Today’s reading from Acts features a woman named Lydia who agreed to be baptized when Paul and Silas came evangelizing in Philippi. This story and the recent baptism class that several of us took with Isaac has caused me to pause and to reflect on baptism and its significance to a life of Christian faith.
Infant baptism was part of my childhood culture and informed my understanding of how we become Christian. Baptism was a religious and cultural rite of passage for families, a way for parents and guardians to pledge publicly that they intend to raise their child Christian. This ritual of baptism—the promises and affirmations, as well as the splashes of holy water—transforms babies into religio-cultural beings.
I was baptized as a five-month-old at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Knoxville, TN. I have been to many baptisms like it through the years. Parents holding a baby gather with God parents and a priest in white vestments around a stone font in a front corner of the church. Participants read responsively out of a red-covered Book of Common Prayer. The priest asks the parents and godparents:
Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
They respond: I will, with God’s help.
The priest asks: Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
They respond: I will, with God’s help.
The priest holds the baby over the stone font and pours holy water from a pitcher over its head three times: I baptize you in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Amen.
At my hometown church in West Virginia, volunteers from the congregation then walk the newly baptized baby through the church while we sing “Lord Bless this Child.”
David and I did this for Serena and Daniel.
They both wore a baptismal gown passed down in David’s father’s family. It is made of white linen and embellished with handmade lace. It flowed well beyond their feet and had to be gathered up under our arms and around them. There was a get-together with cake and drinks afterwards at my parents’ house. Relatives came. I have to admit, I breathed a sigh of relief when it was all done. Our babies were sealed with holy water as God’s own and we had publicly committed to bringing them up as Christians. We were Christian and now they were Christian.
Until my family of origin moved to West Virginia when I was twelve, I had never really known any Christians baptized as adults. At the Baptist church down the hill from our house, there was a tub of water behind plexiglass where my friends got baptized. They talked about being born again and about being saved. I had no idea how they knew they were ready for these acts of commitment. What kinds of promises were they making? What was expected of them after a baptism? What if they backslid? In my adolescent mind, it felt like pretty heavy stuff. And, frankly, it was kind of confusing. Why didn’t their parents just baptize them when they were babies?
Of course, adult baptism is what we see in the Bible. John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River when he is an adult. The sky opens, the holy spirit descends and the voice of God is heard: “This is my own dear son with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13 – 17). This act launches Jesus’s own “mission life” of teaching and leading (Hershberger 2013:123). And Jesus himself tells his disciples to baptize and spread the word after he is gone (Matt 28:19-20). The Book of Acts is full of examples of baptisms, grown people receiving water as a way to ritualize their decision to repent and have faith in the way of Jesus.
Anabaptists embrace adult baptism (or baptism at a discerning age), since this is what Jesus models and what is portrayed repeatedly throughout the Bible. For Anabaptists, baptism is a sign of faith, of readiness to be part of the church. The belief is: we aren’t born ready.
This leads me back to Lydia.
Lydia is one of several women mentioned by name in the Book of Acts, women who express belief in the teachings of Jesus and who open their homes for gatherings of other believers. These women are pivotal people in the establishment of the early church in Jerusalem, Asia Minor and Europe.
When Paul and Silas meet Lydia at a place of prayer by a river, she seems poised for conversion, ready to commit herself to the Jesus group. Our passage reads:
“…the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14)
The next thing we learn is that she and her whole household have been baptized. Lydia is ready to be part of the church.
But this is not all we learn about Lydia. In a few short descriptions, an image emerges of a woman of influence and potentially of means. A woman who makes her own choices.
