Elizabeth was quiet as they hurried back to Sara’s home.
“What are you thinking?”
“It’s best you don’t know,” Elizabeth replied gently.
“Are you going to do anything?” Rachel asked fearfully.
“No, child," she reassured her older daughter, then she thought, ‘perhaps when you and Esther are married maybe I will...’ then she cut off the thought. It was too dangerous to pursue.
“Don’t you want to know what I thought of the meeting?”
Surprised, Elizabeth turned to look at her daughter. “I’m not sure,” she replied.
“He speaks of God as if he knows Him personally,” Rachel told her anyway, then added hurriedly. “The people at the meeting… the whole family sit and learn together. At the farm, only the men go to hear the rabbi. Here, the man they call the Apostle talks to people as though they are friends. I remember Timon complaining that the rabbi read from the Torah, then told them what some famous scholar said. Timon said he could not understand what he said.”
“If you were listening to conversations that you should not have heard, you should not be repeating them.”
“I know, but it is hard to think that what we have just heard is the same.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the same. He was not reading from the Torah, he was telling people about something he remembered seeing.” Elizabeth cut her words off there, fearful of where they might lead.
“The great-grandson spoke to me as though I was a person,” Rachel said, remembering the comments that had rankled her over the years. Asaph telling her that her only value is as a wife...and Thomas’ reply, ‘and not much value at that.”
“Be careful, child.”
“I could say the same to you,” Rachel said softly.
Elizabeth glanced at her to see if she was being insolent... but saw only concern, and some distress on her daughter’s lovely features.
“We will talk another time, for now we must be careful what we say. I don’t want any words between us overheard in my sister’s home.”
As they approached the gate to Sarah’s home, Elizabeth took Rachel’s hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Don’t worry. I am not going to leave my lovely girls.” It was evident that Rachel had not noticed Rhea at the meeting, and she was not going to tell her. However, she did have to talk with the woman.
Bracha met them with the news that their clothing would be dry by the time they left in the morning.
“Thank you very much, child, the journey back will be dusty again and we appreciate that we will be able to change into clean clothing.”
“Did you have a good walk?” Rhea asked as she met them in the passageway.
Studying the Greek woman carefully, Elizabeth thought for a moment. Was the woman going to pretend neither of them had been there? Deciding to respond in kind, she replied, “Yes, thank you, and the aches seem to have gone as well.” She was not lying. They had walked, and she had sat on the floor of the meeting room, but strangely she no longer had the aches from bouncing around in the cart.
“The mixture for Jacob has cooled and is straining through fine mesh now. It will be ready for you in the morning, Rhea said as she watched Elizabeth.
Needing time alone to think, Rachel asked, “Would it be alright if I sat in the garden for a while?”
“There is a small bench near the herb garden where your aunt liked to sit. It is very relaxing to be among the fragrant herbs. You are welcome to sit there.” She wondered what the young girl had thought of the meeting, and whether both mother and daughter had wanted to attend. If not both, which one?
Rachel looked to her mother for approval.
“I do not mind, my dear.”
“If you go out to the herb garden, you will see the bench,” Rhea walked to the door with Rachel and pointed out the corner where the bench was.
“Thank you, I just want to sit and think.” Her mind was brimming with competing thoughts and sensations. She needed to sit, sift through them, try and make sense of them.
Walking back indoors, Rhea said to Elizabeth, “I will have the evening meal prepared soon as you are leaving early. But first I am going to the storeroom to check that the mixture is straining correctly.”
Was this a hint that she would admit to being at the meeting?
“I will also make a mixture for you to use on the aches after your return journey. Would you like to come with me while I make it?”
Recognizing that she was being given an opportunity to find out what Rhea thought of her being at that meeting, Elizabeth replied nervously, “Yes, I think we need to talk, without being overheard.” Her hands felt clammy as she followed the stately woman to the kitchen storeroom.
Rhea stopped to give instructions to Bracha, then led Elizabeth to her storeroom. Postponing any conversation between them, she walked quickly over to the containers on her marble bench.
Elizabeth watched, wondering what to say. When it became apparent that Rhea was not going to speak first, Elizabeth drew a nervous breath, “I was surprised to see you at that meeting this afternoon.”
