Who taught you how to swim? How old were you? What was that like? Do you remember?
My grandfather always claimed that his father took him down to the dock in Poughkeepsie, where they lived, and threw him into the Hudson River, and that was how he learned to swim. Mind you, that was about 1908 – before the Hudson became so polluted – and I’m sure there was more to it, but that’s the way my grandfather told the story.
My first swimming lessons were at age four, at the beach in Rhode Island. My parents couldn’t keep me out of the water and they figured that I should at least learn to float, hold my breath, and use some very basic strokes so that I could be safe in the water. Over the next few years I learned how to get knocked down by the waves and get back up, my father taught me how to body surf and when to dive under a wave that was breaking too fast or too large, and how to identify and avoid a rip-tide. Eventually I passed my deep-water test and was able to swim unaccompanied to the raft, about two hundred feet off-shore.
Then there were the swimming lessons in the lake at Girl Scout camp, following the Red Cross program of water safety, progressing through the ranks of advanced beginner, intermediate and swimmer, ‘til I finally got my Junior Life Saving certification in high school. And when I went to college, every entering freshman had to pass a swim test. The college campus faced right on Cayuga Lake in Central New York and we had a boat house with rowboats, canoes, and sailboats, so I’m sure the college was trying to insure that none of us would drown!
My learning to swim was not just something done once or twice and then was over. I learned different things from different people in a whole variety of conditions, and my abilities increased as I grew older – so did my judgment. While swimming is a skill and a pleasure that you can use throughout your life, you get rusty if you don’t do it for a while. You can also lose your strength and endurance, and have to work to get that back.
In many ways, baptism is more about swimming than it is about being dipped into water.1 As the start of Christian life, this sacrament launches us. We first learn how to follow Jesus from our parents and godparents, maybe from other family members. As we get a little older we learn from our Sunday School teachers, choir directors, other adults in our parish community. And we learn from friends and people who are important to us, folks whose faith and trust in God we admire. In many ways, we learn the most about following Jesus when we find ourselves in deep water, over our head. Those are the times when we know that panic and flailing around will not help us, but by remembering what we have been taught, by remembering to breathe and following a set and practiced pattern we will not only survive, but make progress – and maybe even enjoy the experience. When we are in the deep waters of life, just as much as in the deep waters of lake, or river, or ocean, we know that we are involved in something much great than ourselves, and far beyond our control.
There are plenty of people who never really do more than put a toe in the water of life in Christ. Maybe they watch others safely and admiringly from the shore. Maybe they get their ankles wet. Maybe they just don’t see any point in getting suited-up to get in the water, because they have no interest in swimming whatsoever.
But for those of us who are Christ’s own, the baptized, the People of God, we are very much called to launch out into deep water. And so day by day we need to be strengthening ourselves with prayer and Bible reading; and week by week we need to come together for worship – not just to pay our respects to God or get inspired for the week (although those are good things), but to encourage and instruct and coach and support one another in living the baptized life.
In this new year of 2016 I would encourage you to take stock of where you might need some further instruction or experience, where you might need a refresher, or some re-conditioning in your life in Christ; or where you might be called to share your wisdom and skill and experience with another who may be floundering a bit, or just wanting to go deeper.
The world around us is changing, has changed, will continue to change – we all know that. And sometimes that change feels like a deluge, overwhelming. But we are baptized people, we know what water is all about – that water that the Holy Spirit hovered over the face in the beginning of creation. And our baptism, and all that we have learned and are learning, help us to know when to swim, when to float on our back and rest, when to dive under a particularly large wave, and when and how to ride the waves that come in life when we offer ourselves to God’s service.
Let us pray.
In words from Hymn 636:
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!” Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
January 10, 2016