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Sermon: The Well

May 16, 2010

Acts 16:16-34

As I grew up, my family got its water from a well.  This wasn’t one of those round stone wells with a bucket on a rope, the kind that Timmy would occasionally fall into so that Lassie had to run off to grandpa to save him.  Ours was—still is—in our back yard with an electric pump and covered by a large wooden box painted pale tan, almost the color of sand.  You would never know it was there.

We kids didn’t think too much about our well, except if there was a lot of water running at once, and you’d hear the thunk of the pump turning on, and then the electric hum as it filled a small reservoir in our garage.  Or if you wanted to take a shower when somebody was washing the dishes, the water pressure would get really low, and it would take all evening to rinse the soap out of your hair.

We would, every so often, think about the well during the winter.  Winter is the time when tons and tons of snow fall onto the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.  As the snowpack melts, it fills the creeks to overflowing, but most of it melts through the soil, seeps through the granite and much of it—more than enough of that snowmelt—drips into the aquifer where our well sucked it out like a boy sipping on a straw.  Like God’s grace, there was always more than enough water, cold and clean and sweet, for everything we needed.  Without the snow, without the water flooding in regularly, the electric pump on our well would have sucked up only sand and air.

*     *     *     *     *

The Apostle Paul was a well traveled man.  He walked, rode and sailed all over the Mediterranean and the surrounding lands to talk to people about a man he called Lord, Jesus Christ.  On one of his missionary journeys, Paul crossed the Aegean Sea from Asia Minor to Macedonia in northern Greece.  He went to an important city called Philippi, and immediately looked for a place of prayer.  He found one outside the city gates, along the river, and the first person he met—a woman named Lydia—became the first Christian convert in Europe, and she and her entire household were baptized.

Paul made that place of prayer a frequent stop as he traveled around Philippi.  On one of his visits, he met a slave-girl, a woman who was enraptured by a spirit.  The owners of the girl made lots of money by hiring her out as a fortune teller.  After she met Paul and his companions, she made it a habit to follow them around like a lost puppy.  She cried out again and again, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they proclaim to you a way of salvation…These men are servants of the Most High God, and they proclaim to you a way of salvation… These men are servants of the Most High God, and they proclaim to you a way of salvation.”

For the first hour of that, it might seem like a fun novelty, a little free publicity for the cause, but it would grow old pretty quickly.  And it did.  Paul, who had never been known for his gentle spirit or patience, lashed out: “In the name of Jesus Christ, come out of her!”

Fortunately, for Paul’s sanity, the exorcism worked.  The spirit left the girl and she was free.  Unfortunately, for Paul’s well being, the exorcism worked.  Paul was not motivated by compassion, but only by annoyance.  This quickly became a healing gone wrong when the owners of the girl realized their goose was no longer laying golden eggs.  They bodily dragged Paul and Silas in front of the magistrates.

“These guys are disturbing our city.  They are foreigners who are encouraging us to adopt customs that are not legal for us to observe.”

Now, never mind that the charges against Paul and Silas were exaggerated or motivated by anger at the owners’ economic loss.  Paul and Silas were foreigners, outsiders, and you know how suspicious people are about outsiders, even if you only look like an outsider.  A mob had gathered at these charges, and the mob was getting angry.  The magistrates ordered Paul and Silas to be stripped and flogged, and after a severe beating, they were put into prison, in the innermost cell with their feet in stocks.

So there you have it.  Paul and Silas were in a strange city a long way from home.  It was the middle of the night in the middle of the prison, and their feet were locked up.  As situations go, this was a pretty desperate one.  Paul and Silas weren’t due a phone call or a lawyer.  Probably, no one even knew they were there.  The fates of our two heroes were left to the whim of the magistrates.

I know that if that had been me in that prison cell in the middle of the night, my stomach would have been in knots, and I would have been sick with worry.  My mind would have been racing, thinking about all the thousands of terrible things that could happen to me.  Yet Paul and Silas—and thank goodness they at least had each other—did not react out of sheer panic.  They prayed and sang hymns to God.

At midnight, in a foreign jail, the other prisoners listened to the quiet words of prayer and the singing voices of Paul and Silas.  There is a powerful note of peace in that simple statement from our text.  These two men, their bodies beaten and bruised, the future uncertain and tenuous, prayed and sang hymns.  Some would call it confidence; some would call it foolishness.  They were at peace.

It was then that their confidence was rewarded.  An earthquake shook the foundations of the prison, their chains fell free, and the doors swung open.  If God can open a tomb, then God can certainly open a prison.

But for the jailer, this was anything but good news.  He felt sure that the prisoners had escaped, and he would forfeit his life.  He drew his sword and was about to kill himself when Paul said, from down below, “Don’t hurt yourself.  We’re all here.”

The man rushed in with a lamp, and he saw for himself that this was true.  He must have given a huge sigh of relief, but then he quickly became afraid.  The text says he trembled, probably because he realized that he had just had a close encounter with a power much more impressive than the Emperor.  Something important had happened.  This earthquake had left the jailer on shaky ground.  He dropped to his knees before Paul and said, “What must I do to be saved?”

“Believe.  Believe in the true Lord, Jesus, and you will be saved.”

And he did.  And he was.

*     *     *     *     *

When I was growing up, and I took a glass to the kitchen, put it beneath the sink and turned on the faucet, I would get water.  That is because, as I said, for thousands of years, snow had fallen on the mountains, had melted, and had seeped into ground.  Because of that continual refreshment, I was able to get water when I wanted it.

Paul and Silas opened up the tap when they sat deep in a Philippian prison.  Cold, clear water came gushing out, and they drank deeply.  They experienced an unearthly calm, a surprising peace, and an amazing grace, especially considering their dire circumstances.

Now it is true that the water in their wells, the water in our wells, comes from God.  It is grace.  Like the many tons of snow on the mountains, it is not something we can manufacture on our own.  But God will not fill us without our permission.  God does not coerce.  God does not force us.  You and I can take steps to allow the heavenly snowmelt of our God to fill us to the brim, so that when the need arises, water is available and not only sand and air.

If the well has not been filled, it cannot be tapped.  We cannot draw from the reservoir of hope unless we have been filled by hope.  We cannot feast on the bread of God’s grace if we have never been to the bakery.  We cannot be warmed by the cloak God’s love if we do not carry it with us.

Paul and Silas went frequently to the place of prayer.  They knew the scriptures.  They engaged in holy conversation with brothers and sisters of the faith.  They searched out the marketplace to share God’s love with others.  They allowed themselves to become so full of the grace of God that when they really needed it, that grace flowed out of them naturally.  They knew peace because they knew the source of peace.  They knew hope because they knew the source of hope.

If you want what Paul and Silas had, you can have it.  It is available to us all.  If you want to respond to trouble with that same kind of grace, peace and confidence, you can.  If you want to be ready to meet life’s disappointments and disasters with the same calm that Paul and Silas did, then you should prepare as they did, with prayer and worship, a full measure of scripture reading and study, building whole, healthy relationships with people who are growing into their faith just as you are, and by sharing love and grace with others, selflessly serving others.

As you do those things, you will fill your well full of the clean, clear water of grace.  It will be waiting for you.  And when the time of difficulty comes for you—as it does for each of us more than once—that grace will fill you like a flood.  There will be enough for you.  There will be enough for others.

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”  Let us pray, too…

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