“Not as surprised as I was to see you.”
They stared at each other for a few moments.
“All these years you would not convert...”
“You have been such a ‘Jewish’ wife and mother...”
Both spoke at the same time, then there was an awkward silence.
“I am only working here while Mistress Sara and Master Micah are away,” Rhea explained.
“I do not understand. You mean you no longer live here? You no longer work for my sister and her husband?”
“No, I moved into a fellowship home some months ago. As a favor to the master and mistress, I said I would return to look after their home while they and the servants are away at your festival. That is why I am here now. I will return to my home when the servants come back. So you see, I too am in temporary accommodation. There is little to do and I have been able to attend all the meetings during this Feast of Tabernacles.”
Elizabeth looked as she felt, astounded.
“You must know that followers of the Way keep the same festivals you do. You came to our festival meeting.”
Elizabeth nodded, speechless.
Reaching to push back a stray wisp of hair, Rhea explained, “I have been a follower of the Way since last year. For the most part, the beliefs are the same. We are not bound by all the Pharisaic laws but the major difference in our beliefs is the matter of the Messiah… Jesus. When I needed to keep our Christian Passover, it was not a problem.” She was so involved in her work, she didn’t notice Elizabeth’s stunned expression, and continued. “I had never been involved in the Jewish commemoration, and never served at table; that was not my role in the house, so no one missed me.” She turned and glanced at Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s eyebrows were raised. Where did she start with her questions? Dare she ask if Rhea had hidden this from Sara?
Reading the expression on Elizabeth’s face, Rhea explained, “I had no need to tell the master and mistress. As far as they were concerned, nothing was different.” She turned and selected some pottery jars, “I should start preparing the mixture for you.”
Was this all Rhea was going to say? Elizabeth wondered. Time was passing, Rachel might come looking for her, and nothing had been said about what Rhea thought of Elizabeth being at that meeting. Rachel did not know Rhea had been there, or she would have been as disturbed as her mother was now.
The smell of the liniment that Rhea was mixing drifted into the air. Then Rhea continued speaking as she worked, “I had all I needed here. I had no one beyond this family, only Aminta. Sara and Micah paid me fairly, but I never spent much. I knew the day would come when I would no longer be needed. Your sister never had a child of her own. So, over the years, I saved most of my money.” She sighed, “Then Aminta was grown and married.”
“In truth, you were the one who raised her. I know my sister loves her, but you were always there to support my niece.”
As inscrutable as ever, Rhea turned slightly and bowed her head in acknowledgment of the comment. “When I returned from Joanna’s farm, Sara put me in charge of training the new maids, but really there was little for me to do. Yes, I made all the treatments for the various ailments, but I knew it was time to go.” She did not explain that the matter of the Messiah would eventually cause problems between her and her employers. If Elizabeth did not understand that, explaining would do no good. “So that was when things were put in motion for me to move to what has become a fellowship house.”
“What do you mean, a fellowship house? Do you mind telling me?”
“I had enough money to buy a small home on the outskirts of this village. After I was baptized...”
“Yes,” Rhea knew that this had been a contentious issue for Jews, so did not want to belabor it. She continued, “After I was baptized, and after Passover, I wanted to move from here. Mary, a widow from the group I meet with, also wanted a home. We put our money together and bought a large house. No one wanted it, the owner had died some time before, the family did not want it; had not maintained it, so it was not expensive.” Completing the first stages of her preparation, Rhea stoppered the jars and turned to face Elizabeth. “The members of the group we are part of came and helped us with the repairs, did what was needed to make it suitable for us. With the extra rooms we have, we take in young people who, for various reasons, have no homes. Some are the children of people who were killed by pagans or sent to the lions. Bracha and her brother are two of those young people. They have come here to help, as I have, while your sister’s servants are keeping their Jewish Feast.” With a considering look, she added, “We also offer a home to people who have been cast out of their family for having embraced our beliefs. That is what I mean by ‘fellowship house.’ Mary and I make our home available to brethren who have need of a home.”
Elizabeth was speechless.
