In It With Me
Where I grew up, this season of very cold weather always brought with it a certainty about at least one thing you would be doing at school. During the more pleasant seasons of the year, phys. ed. class generally meant some kind of outdoor activity; but when the snow built up outside and the temperature dropped, you knew that when your hour for phys. ed. came around you were going to be taken to the natatorium, which was a big word used by the school district to hide from you the fact that in the coldest weeks of the year you were going to go swimming.
Now, you would certainly not know this looking at me, but I come from a family of remarkably accomplished swimmers. My Indiana cousins were all amazing athletes, and some of them even swam at the collegiate level. So there was a certain kind of familial expectation about my seaworthiness. But to my mother’s unending disappointment, God did not design me to be a sleek swimmer. I am better suited for ballast.
January swim class for me was a trial to be endured. Apart from the sheer humiliation of it all, the only exercise I managed to get out of it was from the exertion of trying to just plain survive in the water. My mind was somehow perfectly tuned to focus on all the different ways it might be possible to drown in the middle-school pool.
It was a student teacher who redeemed the whole experience for me by doing the simplest of all possible things, which was, of course, to get in the pool with me, and to do something other than simply yelling from the pool deck. I can’t remember anything about him—not his name, not really anything—but I will never forget his calmness and patience. He understood that the challenge for me was chiefly mental, not physical, and he helped me calm down enough to get focused on learning how to swim.
This is why it never surprises me when babies scream in my ears when they’re baptized. I don’t blame them one single bit. That water is dangerous.
Saint Paul would have approved enthusiastically of my view on swimming. In his letter to the church in Rome Paul describes baptism as a death—a death by water. It’s not a sweet sort of washing away of something; it is a drowning of an old self in order to rise into a new, a reborn self. Through our baptism, Paul said, we join in Christ’s death, exactly so that we have the assurance of joining in his resurrection as well.
That’s why our baptism is serious stuff—deadly serious stuff. And that’s why we take this moment each year to remember that Jesus begins his own ministry, just like we begin ours, by means of being baptized.
Yesterday, the Epiphany, we celebrated the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah promised in God’s covenant. But today we celebrate something very different—the way that Jesus enters fully into our personhood, enters the stormy waters of our lives right alongside us and helps us to find the strength and the focus to swim.
In the version of the story we heard today, we don’t get the longer exchange of views between Jesus and his cousin John on the question of whether he should be baptized. But never forget that in insisting on entering into the waters, Jesus is insisting as well on entering fully into this messy, scary, dangerous, human life of ours—this life that can more often than not feel, not like a calming swim, but like a thrashing struggle to keep our heads above the water.
That is part of the promise we receive when we pass through the waters of baptism—that there is nowhere we can go, no trouble we can be in and no joy we can experience, that Jesus has not entered into with us. We get that to keep when we get baptized.
But this isn’t a one-way promise. Baptism is a two-way promise. It is a covenant we make, or that gets made for us if we’re too small when we’re baptized.
If the promise we get is that Jesus will be in it with us no matter what, the promise we make is that we’ll be in the world as Jesus people. It’s a promise that just like Jesus won’t abandon us, no matter what, we won’t deny our Christian identity, or the claims we have taken on willingly in being baptized, no matter what.
It’s a promise that we will treat each person with dignity; that we will live as though we’re aware of how precious and amazing the whole creation is; that we will stay together with other Christians in a community called the church; that we will work not just to point out where the institutions we build in the world fall short of treating people as worthy of dignity, but help to fix them so that they will.
The good news of this day, of having to plunge into the water in the midst of the incredible cold, is that God is in it with us, no matter what. And the challenge for all of us is to be in it with God, too. Amen.