The Scottish writer, William Boyd, once asked, “Do we change every time we have a new encounter? Are we endlessly mutable?” He goes on to say, “I think these are fascinating questions: it’s a rich vein to tap, and I don’t think I have exhausted it fully yet.” An encounter is defined as a chance or brief meeting, yet it can also refer to a meeting with someone or something potentially hostile or conflictual. Of those seemingly random encounters that we have with folks on a daily basis, how many are Spirit-led encounters that will possibly change us and another person, and how open are we actually to being encountered?
To encounter someone is to encounter difference and, to some degree, to approach face-to-face our willingness to be changed because of this interaction. Mutual encounters are ones in which we are mutually open to being changed—our viewpoints, our knowledge base, our affections, and our reactions.
Take for example, our scripture today about the Ethiopian eunuch. This passage from Acts is a beloved story from scripture because of the openness with which both the eunuch and the disciple, Philip, approach the exchange. However, this is no chance encounter…Philip is sent by an angel of the Lord, or by a deep internal nudge, to take the road away from Jerusalem to Gaza. It is a “wilderness road” which is key that anything or anyone might be encountered on this road. Philip does what some of us do when we are compelled by motives that seem other-worldly or foreign to us; we risk leaving the familiar, the customary, and the tried-and-true to encounter something new and different. So, the first thing to notice is that Philip was open to the Spirit sending him places that were potentially uncomfortable and unknown to him. On a wilderness road, anything can happen.
On the road, Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. This eunuch wasn’t just any eunuch, but someone serving Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians. He was a court official, an insider, and wealthy to boot. How do we know this? For one thing, he is riding in a chariot and not walking, and he is reading from a scroll—which means he isn’t driving the chariot while reading. That means has enough wealth to have chariot, to be able to read, and to afford his own scrolls.
Compelled by the Spirit, Philip runs up to the chariot and ventures a conversation with the eunuch. He has overheard the eunuch reading the scripture from Isaiah aloud and takes a chance in asking the about his reading material.
I am reminded of all the chance encounters that we have with strangers or even acquaintances on any given day—during our commute, or in a waiting room, or standing and waiting for the metro or bus. Do we attempt conversation, or do we remain reticent, assuming that conversation will only expose our differences more than our similarities? Or are we somewhat guarded, believing that the conversation will prove less than fruitful, or a waste of our time? And if we tend to remain reticent with strangers, how mutual are our conversations with our family and friends, those to whom we are drawn or more closely connected?
In any case, Philip’s question prompts the eunuch to invite Philip into his chariot for conversation. One commentator imagines that if this were to happen today, it would be like a prominent ambassador picking up a street preacher while journeying home from an event.
The passage from Isaiah is notable. But first we need to talk a bit about eunuchs. A eunuch is a neutered male, most often castrated, which was likely done before a boy reached puberty. In ancient times, eunuchs were entrusted with certain social functions in a royal court; they were perceived as non-threatening to the court due to their sexual status. This particular Ethiopian eunuch was likely a Jewish follower who was returning from worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem, or a God-fearer, who believed but who was Gentile. Either way, the eunuch’s sexual status would have prohibited him from worshipping inside the Temple, as he was considered unclean. The eunuch was a sexual minority, marginalized, and one who would have had intimate knowledge of suffering.
The eunuch struggles to understand the passage from Isaiah as he reads aloud: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him…Who can describe his generation?” Naturally, the eunuch wants to know about and for whom are these words? Are they about the man who wrote this passage (the prophet), or could they also be about himself?
How many times have we read scripture or another holy text and wondered if the text was describing not only the subject matter at hand, but also ourselves? Sometimes words can hit such a clear and true note that they resonate long and deeply. We get goose-bumps wondering how the words can read us so very well. We catch glimpses of ourselves and hear the Spirit whispering to us, “This. THIS. Look here. Pay attention.”
