I think I was around four years old when I first ventured into the deep end of the pool, which seems a little young looking back on it. I was taking swim lessons at the local YMCA, and I had discovered some natural ability for swimming. I picked up the basic mechanics of swimming pretty easily and could swim the width of the pool with confidence; I could hold my breath for what seemed like a long time when I was four; I could float on my back, though I hated it when the water lapped over my face suddenly; I enjoyed jumping in and was starting to learn to dive. None of that was a problem; it was when the instructor announced that we were going to swim across the deep end that the problem started. I was afraid of the deep end.
Like most pools, this one was configured with one end around three feet deep or so, and the other having a “deep end,” probably somewhere around 10 feet deep. I don’t remember exactly what the depth was, only that it was deep enough to have a standard diving board at that end of the pool. I do remember what it looked like, but my memory of that can’t be actually accurate because pools have requirements about being able to see the bottom clearly for safety purposes. But in my memory, the deep end looked something like a cross between the Marianas Trench and those whirlpools in adventure movies where a boat teeters on the edge as it goes round and round before finally being sucked down and under: it was dark and deep, too deep to see the bottom of it, and it had this sort of swirling energy to it that seemed both hypnotic and very dangerous. And my swim instructor wanted me to swim across that?!? NO. WAY.
I watched the other kids jump in and swim across, while I sat on side like a horse that had refused to jump a hedge in competition. The instructor beckoned and cajoled me from the other side, wearing me down until I finally slipped into the water and pushed off the wall, feeling the adrenaline powering my four year old body through the water. I was about a third of the way across before my imagination started getting the better of me: hands reaching up out of the depths to pull me under, a bottomless pit that I was going to fall into and disappear, a sudden loss of energy and nowhere to put my feet to hold my head above water. I began to panic, stopping swimming and floundering because I didn’t know how to tread water yet. I heard a loud splash and felt a wave of energy and water push towards me, than actually felt a hand grasp my arm firmly, and I yelled in terror. But that hand didn’t pull me down; it pushed me up. I turned and saw the face of my swim instructor. “I’ve got you,” she said; “you’re going to be fine.” Her grip relaxed a bit. “You can do this; it’s no different from swimming in the shallow end. And I’m going to be right here with you as you do. So let’s start swimming together.” I protested, but didn’t have much choice as she let go: it was either swim or sink down into the bottomless pit. But with her next to me and just a bit in front, I felt like I was following her lead rather than striking out on my own across the forbidding deep; I stopped being so afraid, and I fell into a rhythm, and before I knew it, my hand slapped the wall: I had made it.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” the prophet Isaiah says, in the very voice of God; “and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Deep water, strong water, is a complicated metaphor just like it is a complicated reality. On the one hand, water is the very essence of life, especially in an arid climate like Israel. Lack of water leads to lack of life surprisingly quickly in such places, and so an abundance of water, especially moving or “living waters” as the Bible sometimes calls streams and rivers, is a resource to be protected and celebrated. But deep and strong waters can also quickly become scary, quickly become not the essence of life but a threat to it. It is that understanding and experience of water that God is speaking into in Isaiah’s prophecy. God knows that such waters can be a source of great fear, and so God is promising the people of Israel that they will not be left to navigate those waters alone. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” God says, just like that swim instructor was with me; “they shall not overwhelm you.”
The people of Israel need that reassurance, because they know something about the power of those kinds of waters. At the time Isaiah was writing this passage, the kingdom of Israel had long been overwhelmed and swept away by the tsunami of the Babylonian Empire that had descended upon them, destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem, and carted all the best of Israel’s people, all its leaders and intellectuals and artists and merchants and so on, and planted them back in Babylon in what became known as the Babylonian Captivity or the Babylonian Exile. For around seventy years (that’s several generations) the Israelite captives were not permitted to return to their homeland, but forced to live as second-class citizens in the land of the enemy that had destroyed their homes and their way of life. But at this point, the rise of Persia began to threaten Babylon’s power, and Isaiah sees signs of hope in that. And so he reports God promising to gather them up from the east and the west, the north and the south, everywhere they have been scattered, and to bring them home, simply because “you are precious in my sight,” says God, “and honored, and I love you.” And that’s exactly what happens. Before much longer, the Persian king conquers Babylon, and he allows the Babylonian exiles to return home to the ruins of Jerusalem, which they begin to rebuild. But Israel as a nation was never truly free again; it belonged first to Persia, then Greece, then Rome. And so the people began to look more and more for someone who would come and liberate them, a king who would drive out the foreign invaders and re-establish the kingdom of Israel once and for all.
