I still remember the exhilaration I felt, skittering over the surface of the Pamlico Sound on a small sailboat. The sun was shining, and all was well with the world in that way that seems to happen magically when you're on a boat.
It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I was working with a Christian outreach ministry with other college students on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was my day off from my paid work of cleaning bathhouses, so I wandered over to the small sailboat franchise we also helped run. There wasn't a paying customer in sight, so the two guys working it decided it would be okay if we took a boat out onto the water. It might even drum up some business for someone to see our sail out on the waters of the Sound.
And so there we were, the three of us. As the guys steered and managed the sail, I looked lazily into the water below. There were schools of jellyfish beneath us, and somehow seeing them below while we sailed across the surface seemed to magnify my sense of security and enjoyment of the beauty of this day in God's good creation.
Until that moment when the wind changed suddenly. Our small boat capsized, dumping all three of us into the water. I heard the yelps of the guys immediately as they splashed into a school of jellyfish. But not me. As chance would have it, I had been flung into the sail. There I sat, in water but surrounded by the sail, as if I was in my own private wading pool. And there was not a jellyfish to be found in my private pool.
"Sally, get off of the sail so that we can get the boat up!"
I would like to say that, as soon as I heard the cries of pain of my friends, I immediately and bravely leapt out of the sail into the school of jellyfish waiting like floating, tentacled land mines in the water below.
I would like to say that. The reality wasn't nearly so pretty.
Perhaps if my 17-year-old self had been more liturgically minded, the words of confession that are part of our Great Thanksgiving might have echoed in my head, "We have not heard the cries of the needy."
I was not living the words of the Great Thanksgiving. Their needy cries were a distant echo. Instead, I was doing the math in my head. I was pretty cozy in my bubble. I didn't even have to tread water, because the sail was keeping me afloat. I was perfectly content to hang out there a while. Especially because the boys continued to get stung by jellyfish out there. I could hear their rising impatience at me, but I knew that the moment I splashed out of the sail into the water, I would get stung by jellyfish, too. Nope, I decided, I was perfectly content sitting in my sail.
The thing that finally got me out of the sail? The mathematical certainty that if I didn't get out of the sail, we'd never go anywhere. And even I knew that we couldn't stay out there all day and all night.
And so, I finally plopped myself into the jellyfish-laden water, getting stung immediately and continually while we righted the boat as quickly as possible and clambered aboard. We sailed back to shore posthaste to tend to our stings.
While things had been fine and dandy on the surface of the water, the water itself held many dangers.
Which is absolutely consistent with Scriptural witness. From the very beginning of our story in creation, water is the fathomless deep which God must divide to allow for sky to be created. Water must then be pushed aside and gathered together to allow for the creation of land. The deeps are the habitation of Leviathan and other monsters, and notice that when God saved the people from slavery in the primary salvific story of the Hebrew Scriptures, God doesn't give them swimming lessons. No, as God's people are fleeing slavery in Egypt, God parts the chaos of the sea so that they can cross through safely on dry land on their journey to the Promised Land. Through God's providence and grace, they do not have to deal with the dangers within the watery deeps.
The prophet Isaiah sings about God's stalwart love in contrast to the dangers contained by the waters. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
Isaiah's words were on my heart during this past fall's hurricane season. Hurricanes Florence and Michael have devastated parts of the US, as have other storms in other parts of the world. Had Isaiah been able to see the wholesale destruction caused by flooding pushed by hurricane winds, I imagine he would have nodded sadly and sagely and said, "Yes, that's like I said, waters behave just like that and can threaten to overwhelm."
Scriptural witness is consistent that water is a place of chaos and flooding, and a place of danger and monsters, somewhere that should only be ventured into with divine protection.
And that is exactly where God sends Jesus in his baptism.
