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Acts 16:16-34

When I was little, my parents took me to the zoo. They thought I’d be amazed by all the animals. They probably expected I’d make the sounds each animal made, or would be excited to see live animals I had only ever seen in books before. Instead, I saw a Styrofoam cup in the water near the hippos, and I was bothered by it.

“There’s a cup in the water!” I said.
“Yes, honey. But, look at the hippos!”
“But, there’s a cup in the water!” I insisted.
We had come to see the animals, but my eyes were glued to that out-of-place cup. I’m sure it was frustrating, and a little bit hilarious, for my parents. And, it was certainly a harbinger of things to come. I’ve always been pretty easily distracted, easily pulled away from what I should be focusing on. It’s easy for me to get “squirreled.” Sometimes that part of my personality comes in handy. I often notice things that other people might simply walk by without a glance. On the flip side, I can get stuck on a detail and miss the big picture.
I got to observe a “there’s a cup in the water!” moment on my son’s school field trip this past week. We had gone out on a nature hike in a remote area with the goal of seeing some birds, and maybe some wildlife. Even though our group of forty-three kids was hardly quiet, we still managed to see a heron, a kestrel, a banded kingfisher, and a pair of screeching hawks. One of the hawks we saw was clutching a snake as it hovered and circled over us.
We must have been near the hawk’s nest because it refused to land with the snake until we were out of sight, and so it circled our group with that snake in its clutches for a long time. Many of us continued hiking, but with our eyes glued to the hawk. I admit I was thinking, “I hope that hawk doesn’t let go!” But, walking with our eyes on that hawk rather than the what was in front of us meant we couldn’t see what dangers were close at hand.
“A snake! A snake!” a girl started screaming.
She had been walking with her eyes in the clouds instead of what was in front of her, and so she walked right on top of a bull snake on the ground. The ranger soothed her. Bull snakes are big, but they won’t hurt you. All was well. But, that “cup in the water” moment reminded me that getting distracted doesn’t always serve us well.
Or as Harper Lee famously wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
Our Scripture passage from Acts 16 offers us many opportunities to fixate on a cup in the water and miss the bigger picture. It’s a challenging passage with twists, turns, confusing bits, and a whole lot of power and privilege being thrown around. We can get hung up on details – like why did Paul allow himself to be so bothered by the slave girl’s message? Or, why didn’t Paul just tell the courts he was a Roman citizen so he could get out of being flogged and beaten? We can get caught up in questions the Scripture passage never intends to answer. Those questions are interesting, but they pull us away from where our focus needs to be.
I learned how easily it is to get caught on a rabbit trail with this passage as I looked at the Greek. What it translated as “a spirit of divination” in verse 16 literally reads “a Python spirit” in the Greek. What on earth does that mean?
If you know your Greek mythology, you might recognize the name Python. Python was a dragon-like creature charged with guarding the Oracle at Delphi. According to Greek mythology, the Oracle at Delphi was the most powerful oracle. She would speak on behalf of a god, and Python was guarding her. The mythological story continues that when Apollo was four days old, he slew Python. There is historical evidence that at some point before Christ, at Delphi women were chosen to be soothsayers or prophets on behalf of the Greek God, and these women were called the Pythia.
Here’s where we have to be careful not to focus on the cup in the water. We could follow rabbit trail after rabbit trail trying to understand exactly what Luke meant when he described this young slave girl as having a Python spirit. We could speculate, make guesses, and come up with all kinds of wild reasons for including that tidbit in this story. But, that cup in the water keeps us from looking at the larger picture.
Some men had a slave girl who had some kind of spirit that allowed her to tell the future, or at the very least speak some kind of mystical word. They made a lot of money off of this girl. She follows Paul and company around for days yelling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” What a strange thing for someone who was slave of another god to yell out. I wonder why she did this, but she yelled out for so long that Paul became annoyed with her. He turned to her and commanded the spirit to leave her in the name of Jesus Christ. And the spirit left.
