into the wilderness. Phillip, a humble deacon in the upstart movement, was one of those who had shared things in common, and devoted himself to the teaching and prayers, and been among the thousands added to the number of the early church, as Acts 2 describes. And now he’s been sent off to spread the word. He’s out there not even knowing what he’s looking for, and that’s when he hears commotion and pageantry and picks his head up from the footpath to see the ancient motorcade spread before him. He sees a chariot, heralding wealth, status, and power in the ancient world, and perched atop he sees a court official of the Ethiopian queen — someone as far removed from Phillip’s own class and status as we could imagine.
It might have caused Phillip to fail to see the common humanity that can so often be obscured amidst social difference. Social standing can so easily intimidate, divide, and exclude.
I remember the man who once came to a clothing closet of a former church. While his shoes were worn through, he turned down the offer of new size 9s. While it was cold outside, he asked for no winter clothing. No, he was utterly clear that all he wanted was a coat and tie, telling me he wanted some clothes so he could attend church. I assured him he would be welcome in church no matter his attire, but he didn’t believe it, because something had told him that his appearance, his clothing, his status, made him an outsider.
It can even happen to dignitaries in chariots. “This is why I’ve been sent out here?” Phillip must have wondered from his roadside campsite, maybe even doubting the motives or the faith of the man amidst his elevated pageantry and power. You may remember our last presidential election cycle (and if you enjoyed that, good news: here we go again!). I received a call one week amidst the campaign asking if our church would be open to hosting a candidate during our worship service. There was a campaign event in the area that Sunday afternoon, and they were hoping to worship at a local church that morning. Well, I reached out to a few church leaders, including our church’s Pastor Discernment Committee that helps process leadership decisions, and all of us agreed: no speeches, no statements, no acknowledgments; this church does not endorse candidates, so no posturing, no photo opps… but if you want to worship, you’re most welcome.
Ultimately, this candidate worshipped elsewhere that day, but as they did, I wondered if my immediate reaction should have been suspicion and caution. What if, amidst all the possible reasons I imagined, this was someone who wanted to worship God? I know our political cynicism makes us roll our eyes at the notion. Still, amidst the differences in status and power, a common humanity was the last thing I saw. But in our text, the Spirit sends Phillip right up to the chariot, reminding that the love of Christ, the grace of God, the work of the Church extends to people regardless of status.
As it also extends beyond the boundaries of nationality, ethnicity and race. “What should prevent me?” the man asks, perhaps recognizing his own obvious differences from Phillip. He was a Gentile — considered a foreigner by God’s chosen, the Jews. And what’s more, he was an Ethiopian, which signals not only a difference in nationality, but a difference in what we understand today as race. In the ancient world Ethiopians were noted for the darkness of their skin. In fact, early Christians sometimes used the category of “Ethiopians” and the appearance of blackness as symbols of evil. Gay Byron, an African American Womanist scholar, has studied ethnic difference in the early movement of Christianity, and she concludes, “Numerous negative references in ancient Christian writings associate Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Black bodies with sin, demons, sexual vices, and heresies.” (3)
Phillip was a man with darker skin than mine, but it’s safe to say that after noticing the court official’s difference in class and status, the next thing he would have noticed would have been the stark difference in the color of their skin. Perhaps, like others of his time, it caused him to hesitate, stereotype, or approach with suspicion. We know how such tendencies extend to our place and time — to claims of white purity, acts of white supremacy, and broken views of the inferiority of those outside the category of white. It occurs even among the church — maybe not in ways so overt, but still ways that can communicate superiority.
I’m haunted still by a young boy I met at a previous church. I was the youth minister, where part of that last line of my job description, “other duties as assigned,” was to be the one who ran off neighborhood kids when they’d come to ride their bikes and skateboards and play on the church playground, defying the red-letter signs that read: no bikes, no skateboards, no trespassing on the playground. So one summer afternoon, my office phone buzzed, and I headed outside to find a menacing group of 8 year-olds — they were on the swingset, with illegal bicycles strewn about the sidewalk.
While some scattered, the spokesperson of the group took me on. He didn’t understand why they couldn’t play, and I was getting nowhere with my explanations of liability, so finally, I said, “Look…why don’t you come back on Sunday? Come on Sunday and we’ll play on the swings, I’ll push you myself.”
He was wide-eyed as I said it, just astonished, and he said, “You mean I can come to church here?!”
“Well, of course you can,” I laughed.
“Wow!” he said. And then, as he walked away, he turned back: “I always thought this was a private church.”
I always wonder where he learned that. We had a sign that said “All are welcome,” but to that young boy, who was black, and to his family — and I admit, to the neighborhood surrounding, which was largely black and Latinx families — we had sent some other messages about who was welcome and who was not, and about just what would prevent a person from being fully a part of our church. It reminds me that in a world of adamant division that moves us towards exclusion, separation, and barriers, the church must be even more adamant in it’s work to imagine another way, and put forth clear statements of acceptance and inclusion.
I find this especially vital when considering the third thing Phillip would have noticed about this traveler. Verse 27 says he was a eunuch. In fact, this is the aspect of the man’s identity that seems most important in the text, as he is called “eunuch” repeatedly, 5 times. Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, and thus were considered abnormal. The category of “eunuch” in the ancient world included a lot of sexual minorities.
Some Hebrew scriptures were negative toward eunuchs. Leviticus calls them “blemished” and says they should not approach God in worship (Lev 21). Deuteronomy says they should not be admitted into the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23). In fact, as he’s coming back from Jerusalem and the Temple, we might wonder if the eunuch encountered such exclusion there — someone quoting Scripture, perhaps, and saying “You are not welcome in the assembly, it says so right here in Deuteronomy.”
