Breathing Underwater and The Baptism of our Lord

“I built my house by the sea. Not on the sands, mind you; not on the shifting sand. And I built it of rock. 

A strong house
by a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbors.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance,
but looking our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always, the fence of sand our barrier,
always, the sand between.
And then one day,
-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death. And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning. That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.”

— Breathing Under Water (Sr. Carol Bialock, RSCJ) 

How does one learn to breathe underwater? 

Why does God allow evil to persist in the world? 

Why do we suffer?

Life and our faith are full of unanswerable and hard questions that we wrestle with.

Some of these questions directly impact us and shake us to the core. 

“Why am I facing this at this point in my life? Why can’t things just be like ____. Doesn’t God love me?”

Other questions, perhaps the one posed by today’s feast, The Baptism of our Lord, are also unanswerable, but have the potential to steer us in the right direction?”

“Why did Jesus, God incarnate need to be baptized?” 

Over the years on this first Sunday after the Epiphany, this question has reemerged for me. What I’ve discovered that in the wrestling for the answer to this question, I’ve actually found answers that never quite provide a solid 100% answer but help me move forward with whatever challenges and trials life is currently tossing at me.

Today, Christians of many denominations gather to celebrate Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. No doubt Christians from many walks of life, each encountering and struggling with their own deeply concerning and important questions are posing that question.

Why was Jesus baptized? Isn’t he without sin?

What happened when our Lord was submerged and the Spirit of God descended upon him in the likeness of the dove, and a voice tore open the heavens and declared “This is my beloved Son.” 

Jesus was teaching us to breathe underwater.

Jesus is showing us that the seemingly impossible to answer questions and struggles in life can and will be transformed from brokenness to goodness if we but see “belovedness” in the midst of impossibility.

In all of the gospels the writer’s retelling of this major event in Christ’s life is directly tied to the the ministry of John the Baptist. If you recall in the season of Advent John preached a baptism of repentence. Recognize your sin and turn away, turn back to God. Repent. John, even with this important message, recognizes his own limitations.

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”

We can recognize our brokenness, our limitations, and unanswerable question and desire to turn. But to whom are we actually able to turn? 

We cannot repent on our own willpower and desire. 

We need something more…not our own agency, but the agency of the Spirit of God who as we are reminded in baptism descends upon us, in the same manner it decided on Christ. This Spirit gives us the title of beloved,  it binds our identity with the identiy of Christ and enables us to do or face the impossible.

-To live through life’s struggles, to face evil and recognize it does not have the final answer. 

Instead of drowning, we find we are able to breathe underwater. It’s a gift of grace that as the prophet Isaiah said, is a gift of strength and of peace.  

But this peace and strength doesn’t come from simply throwing up our hands and saying, “I can’t answer the question, God you take over. Be my snorkel or oxygen tank.” 

It doesn’t come with simply attending to religious structures and obligation as we are so well accustomed to in churches- the keeping God as a distant neighbor to be called upon only on Sunday morning. 

It comes from knowing and accepting a deep belovedness.  

As Jesus, beloved of God, descended to love the unlovable and undeserving in their unanswerable and doomed state.

Likewise, God desires to journey with us through pain, suffering and the difficulties of life so that we to are able to recive her love. 

This belovedness in the eyes of God far surpasses any limitation that we may see in ourselves and gives us strength to take that next step forward.

This identity give us peace to finally say, I can’t answer or resolve this on my own, but I’m loved and that is what matters. Our worth in God’s eyes, and therefore our salvation, far surpasses any limitation that evil and pain can set upon us. 

This is grace that enables us to drop all other identities, broken, sinner, outcast, liar, cheat, selfish, sick, rich, poor, sober, addict – and put on the one identity, Beloved, that will truly teach us to breathe the breath of life

Where is the sea encroaching upon you and threatening you?

Beloved, how might you respond?

There is neither flight, nor death, nor drowning. 

When the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.”