The bible can be read for the story, yes. But if we invite the text also to read us, then we find a different and deeper kind of encounter. This is what is happening here between the words of Isaiah, the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip, and the Spirit, who always has our best interests at heart. The passage from Isaiah describes suffering and a denial of justice. The eunuch has known humiliation, but he does not yet know that Jesus has shared that humiliation and that suffering as well. What he does not yet know, and Philip shares with him, is that God has stepped into his suffering, pain, and injustice too.
It is important to note that Philip doesn’t impose himself on the eunuch, but answers the eunuch’s questions, as the eunuch feels called to ask. Sometimes, in our encounters with others, we will attempt to answer questions that have not been asked. We venture information that the other person may not want or even need. And conversely, no matter how generous of spirit we think we may be, we may not actually welcome the kinds of questions that the other person chooses to ask—we may rather try to fix a problem that really isn’t a problem for the other person, or offer information that is more about “us,” than what is truly needed. In either case, we must be better attuned to what the person actually wants…and many, many times, it is just to be able to hear themselves ask their own unique questions or to be able to find themselves in the conversation. Our work and our joy is to listen and to inquire for clarification.
A mutual encounter is one in which we are as open to being changed as the other person. The eunuch learns through his encounter with Philip that he belongs to the religious community in a way that he has not known before. The passage from Isaiah is full of hope for the eunuch; deliverance will come. Just a few verses later, the eunuch will later hear the comforting words,
“Do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For 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
that shall not be cut off.”(Isaiah 56:3a-5)
How can the eunuch not take these words personally? How could he not see God in his plight? Philip helps the eunuch to see not just himself in these words, but also Jesus, and therefore companionship. He is not alone in the things that he has experienced, nor the hopes to which he aspires. There is One who knows the depth of his experience and the depth of his internal pain. As a result, the Ethiopian eunuch is changed. As a result, he will return home rejoicing because he has seen that the scripture has a good word for him too. He has seen that he belongs to God’s assembly, not some time in the future, but now.
However, the Ethiopian eunuch is not the only one changed by this encounter. At one point, upon seeing water, he asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” If we really think about it, there was quite a lot to prevent the eunuch from being baptized—even as a believer, he was seen as “other,” a foreign believer, but also seen “other” due to sexual norms. There were scriptures from Deuteronomy that intentionally and previously excluded him—yet, this man, this Philip, this co-believer, said that he belonged and interpreted other scriptures from Isaiah to include, and not exclude, him. What was to prevent him from being baptized into the faith that he studied and appreciated? Nothing. What was to separate him from the God that he worshiped? Nothing. Philip likely realized this too, which is why, as a response to that question, they commanded the chariot to stop, and they paused in their sojourn for a baptismal ritual along that wilderness road. As a result of the eunuch being baptized, the church that was in its formative years changed. As a result of the eunuch being baptized, the Jesus movement became even more inclusive and crossed even more arbitrary borders: status, race, nationality, and sexual difference.
In the year 2000, the first Human Library opened in Denmark to help people to encounter each other in a safe, non-confrontational setting. The concept is simple: instead of checking out paper or audio books, for 30 minutes you can sit down and talk with a human “book” who has volunteered to share their story with you. The idea has caught on in more than 70 countries and is having an impact. The founder of the Human Library, Ronni Abergel, says that all of the books of this human library represent groups in society that are facing stigma, stereotyping, or even prejudices” The Human Library concept is about offering people as books, a sort of Human Books to be lent out to curious readers who will ask them questions and challenge their perceptions on different groups in the community. The purpose of the Human Library is to challenge what we think we know about other members of the community. It is to challenge our stereotypes and prejudices in a positive framework, where difficult questions are accepted, expected and appreciated.
Brothers and sisters, if you were to be a human “book,” what would your title be? Do we pray to be opened like the Ethiopian eunuch who sought spiritual understanding? Would you be open to the Spirit like Philip and willing to encounter difference that stretched beyond your own experience and your own understanding?
Friends, when we encounter others this week, may we risk being encountered as well. May the Spirit lead us in ways that bring alive the message and hope of God in Christ. Amen.
 From the official facebook page of the Human Library https://www.facebook.com/pg/humanlibraryorg/about/?ref=page_internal and from http://humanlibrary.org/
See also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HmmEdf8MLw