This strange story lacks many traditional elements of exorcisms in the Bible. The girl’s owners don’t ask for the spirit to be cast out. No one in the crowd seems surprised by what happens. And, we don’t read that the Gospel was spread by what happened. A girl was crying out the truth, Paul gets annoyed with her, and the spirit is told to leave. And it does. Rather than the Gospel being spread, the girl’s owners were furious that their means of making money had just dried up. And so, they take Paul and company before the authorities, and accuse them of disturbing the city and advocating customs that weren’t lawful for Romans.
What customs might those have been exactly? Customs of exploiting young girls? Or making money at the expense of others? Or, could they have been upset that the girl they had been using was right – that Paul proclaimed a way of salvation? Maybe even a way of salvation for herself, salvation that meant freedom from exploitation?
As I read about the young girl causing Paul to be “very much annoyed,” I can’t help but think of the persistent widow Jesus told about who bothered the judge until she received justice. She pestered Paul daily until he acted. He acted perhaps out of very human motives – to get her to stop – but his action meant her owners could no longer exploit her for money. I wonder what happened to the girl after that, but as far as our passage is concerned, that is another “cup in the water” detail.
Angry about what Paul has done, the men who had been profiting off of the young girl haul Paul and company into the marketplace. They accuse them of terrorizing their city and encouraging people to live in ways that aren’t lawful for Romans.
Whether the accusations were true or not doesn’t really matter because the crowd and the magistrates attacked them, flogged them, and they were sent to prison.
While in prison, Paul and Silas are praying and singing hymns when an earthquake strikes that opens the prison doors and breaks off their shackles. In the morning, the jailer wakes up, sees the open doors, and assumes that everyone escaped on his watch. Rather than suffer whatever his fate might be for failing at his job, he decides to take his own life.
Paul shouted out, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
A sentence of profound grace.
From that point on, the jailer washes their wounds, and he and his whole household are baptized.
What if these two stories – of the girl with the spirit of divination and the jailbreak where the jailer ends up baptized – aren’t just about those cups in the water, those details that intrigue, delight, and cause us to wonder. What if these two stories teach us something about what it means to belong to each other? Even though the girl was a source of annoyance to Paul, they still belonged to each other. Even though the jailer was a worker for the empire, and even though Paul and Silas were teaching something against the empire’s ways, they still belonged to each other.
“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
We see you. We belong to each other. Don’t be afraid. Together, we’ll get through this.
One of my favorite things to do on a long car trip is to pull over at a rest area and look at the map. The maps used to be large, paper maps stretched tightly over corkboard. Now they are digital. But, they all still have a star or a sticker or an arrow that says, “You are here.” These stars and stickers locate us on the map. They show us where we are on our journey. Without seeing the broader picture, it can be easy to lose our way. And even though we are located at that star sticker, the point where we find ourselves is just one point among many in this beautiful world God has made.
You are here.
With those who irritate you by pleading for justice.
With those whose stories make us uncomfortable.
With the people who have made our lives more challenging.
With those who are powerful.
With those who are weak.
You are here.
We are all here.
I once heard a story about a little girl and a conversation she had with her mom. They were walking down the sidewalk together when they passed a group of mourners leaving a funeral service. A woman dressed in all black with a veil covering her face saw the little girl and said hello to the little girl, and called her by name. Later that evening, the little girl told her mother she had seen God.
“Where did you see God?” her mother asked.
“Today. When we walked outside the church.”
“How did you know it was God?” her mother asked.
The little girl said, “No one has ever seen God’s face, but God still knows our names.”
The little girl didn’t realize that the woman wearing the veil had been her Sunday School teacher, but her mother’s eyes were filled with tears anyway. There’s something profound about someone knowing our names – someone looking at us, listening, and hearing our stories. Someone who knows us. This is the opportunity presented to us in Acts 16 – the opportunity to remember that we belong to each other, we are invited to see and know each other, and even act in ways that defy logic and expectation to offer care to each other.
“Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
If your corner of the world was like a map, where would your “You are here” sticker be located? Whose paths cross your own, and whose stories are you being given the opportunity to hear?
We belong to God, and we belong to each other.
Wonderful, challenging news that may set us free from things we didn’t even know we were bound to.