Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 3:1-22) transports me to the Lake Powhatan swimming area at Bent Creek, where I went on my first camping trip with the RAs when I was 6 years old. I loved the water, and splashed around with glee until the older boys decided to have a race to the bouyed rope marking the swimming area and back. I jumped in the race, even though I hadn’t yet learned to properly swim. I dog-paddled to beat the band, made it to the rope, and turned to make my way back, well behind the pack. But my makeshift swimming stroke had exhausted me, and I hadn’t yet learned to tread water. So I sank, like the proverbial stone. It felt like I went twenty feet under, and when my feet hit the muddy bottom I pushed hard and fought my way back up. I broke the surface and coughed out some water before sinking again, hitting the bottom once more and pushing and fighting back to the top. This time I managed to yell for help as I coughed out the water, and went back down. I had somewhere heard that if you go down three times, you’re bound to drown, and as I hit the bottom for the third time, I thought I was a goner, and wondered if my life was going to pass before my eyes in anticipation of death. Then I had a momentary worry that I hadn’t been saved and baptized, and considered the possibility that my watery grave wouldn’t usher me into heaven. So I tried praying, but my mind went blank. I couldn’t recall any prayer, not God is great, not Now I lay me down to sleep, nothing, save one word. All I could think of was Amen. I kept repeating Amen over and over in my mind, so be it, surrendering myself to my fate, when much to my delight, our RA leader Mike Holt pulled me up and got me to shore. Fortunately for him and for me, what felt like twenty feet deep was only chest high on Mike. After a bit more coughing and sputtering, I was good as new, ready for the next adventure, fishing.
I have often thought that my Lake Powhatan experience was closer to a genuine baptism (in the believer’s baptism tradition) than the one I experienced years later in the safe confines of the Gashes Creek Church baptistry, with its painted mural of a tree-lined river behind the red velvet curtains at the back of the choir loft. The three-fold immersion in the lake was intense, as close to a near death experience as I’ve ever come. I imagine that the spiritual feel of my going under was not so different from what people were experiencing there at the river Jordan at the onset of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptizer was compelling the masses of people there Jordan’s shore to repent, that is, to die to their old lives, to surrender to a new fate, to faith. The symbolic death simulated a drowning – a drowning of old ways of thinking, old ways of acting, old assumptions and presumptions. John was immersing people, pushing them down into a current completely contrary to the cultural mores of consumption and corruption. The people stepping into the Jordan that day, feeling its muddy bottom and pushing their way back to the surface where new life awaited, began asking the prophet – What are we supposed to do now? The Baptizer answered – Do something crazy. Form a real community. Cultivate some genuine compassion. You don’t need that closet full of clothes while your neighbor is shivering without a coat. You don’t need a pantry full of food while your neighbor is hungry. Distribute that wealth. Others stepped into the river and they, too, came out coughing and sputtering,What are we supposed to do now? And the prophet answered – Do something crazy. Cultivate a life of integrity, see if you can’t get your words and your actions to line up with your values. John was inviting people to surrender themselves to the flow of faith, to let go, to drown the presumptions of privilege and the assumptions of power, to sink to the muddy bottom of that river and fight their way back to a new life in community.
Then along came Jesus, falling in line with the rest of the disillusioned and dry-boned humanity, to take his turn and get drenched in the waters of repentance. To drown his own presumptions of heavenly privilege and surrender to his fate, his faith. John grudgingly immersed his cousin in that strong current, and Jesus found his feet pushing up from that muddy bottom, where he signified his solidarity with all the broken people who had hit bottom in one way or another. He joined the rest of the masses who had grown tired of playing at community, who were ready for new life. Jesus emerged and started praying, maybe it was something like what do I do now? God smiled and simply said, That’s my boy.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.