First of all, she is a “a seller of purple things (or fabrics)” (Acts 16:14). Lydia’s a business woman, likely embedded in the social network of trade guilds found throughout the Mediterranean world (it included bakers, tanners, weavers, leatherworkers, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, etc.). A highly valued purple dye came from the bladder of a mollusk (snail) found in the waters off the Syrian and Phoenician coasts. The color purple was a sign of prestige among the Roman elite. Emperors and successful generals wore togas with a purple border. It was used in make-up. Purple trickled down to the masses, too, who bought things made with a lower grade dye. Purple things were in demand. This puts Lydia in the economic mainstream and probably well connected to other tradespeople, clients, suppliers, and customers (Ascough 2013:56).
Additionally, Lydia may have been a homeowner and a head of household. At the time, a Roman household could include immediate and extended family members, slaves, free persons working in her industry, and poor people for whom Lydia could have been a patron (Ascough 2013:32). In any event, Lydia seems to hold enough sway at home to convince her household to be baptized, and she seems to be making a unilateral decision to invite two strange, foreign men to stay at her house.
Lydia’s hospitality is significant here. The text reads that she “prevails” upon Paul and Silas, which means she insisted that they stay at her house. In so doing, she opens her home to the Jesus group and makes of her space “a nest, where people can find the life of God,” to quote a recent Isaac sermon. Paul and Silas will also return to Lydia’s house and be welcomed in after they are released from prison. She is part of their community now, a safe space, a place to belong.
As Michele Hershberger puts it: “[Baptism] is a commitment to faith, accountability, and ministry.” (2013:124). Paul and Silas can count on Lydia.
Whether Lydia is well off or merely getting by, whether she is divorced, widowed or married, renting a place in a building or the owner of a two-story atrium house, what strikes me in the description of her actions is her self-determination and the impact of her choices. She makes a choice to be baptized, a public act that demonstrates to her social network that she is agreeing to follow Jesus’s teaching. Because she is connected to others—through work, blood, obligation—her decision has a ripple effect. She brings people along with her through her choices. She is important to the larger mission.
There is a readiness apparent in the story of Lydia. The scripture says that God opened her heart. “Hmmm,” I wondered when I first read that. “I wonder what this felt like and how she knew.” In her worship of God (she’s described as “a worshipper of God”) perhaps she prepared space within herself by meditating on the divine (Acts 16:14). Maybe she decluttered her mind and emotional life through prayer and devotion. Or it’s possible that she was just a busy tradesperson, going about her life and God chose her, saw the way the ripples would reach out from her and touch others.
I think Lydia’s openness is something we all have access to. God calls us all the time. To be welcoming, to be hospitable, to make public commitments, to forgive ourselves and others. It is the same openness that allows Paul and Silas to hear the holy spirit tell them to go to Macedonia in the first place, where they find Lydia. This openness gives way to a kind of knowing that can become a life practice. My friend Sister Marge calls it “going with the flow.” We don’t have to have all the information or anticipate all the eventualities when we get the call from God, when we feel our hearts open and ourselves ready. We just need to say yes.
Baptism is a way of saying yes, not promising to be perfect. Maybe this is what my friends in West Virginia knew when they walked to the front of the church and let the preacher dunk them in that tub of water. They were saying yes to the possibility of God’s grace in community. Yes to being supported as they turned back to God, again and again.
My parents were saying yes also with my infant baptism. Yes, to the Jesus group and the hope that I would continue on the path. I’m grateful they did that. I just wonder if they felt the support of community in that endeavor, given our nomadic existence.
Reflecting on Lydia, Paul and Silas, my own baptism and those of my children, and being in conversation with Isaac and my baptism class group has raised a question for me:
How do I, how do we as a community, help bring forth baptismal yeses?
Ascough, Richard S. 2009. Lydia: Paul’s Cosmopolitan Hostess. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
Hershberger, Michele. 2013. God’s Story, Our Story: Exploring Christian Faith and Life. Harrisonburg,
VA: Herald Press.
The Book of Common Prayer. 1977. Kingsport Tennessee: Kingsport Press.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version. Herbert G. May and
Bruce M. Metzger, eds. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Villegas, Isaac. “With.” Sermon preached at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, May 9, 2022.