A few days after Christmas, my sons and I traveled to Hershey Park for a brief jaunt. We stayed overnight at a local hotel, mostly because I don’t trust myself driving long distances at night when I am tired. In any case, this “staying overnight” piece would have been unremarkable, except for the hotel pool and my son nearly drowning.
I say this now on the other side of fear. Just as I was about to dip my toes into a very warm and welcoming public hot tub, I turned to hear my son gasping. It was one of those surreal moments when you question if what you are seeing is actually happening. So, I turn, and there is my little boy in the deep end of the pool frantically trying to keep his head above water. And it is clear that he is not succeeding.
Later we understood what had happened. His brother who is a bit more confident in the water had jumped in and started paddling with delight. Eli followed suit, but not so confidently, as he began to panic within a few moments of hitting the water—all swim lessons went out the window, though it appeared that he was trying to tread water despite his increasing panic.
But those of you who have panicked at what life has thrown at you will understand that one doesn’t exactly THINK in those moments; one does the instinctual thing, which is why emergency training for a crisis is to help someone override fear and immobility with an action plan that becomes instinctual and second nature. Stop, Drop, Roll is what we remember when fire gets too close. Stay, Answer, Whistle is what the Scouts teach when you are separated from a group while camping.
No such mental plan existed for my son, so he floundered in his panic. I took an agonizing breath and watched him for a half-minute, or so it seemed, and then instinctively dove in the water to get him, as the pool parents watched shaking their heads. I suppose that Eli could have pulled me under too, but instead he clung to me like the life preserver I was and I had neglected to throw. Surprisingly, I was calm under the stress of this moment; the fear of “oh my God, what just happened” didn’t hit until I went to bed that night, and then I clenched the sheets, sweating over what might have happened.
In any case, what struck me about this whole event was the way in which my son encircled me with his arms and legs and refused to let go. The feeling was mutual. I eventually persuaded him to move to the edge of the water and to move around the perimeter, but he would not trust the water to hold him, or himself. In the light of that moment, the hot tub which had previously enticed me looked less inviting and more menacing now.
It occurs to me that this story has something to do with baptism and how a bit of sprinkling on the forehead belies the deep water of faith in which we are immersed. Some of us, as infants, are little prepared to deal with its depths, though a family and a community of faith try to hold on to us until we can safely tread with confidence that God has us, truly HAS us, and we learn to float.
Later, when my son calmed down, we practiced floating, which was much harder now that my son had fought and struggled for his breath in the depths. So too, perhaps it is harder for us to trust God once we have felt betrayed by life or God, herself. We grasp at control and protest at our inability to get life to do a basic slow crawl or backstroke to our specifications. We blow the whistle and life refuses stop for us or rearrange its moves. The water grows choppy and we pant, kick, and throw ourselves against the current refusing to believe what the prophet Isaiah declares: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (vv. 2-3).
Baptism is an immersion, ultimately, in a way of life, a perspective, and into an ocean of grace. We, pastors, describe it as an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. Some of us have been immersed into Christianity by our parents or predecessors; some of us have been immersed by our marriage or relationships, and some of us by an active choice later in life. Yet, how we perceive this bit of water – whether shallow or deep—makes a world of difference. We can refuse to allow the grace that baptism represents to reach the depths of our lives—we can refuse to trust that God has us, in the many and varied messes that we make and keep swimming in puddles of problems without the overarching view that takes us beyond ourselves. Ultimately, we decide how and if we will float on this grace or wave our arms and legs in panic or futility.
Still, no one described to me the joy that my faith would bring. This is the little known secret. Religion can be a non-entity, a side-course, or little pool that one dips one’s foot into but never truly enters. Faith, on the other hand, can be a joyful thing. No one tells you this—it is discovered as you find the breathing space that faith affords in the claustrophobic spaces of life. You feel like you are drowning and, yet, you can still laugh. You are completely exhausted from the swim and yet you still want to do another lap. It’s akin to what Soren Kierkegaard describes as “simultaneously to be out on 70,000 fathoms of water and yet be joyful.”
And this has to do with coming to understand that one still has meaning and purpose, however big or small one actually feels from moment to moment. To know that there are others swimming at your side and who are shouting for your victory from the stands. To discover buoyancy when one feels weighted down by the responsibilities and agonies of modern life. To transcend. To connect. And to live, really live.
On this day of celebrating Jesus’ baptism, we would do well to remember our own ability (or inability) to float or to “freefall” into our Creator Spirit. The poet, Denise Levertov, writes in her poem, “The Avowal”:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Perhaps as humans who both struggle with and cling to God like my son in the pool, it is enough to avowal our willingness to float and to declare joy in the midst of these holy waters. Perhaps it is enough to move from the edges of this pool and make our way to the deeper waters with each other.
 Denise Levertov, journeywithjesus.net. Retrieved October 12, 2017.