Kurt Jacobson
8 min readApr 28, 2024

“Water That Is Thicker Than Blood”

April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26–40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “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? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

The status of the family in religious and cultural tradition is longstanding. Read the tribute to the long-serving public servant who is asked about his plans for retirement, and you will read “Spend more time with the family.” Churches pride themselves in being pro-family and lift up “family ministries” and “family worship” as a way to draw people, but also as integral to the nature and purposes of the Church.

The emphasis on families and family life can be alienating for some people. If perfect happy families are the ideal image of the Christian life, not everybody is able to measure up. For some, the experience of family life has been hurtful and negative. Others have longed to create families of their own, but for reasons unexpressed have been unable to partner or conceive a child. The more we enthrone the family as the center and pinnacle of the Christian life, the more some are left feeling outside the circle.

In the Acts story we encounter a person who saw himself on the outside of family focused religion. We are told he was a high ranking public official, a man of considerable political accomplishment, and probably quite wealthy as a result.

He was also a man with a hunger to find his place in the life of religious community. But he was not a Jew which immediately imposed the outsider status. He was also an Ethiopian, so we know the color of his skin. Another barrier.

He was also a eunuch. His genitals had been cut off, probably when he was a baby or a small boy. The practice of castrating boys of a certain servant class was common in the ancient world. Eunuchs were often the preferred candidates for various positions of political authority, precisely because of their inability to father a family. Their lack of family commitments made them more available to their monarchs, and their lack of offspring meant that there was no danger of them establishing any sort of rival dynasty.

Eunuchs were in demand as high officials of female monarchs because their obvious sexual impotence served to prevent salacious rumors about the relationships between the queen and her closest officials. And indeed the eunuch who we encounter in this story is a top official of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, so he certainly fits the description.

However, although being a eunuch may have had some political advantages in Ethiopia, it certainly had no social or religious advantages in Jerusalem. Bearing offspring was socially essential in Jewish society. A eunuch, being unable to father children, was pitied and despised, and regarded with deep suspicion for his abnormal sexuality. His social acceptability has literally been “cut off.” And when it comes to religious participation, he is legally “cut off.” The law of Moses was quite explicit on this: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:1).

So what was this Ethiopian eunuch doing making a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem? Wouldn’t he know that he would be refused entry? Probably. But he would also, in all likelihood be a man with a pretty powerful desire to find a place of belonging, a place of acceptance, a place where he was not cut off on racial and sexual grounds. And perhaps he had found reason to think that the God of Israel might accept him. Afterall, when we meet him, he is sitting in his chariot reading the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and not far from the passage he is reading when we meet him, we find the following promise:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people;”

and 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 56:3–5

There is that word play again — it must have been common in those days — “not be cut off.” For a eunuch, whose biological future and social present had been “cut off,” the promise of a welcome and an everlasting name that shall never be “cut off” was a promise too good to resist exploring. Perhaps he had come to Jerusalem in search of a people of God who had assembled as a living embodiment of that promise. But when we meet him, he is on his way home, and his questions are yet unanswered.

And now, as Philip draws alongside, the eunuch is scouring the words of Isaiah again:

“By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” -Isaiah 53:8

He was “cut off” from the land of the living. “Cut off,” there it is again. Who is the prophet Isaiah talking about, the eunuch wonders aloud. Who is this one who I can relate to so well, this one who has been cut off and despised by people, but who will be accepted and honored by God? Who is this “cut off” one, and could he usher another cut-off one like me into the life-giving presence of God?

“Yes,” says Philip. “He could!” And starting with the words of Isaiah, Philip explains the good news of God’s love and acceptance made known in Jesus the Messiah.

The story is remarkably brief here. We are told that Philip explains the good news, and then immediately we are told that the African eunuch spots a waterhole by the side of the road and asks if there is anything to prevent him being baptized right now. And there was not, so they stop the chariot and Philip baptizes him on the spot.

It is telling how the eunuch asks the question. “Is there anything to prevent me?” He is so used to hearing the promises and then being cut off from access to them, that it is as though he cannot quite believe that the same is not about to happen again. But it does not. This time he is welcomed into the family of God’s people. This time he is not refused the rite by which a person is adopted into the family. And given that it is crucial to the point Luke (the author of Acts) is making — a point which he makes over and over throughout his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles — that this man had been excluded on both racial and sexual grounds, it is highly significant that we are not told that there were any conditions put on his acceptance for baptism. Luke is no stranger to the language of repentance, but on this occasion, he chooses not to use it. Those who are racially or sexually different from us are not offered an acceptance that is stridently conditional on their willingness to behave like us.

This new family is not founded on conformity to the established family values. And for people who have been loyal followers of established family values, those who have not found themselves on the wrong side of racial or sexual or behavioral norms, that is a challenge. We are being called, plainly, to make sure we do not turn the new family of God into a mirror of the old exclusive families of favored bloodlines and clear boundaries and exclusive inheritance rights.

But some people come to this story from the other side. Though not physically castrated, some know what it is to be “cut off,” to be unable to fit the stereotypes of picture perfect family lifestyle. They have found themselves cut off by dysfunctional families, or broken marriages, or lack of opportunity, or homosexuality, or disability, or any number of other reasons that have left them unable to participate in the lifestyle that society has baptized as the life of the blessed ones. And far too many people have tragically encountered churches that mirrored, not the reckless acceptance of God, but the exclusive aspirations of society, and have found themselves held at arm’s length or even actively shunned by those who claim to be following Jesus.

For all who come to this story from that side, identifying with the “cut off,” there is a wonderful promise of hope here. Even if God’s people sometimes fail to embody it, God is more than ready to welcome people into the family. God welcomes with open arms, and takes the “cut off” without hesitation to the waters of baptism where they are formally adopted into the new family that gathers around Jesus the Messiah.

It is strange but true that the faith of Jesus is actually quite unimpressed with the importance of traditional families. Jesus speaks quite dismissively of family ties, and in the culture of his day, which was even more radical than it would be now.

The early church was frequently criticized as being a threat to the family in family-centered Roman society. Jesus does not give much credence to the idea that blood is thicker than water. But he does speak of a new type of family where all who follow the will of God are his mother and siblings. And the way into this new family, open even to those who have always before been cut off, is through Jesus the Messiah and being adopted through the waters of baptism.

This news may be a stumbling block if you have done well in the happy family game, but to all who have known what it is to be cut off, this is the most extraordinarily good news. Much to our surprise and against all conventional wisdom, in the new family of Jesus the Messiah, water turns out to be thicker than blood!

Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.