I spent all of my high school and college summers working at our local pool in Richmond, VA as a life guard and swim instructor. I love water and swimming and teaching others to swim is one of my great joys. My favorite class to teach was “Ducks,” a water introduction class for three and four year olds. We would line up along the pool edge and practice kicking. We’d blow bubbles, play motor boat, motor boat, and as the children became more comfortable with being in the water, we’d work on going all the way under. At first we’d stand in the shallow end (above their heads) where we would practice bobbing up and down getting chins wet, maybe our mouths. We’d practice holding breath above water. And then we’d go for full immersion. For some kids, it was easy – I’d hold them under their arms and together we’d count, hold our breaths, and go down together, then pop back up laughing and smiling, shaking our heads to clear the water. For others, it was just terrifying, and sometimes it would take two or three classes before they even wanted to try. One of my favorite students, Kate – was in this latter group. She was the youngest child in a large family and there was just no way she was going to put her whole head in the water; she’d put her face in to blow bubbles but that was it. When it was time to practice going all the way under, she’d think about it for a bit then say no. But she kept coming to class, and in her second year, at age 4, we tried again. First, holding on tight, getting her courage up (saying not yet), and then one day it happened. I held on to her, we counted to three, held our breath, and down we went to emerge from the water triumphant – laughing and cheering when we came up.
Anne Lamott’s description of baptism in her book Traveling Mercies echoes this experience. “It’s about full immersion,” she writes, “about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain, in tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time, it is also holy and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum, and get drenched.”
We get drenched. Baptism surprises and disorients us. Just last week, I had a front row view of the baptisms of Ansel and George. As Andrew poured the water into the bowl, both of them reached toward the water with curious eyes – very interested in what was happening. When Andrew held them and cupped the water to splash it on their heads, those looks changed. Eyes got big. Faces looked a little concerned. And dear Ansel scrunched up his face, closed his eyes, and began crying. What seemed so inviting was all of a sudden scary. And doesn’t that make perfect sense. We emerge from the water changed forever, hearing that we are loved, we are known, we are welcomed. There is something deeply intimate and deeply vulnerable about this act- something that connects us indelibly to God and each other.
In our gospel today, Jesus goes to John asking to be baptized. After engaging in a bit of a theological argument about who should be baptizing whom, Jesus says no, you must baptize me. Through his baptism, Jesus joins himself to us as one without sin, but who shares in our humanity.
Picture the scene with me – there were likely crowds of people. John’s ministry was well known and many were coming for his baptism of repentance. Entering the waters of the Jordan. Perhaps as the pictures show, leaning back into John’s arms going fully under. Leaving the water, perhaps, holding on to others. Shaking off the water; clearing their eyes. Hugging the ones they came with as they return to the shore.
But something different happens when Jesus emerges from that river, a voice from the heavens (a voice I don’t envision as booming but the quiet voice that commands attention) – “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am pleased.” The ancient words of Isaiah we hear today echoes this calling – “here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights.” God is claiming Jesus as his own – my son, my beloved, the one in whom I delight.
And God tells us the same at our baptism, “My child, I love you; you are mine; I am pleased with you. I delight in you.” Take a minute and bask in these words. Andrew and Brian, I delight in you. Colin, Diane, Sarah, I love you. Annie, you are mine. Keith, I am pleased with you. What do you feel when you hear these words from God. Such intimacy, such tenderness, and at the same time, a little scary. It can be hard to acknowledge our belovedness, to embrace the words that have no conditions, to accept the invitation to dive deep with God.
The water may look inviting – the surface may be smooth, the coolness soothing, the gentle sounds welcoming. Yet we know full well that water is dynamic and can change with the shift of the wind (witness Lake Michigan yesterday) – rolling waves, pounding and eroding the land around it, sounds that crash and boom. Water can be unpredictable, can be terrifying – and can soothe and comfort us. It can make us hesitate to go all in – even when the conditions are clear.
Do we take the plunge or not? Do we get all wet and messy. Do we take the risk of going under not quite sure who we will be when we come up. For each of us, we must choose each day plunge into the promises made at our baptism. And living out our baptismal vows can be both exhilarating and terrifying. The promises we make at baptism are a road map for living. For at our baptism, we promised to be part of a community of faith – following in the way of the apostles and sharing in the breaking of the bread. We promised to ask forgiveness when we turn away from God’s love. We promised to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to seek and serve Christ in ALL people. And lastly, we promised to strive for justice and peace.
Five profound promises. And I have to admit that when I said, “I will” to each of them at the baptisms of my own three children, I don’t think I was listening very closely. Who in their right mind would consent to baptism – for themselves or for their offspring. Exhilarating and terrifying. That’s our life of faith. And it’s our life of faith together. We don’t plunge into that water all alone. Like my ducks swim class, there is someone to hang onto. Someone to support us as we go under. For at each baptism we witness, we agree to “do all in our power to support these persons in their life in Christ.” So look around, when the water seems too scary, when those baptismal vows seem impossible to live up to or into, there is someone sitting right next to you who can be there with you as you confront your fears, hold our breath, and immerse fully into new life with Christ. Baptism is all about stepping in, all about surrender, being brave and afraid at the same time. Jesus, who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, invites us to step in with him, confident in a God who can only love us – who reminds us always that we are loved, chosen, and blessed.