In the river at Philippi

No, not our marriage vows. We did that at our Silver Celebration nearly 10 years ago. But this has been just as significant a day.

It is Monday, June 21, 2010. We are with our tour group visiting the ancient site of Philippi. The once-thriving metropolis now lies buried under centuries of dirt, dust, debris. Excavations begun in 1930 reveal skeletal outlines of the bema in the marketplace, where Paul and Silas were brought before the magistrates, and the prison where they were held.

We read aloud from the book of Acts, the familiar words taking on fresh meaning as we stand in the very place these events occurred. Walking along the Roman road that leads out of the city, I drag my toe along the ruts made by chariots. Mike trains his Nikon on symbols etched by early believers in the pavement: a fish, a peacock, a circle cut into eight equal pieces.

Just beyond the boundaries of the former city gates, we come to the Zygaktis. Once a major water source for the people of Philippi, the river is largely silted in but emerges upstream from the old city. The city lives only in the pages of scripture but the water is still alive: bright and bracing under the warm Greek sun.

Mosaic of Lydia

Our guide stops, lifts his Bible, begins to read from Acts 16. It’s as if we have never heard the story before: the description of the woman Lydia, seller of purple, worshiper of God, who heard the words that would change her life in Philippi. Near this spot, Lydia’s heart opened like the roses that bloom near the banks of the Zygaktis. She must have stepped forward, her request in her eyes. The Apostle had seen that look before, that longing. He held out his hand, welcoming Lydia – seller of purple, child of God – into the water.

2000 years later, we listen to Lydia’s story and think of our own – the moment we stepped forward decades ago, nodding our assent. Recognizing, in that heartbeat, that life the first time around was the gift of a human mother and father. This time, it was our choice to make –whether to say yes to being born again.

Decision made, we were baptized. I was 13, Mike even younger. So long ago we can’t recall the feel of the water, the solemnity of the sacrament.

“Would anyone like to renew their baptismal vows?” our friend asks this afternoon. Standing in the stream, scriptures set on a rock, he picks up a small bowl and dips it into the Zygaktis.

Mike and I look at each other, know, and make our way into the stream. Hand in hand, we hear the ancient words: “Have you received the free gift of salvation that is yours in Jesus Christ? Mike has asked this same question countless times to those standing before him in a baptismal tank or on a beach. Now it is our turn for the affirmation. We nod yes. Oh YES… “Then it is my privilege to baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The fresh river water is cold on our feet, warm on our heads. It runs down my cheeks. It tastes oddly of salt.