But then, that’s not the only verse in the Bible. There’s another scripture about eunuchs, found in Isaiah 56: “Thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name from which they shall not be separated.” Then a few verses later, Isaiah 56:8 says, “Thus says the Lord God, who gathers all the outcasts of Israel.” In this passage, we hear of the God who gathers all the outcasts — including those that other parts of Scripture might exclude. God welcomes them and blesses them right in the midst of God’s own house.
See, Phillip has to decide: how is he going to read the scriptures? Will he read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and prioritize that message, or will he hear the inclusive words of Isaiah? Will he find prevention or welcome in the scriptures? Will it be hindrance or openness? What will the Spirit provoke?
That’s the question that remains for us. Since eunuchs were marginalized due to their sexual identity, many LGBTQ Christians have identified with the eunuch in this story and asked, “What would prevent me?”
I remember when someone approached me with this question. He was asking to join a former church, Metro Baptist. He was excited to participate in the life of our church. He felt like it might be just what he needed to give church a second chance. As a gay man, he had felt far from God and from the church at times. He’d walked out of a former church that had placed barriers to his full inclusion. He wanted to know if he was welcome at our church. Would he have to hide? Would he have to change? But then, he described how he believed that Jesus was Lord. He shared how he had been baptized in the waters of God’s grace. So I welcomed him fully, on behalf of the congregation, into the life of that church.
At the time he was living with addiction, and also deep depression. But he began to worship God in that church, began to study the Bible in community, began to participate in the life of our fellowship, began to serve others in Jesus’ name, began to live fully in the grace of God without fear or hesitation. And you know, he became a deacon in that church, and one of the truly greatest church leaders I have ever known in ten years as a pastor. Today, when my friend reflects on the church that welcomed him fully, he says it saved his life. He was wandering, depressed, regularly contemplating ending it all, but then he and this church found one another. “It was like a resurrection,” he says today.
See, what the Spirit says to Phillip is what the Spirit says to us. Verse 29: “The Spirit said to Phillip, ‘Go over to that chariot and join it.’” Amidst differences in social standing, amidst differences in race, amidst differences of sexual identity, and amidst all the forces that would pull us toward separation and exclusion, the Spirit says: “Go over there, toward those alienated. Go toward those who are ostracized and outcast. Go to those who are isolated and wondering if God’s grace is for them.”
The Spirit sends us to help them know what this court official, this Ethiopian, this eunuch comes to know. It’s what he’s reading in the scroll of Isaiah, chapter 53, which foreshadows a savior’s death on the cross for the salvation of all people. It tells of the wideness of God’s mercy, the fullness of God’s embrace, and how it extends to all people. It proclaims how the miracle of God’s grace is more than enough to overcome all the hindrances that we can put in place.
Because even as the Spirit moves us towards the eunuch, there’s something in us that instinctively separates and draws away. In our brokenness, there’s something that still hinders and prevents, still moves us toward control and regulation.
My dear friend, Rev. Scott Dickison, is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia — the First Baptist Church at the top of the hill, that is, while at the bottom of the hill also sits First Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. Two churches, one majority white and one majority black, who were at one time one church that was separated before the Civil War in the days of slavery. It’s a story mirrored in many churches in the Southern United States that predated the Civil War and Emancipation. My friend, Scott, and Rev. James Goolsby, Pastor of the majority black First Baptist Church in Macon, have begun an effort to learn from, reckon with, and try to amend the sins of racism and slavery that led to the separation of their churches those years ago. It’s led them to learn a lot about history — not only the history of their churches, but also of similar churches of the era. One of the insights they have encountered is absolutely jarring. Among Baptist churches in the South predating the Civil War, the exclusion of black worshippers and the separation of slaves into separate churches by their white slaveowners, seems to have occurred largely in the 1840s. One southern historian, Chad Seales, has suggested a reason for this. He’s found evidence that this separation happened with the advent of indoor plumbing… with the advent of indoor baptistries, in other words. Because, you see, those white worshippers didn’t want to share the waters of baptism. (4)
“What is it that would prevent a person from being baptized?” We have to confess how often it has been us.
“But what should prevent?” That’s the man’s question that day, and the question that echoes still. This court official — should his social class prevent him from telling the story of Jesus from death to resurrection? This Ethiopian — should his national origin or his race prevent him from participating fully in the life of Jesus Christ and the movement of his Spirit? This eunuch — should his sexual identity prevent him from being wrapped in the full grace of God and hearing from a wide open sky that he is the beloved of God? The man knows Jesus is Lord. He sees the water right in front of him. “What should prevent me from being baptized?” he wants to know. And standing waist deep he’s plunged beneath by God’s servant, and brought up dripping with God’s grace and an answer for us all: What should prevent? Nothing. Nothing.
The text says he goes on his way rejoicing, while the Spirit “snatches” Phillip away. We’re not sure where Phillip ended up, but I hope it’s out to all the places where the Spirit needs him to spread the news of what he learned in those waters: that it’s not a private gospel, it’s not a private church, and it’s not a private pool.
- “Why Are Black Youth At Highest Risk of Drowning?” www.ymca.net/summer-buzz/highest-risk-for-drowning
- Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
- Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (New York: Routledge, 2002), 5.
- “An Old Love for New Things: Southern Baptists and the Modern Technology of Indoor Baptisteries” in Journal of Southern Religion 13 (2011).