Now, I raised my kids largely in the 1990's and 2000's, which tells you that I raised them in the era of overprotective parenting. Without wanting to sound immodest, I want you to know that I was very good at that. Before any child of mine went to play at a friend's house, I spoke to the parents. Before they walked into a classroom, I had already met the teacher. Even when they were of age to drive, I knew where they were driving and who they were with at all times, well at least as much as possible with the technology of the day. You can ask my kids, they'll confirm my excellence at overprotectiveness, although they just maybe might roll their eyes a bit as they do.
And so, I hate to sound judgy of the parenting skills of God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, but sending your boy into the water? It's dangerous in there.
Here is Jesus, about to start three years of desperately-needed ministry. He'll be teaching and healing and feeding people. He will develop ardent followers and determined opponents. People will follow him, and they'll turn on him. They'll praise him and wave palms and yell crucify him, and we all know how that story turns out. And in preparation for the hazards of life ahead, God sends Jesus into the water?
The overprotective mom in me would have been standing on the side of the Jordan river, saying, "Jesus! Put on a life preserver! Watch out for jellyfish and sharks and lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
But, no, Jesus goes right up to John, who plunges him deep down into the water for interminable seconds. John pulls him back up, and Jesus has water in his hair, in his eyes, up his nose. And as Jesus catches his breath and shakes off all that water, God's voice echoes, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
I'm glad you were pleased, God, but why did you let him get there in first place? Jesus could have caught his death of cold in that water, you know.
Once again, it is great good news that God is God and I am not. I prefer to stand safely on dry land, with my feet dry and my hair unmussed, living life safely on the surface, sitting happily in my sail. A God who parents as overprotectively as I do would suit me just fine.
But of course, that's not really true. Life isn't always lived in the safe places, and I kind of hate that.
Yes, there are warm and sunny sailboat days, and yet life happens often in the water, in the dangerous places. Life happens during sleepless nights and worry-filled days. Life happens in the families that we have been given, even if they're not always the ones we would have chosen. Life happens in the schools and libraries, both the ones that are well-resourced and the ones that struggle as much as the families they serve. Life happens on the streets and in the prison cells and in the legal system. Life happens at the ballot box and in the food pantries and the domestic violence shelters. Life happens at the bedsides of the children's hospitals and nursing homes and hospice houses. Life happens in the bodies of people afflicted by disease and in the research labs that seek cures. Life happens in the rain and cold on the sidewalks outside of places of power and inside of those same places of power, too. Life happens in the hurricane, earthquake, tsunami-afflicted parts of the earth. Life happens in the churches that are thriving and in those that wonder how they'll keep the lights on, if not for themselves then for the next generation they hope to reach with the love of Jesus. Life happens in the uncomfortable conversations we'd rather not have but must. Life happens everywhere that people exist, which means that life happens on lovely cloudless days, and it happens on every other day also.
And it turns out that when life takes us into the deep water over our heads, the same water that the prophet Isaiah sang about, Jesus' entrance into those waters in his baptism teaches us an important truth.
We aren't the first ones in.
Jesus has already gone ahead of us. It's not that we are farthest from God when we are at our lowest point, but that we are simply treading water where Jesus has already been swimming. There is nowhere we can go that he has not already gone before us. There is nowhere we can go that he is not already right beside us.
When we find ourselves exactly where we never wanted to be, if somehow, we're able to listen through our fear and our pain and our tears and our hurry, perhaps we might hear the echoing words of the One who loves us so very much and who never leaves us:
You are my beloved child, and in you I am so pleased.
I cling to the belief that this is enough. This assurance that God is so pleased with us, not because our lives have been smooth sailing, but because even in the deepest waters we are, of course and always, God's beloved child. Just maybe these words will bring us a bit of peace where peace is so rarely found. We can take confidence and manage to keep our head above water just a little bit longer, beloved and bedraggled as we may be in the waters of life, because we know with certainty this one thing:
Jesus went into the water and came out again, and so indeed shall we. So shall we.
Let us pray.
O God, as we remember this day the baptism of Jesus, may his love for us to go into that water and come out again guide us each of our days. When we find each of ourselves over our heads and overwhelmed, may we find renewed trust in you. May we know that you are with us and that wherever we go you have been also. Amen.