“So, why were you at the meeting?” Rhea asked. “Have you forsaken Judaism?”
Swallowing, Elizabeth struggled for words. If Rhea spoke of this to Sara on her return...
Pity welled up in the Greek servant for this sister of her mistress, who had come all the way from the farm to ask for help for a baby nephew she had never met before.
“I... we... Rachel and I...”
“You are not of the Way are you?”
“No.” Elizabeth was grateful that Rhea had said it. Raising fear-filled eyes to the woman, she explained, “That old man, the one who was speaking, is a customer of my father-in-law, he buys parchment, inks...”
“I remember. The Apostle John is writing his memories of the Messiah.”
Elizabeth tried not to cringe at Rhea’s continuing reference to the ‘messiah’. “Do you remember that I have two daughters?”
“Yes, your sister mentioned it. One had the breathing sickness, or was it a problem with her heart? I do not have the skill to heal those conditions. Perhaps I could have made a mixture for her to ease her breathing, but not without knowing a lot more about what ails her.”
“That is why I was at the meeting. My younger daughter, the one who was not well, she is well now.” Elizabeth was nervous, and not sure she was explaining correctly.
Rhea’s forehead furrowed as she tried to work out what Elizabeth was saying.
“That old man was in the shop one day when Esther had a severe attack. In fact, I thought she was dead. He came through to the house… my father-in-law brought him. The old man prayed for her and she recovered. She has never been ill since.”
“Praise God,” Rhea said quietly.
“But that is the point. Who’s God? The rabbis prayed for Esther many times, but she did not improve. In fact, after the Feast of Weeks she began to have the breathing attacks, or whatever they were, every day. I feared for her. I had already lost one child, my first, a son. I did not want to lose another.”
“She has been well since the Apostle prayed for her?”
“She has. Since then, I have wanted to know why his prayer was answered but none of the rabbis’ prayers were.” She did not say that she had gone to visit him at his home but had been left with more questions. “So, when I saw the crowd, and young Timothy told me where they were going, I felt I had to go.”
“And your daughter, the one with you... did she also feel she needed to go?”
“I can answer that,” Rachel said.
Both women spun around, “I did not know you were there.”
“I have not been here long. But long enough to know that you are one of those believers, Rhea... and you know we were there.”
Head slightly to the side, Rhea studied the girl as she moved through the doorway. “So what is your answer? Did you feel you needed to go?”
“No, I did not, although I admit to being very puzzled about Esther’s healing. I was there when it happened. I saw the old man pray for her. And I do believe Aima is correct, Esther is better than she has ever been in her life. But I also know that my father, my family, the rabbis, many of our regular customers, all believe that this man, and those who follow him, are heretics.”
“And you, do you believe that?”
Sighing deeply, Rachel looked at the floor and said softly, “I do not know what to think. I was shocked when Aima decided to go listen to him. I went... I went... because I wanted to hear what she heard.”
“Now that you have heard him?”
“I am even more puzzled.” Rachel raised her head and looked at Rhea. “He speaks as though he knows God as a friend. He spoke with authority. Whole families sit together to listen.”
“Whole families worship God because He loved the world so much He sent the Messiah. The Apostle John was one of the people the Messiah commissioned to tell the world.”
“The rabbis are the people God has sent, to keep us in the faith that God gave to Moses. I have heard my father, grandfather and brother talking.”
“What you Jews follow is Judaism, not Moses,” Rhea said forcefully, “I had so many questions when God first began calling me to follow Him. Remember, I had lived in this home since before your cousin Aminta was born. I was her mother’s servant. I kept the rules, but that is all I did. And that is why I never converted to your faith. It was only rules.”
Rachel stared at the floor.
Rhea went on, “‘Only walk a certain distance on the Sabbath day’; ‘do not carry anything more than a certain weight on the Sabbath day’. All those rules about the washing of bowls, and if a rabbi visited this home, I could not touch anything that would be used by him.” She paused briefly, then carried on, “In the Way we also have laws. God’s laws, but they are rules by which we live, not onerous Pharisaic instructions that do not help our growth in the faith. God’s laws guide us in the way we should live our lives. God’s gift of grace saves people, but because of that grace, and His love, we want to live the same way His Son did. And yes, we keep the Sabbath, the food laws, and the commanded festivals. What you attended today was a fellowship meeting during the Feast of Tabernacles. Normally, I was told, there would not have been two meetings on the sixth day. That was because people wanted to hear more of the Apostle John before he returned to Ephesus. We are a large group with our own deacons and an elder, but quite far from Ephesus. We were so excited the Apostle came to teach us.”
Elizabeth stared. She did not know whether she was shocked or angry at Rhea’s conversation with Rachel. She had never heard her sister’s servant say so much in all the time she had known her. She wanted to stop it. “I think you might be confusing my daughter.”
Rachel turned to look at her mother. Confused was correct. What they had attended was their... teaching... during the Feast of Tabernacles? Again she marveled; meetings where women and children were allowed? Only the men attended the teaching with the rabbi and scholars at the farm; she supposed it was the same in Ephesus. In spite of her time alone, trying to work things out, she still could not make sense of it.
“I think you are correct, Elizabeth,” Rhea conceded, “I said too much, and I apologize, I did not mean to confuse you.”
“It is time to eat,” Bracha said softly as she approached the doorway.
“Please, go and have your meal. You will want to retire early because you are leaving soon after dawn.”
“Are you not eating with us?” Elizabeth asked.
“No, I will eat later. I will finish my work here. In the morning, I will give you the mixture for the baby. I am also going to make a calming mixture for Aminta. With the scare she has suffered, she will need something. They will be in different jars,” she smiled, before continuing, “And for the aches of the return trip, I will make you some liniment.”
“Thank you,” Elizabeth replied.
Watching Rachel follow her mother, Rhea could see she had not yet shown the signs of womanhood. She would not say anything, or they would believe her to be a witch. Smiling to herself she thought how superstitious many of the people were. It did not take magic or witchcraft to see that the girl still had a child’s body. She turned back to her work at the bench and reminded herself that she must reassure those two in the morning that she would say nothing of their attendance at the meeting.
It was not until after they had eaten and were in the bedroom they shared, that Rachel and Elizabeth felt comfortable enough to talk about their experience, and what Rhea had said. “Did you see Rhea there... at the meeting?” Rachel asked.
“I saw her come in, she was late. I was so shocked to see her there, but I wanted to hear what that man had to say. It was, after all, why I had risked going there.”
“I wonder if she will tell anyone. She might mention it to the other servants, then Aunt Sara or Uncle Micah might hear...”
“Come, let me braid your hair so it doesn’t tangle while you sleep, and I will tell you all that Rhea said.”
While they prepared for bed, Elizabeth related what Rhea had told her.
“So, Rhea doesn’t live here anymore,” Rachel said thoughtfully at the end of the tale.
“No, and neither does Bracha nor her brother. Besides, I do not think they know where we went.”
“Abba would be so angry if he found out.”
“We will have to make sure that he does not find out. Anyway, it will take him some time to travel from Patara after the festival is over. Now, we should settle down and try to sleep.”
“I wonder if Jacob...”
“The old man prayed for him, Rachel.”
“Would they have sent someone to tell us?”
“I doubt there would have been anyone to spare. It was difficult for them to spare Thaddeus.”
“Then we would not know if he... died. Jacob, I mean.”
Elizabeth nodded but did not want them to go to sleep on such a thought. “Nor would we know if he had been healed.”
Rachel yawned and lay down on her pallet. Soon after her mother did the same. “I wonder if the old man arrived home safely,” Rachel mumbled sleepily. “His great-grandson was concerned about Roman soldiers, and them making it home before sunset.”
Her mother did not reply, she had fallen asleep as soon as she had laid down. It had been a long day, and an anxious one.
Rachel drifted off to sleep thinking of the great-grandson and, wondering what he meant about the Roman soldiers. She almost woke herself up when she remembered the comment she had overheard as she arrived at the meeting. Something about hoping the Romans would leave them in peace and the response that lookouts were posted. The Romans did not trouble the Jews, why would they bother this group if they kept the same laws? She yawned, turned on her side and fell asleep still wondering what it all meant.