Which brings us to Jesus’ baptism. The story of Jesus getting baptized is a major one; it is narrated by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and implied by John. All of them connect him with the ministry of John the Baptist and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him shaped like a dove. And the three that narrate the story all have a heavenly voice name Jesus as God’s Son, the Beloved, echoing the declaration of God in the Psalm used at coronations of the kings of Israel: “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” But the actual baptism part is a little more confusing. It’s clear this is something important; but it’s not as clear why. After all, John the Baptist was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” as Luke notes earlier in this chapter of his Gospel when he’s introducing John. But Jesus was sinless and utterly faithful. So why would he get baptized? He didn’t need to repent, and he didn’t need forgiveness. Perhaps that’s part of why, in Luke’s version of the story, it’s not actually John that baptizes Jesus. The verses that were omitted from our reading this morning describe how John was locked up in prison by Herod, who didn’t like his preaching or his following among the people. But even so, it seems that Jesus’ baptism was related to John’s ministry, given how closely baptism is associated with John, and John’s story is with Jesus’ baptism in the passage. And Jesus not only receives the same baptism as others, he receives it right alongside “all the people.” Jesus is one of the people, part of the people; there is nothing different about the baptism he receives than what everyone else experienced. Luke doesn’t even bother to describe it; he simply notes that it happened.
However, after the baptism, it’s clear that something more is also going on with Jesus. First and foremost, Jesus’ baptism is about announcing that he is the one whom John was waiting for. Literally announcing it: after Jesus is baptized, heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon him “bodily,” meaning it actually, tangibly happened, not just metaphorically, and a voice from heaven announces, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” He may have gone through baptism just like everyone else, but he’s definitely the only person who gets that reaction. From the very beginning, Jesus is both called and sent by God to inaugurate a new age for God’s purposes on earth. And those purposes are far more than simply the political freedom of the Jewish people, which is why Jesus runs into such difficulty with people who want him to focus on exactly that. Instead, Jesus is inaugurating an age in which all those who are being left out, thrown out, kept out of the blessings of the kingdoms of this earth will not only have a place in God’s kingdom, but their own purpose and calling, as well, including Gentiles.
That sounds like good news, exciting news, life-giving news. But it can also be frightening news, because it will require those who follow Jesus to step into deep and dangerous waters, waters that have powerful currents and unseen threats. Notice that Isaiah’s prophecy did not promise that God’s people would avoid such challenges and dangers. God does not say, “when you come to the waters, I will show the hidden and easy way around them, or the path through the shallow parts.” God simply says, “I will be with you,” and “they shall not overwhelm you.” Baptism, and the fact that Jesus himself underwent it, is God’s sign that we belong to God, that God has promised to be with us as we go through the deepest waters and strongest currents, and nothing can sweep us away from God’s love and care. The real question, then, is whether we believe that and are willing to risk it: risk following Christ into the deep waters of our lives and our world, knowing that
Once I had learned not to fear the deep end as a swimmer, it became my favorite part of the pool: that is where you could use the diving board, or throw pennies in and go diving for them on the bottom like pearls, your ears popping as you went deeper, or simply float on the bottom with your friends, seeing how long you can stay down as you watch the legs kicking of swimmers above you treading water until your lungs start to burn and you finally push off the bottom and shoot to the surface like a rocket, gasping as you greedily swallow lungfuls of air again. As a child, the most baffling thing to me about swimming at the pool was “adult swim,” the 10-15 minutes every hour that the kids had to get out of the pool and let the adults use it, untroubled by our exuberance. And what did they do with it? Some clustered in small groups in the shallow area, just floating and talking to each other, while the others slowly swam laps, up and down the length of the pool. There might as well not have been a deep end at all. What a waste, I always thought. What’s the point of even learning to swim in the first place if that’s all you’re going to do with it?
The same is true of our faith. Yes, in Baptism God claims us as his own, and in being baptized himself Jesus promises to be with us as one of us, going ahead of us so we can follow his lead instead of feeling like we’re striking out across the deep on our own. But we are not baptized, marked as Christ’s own forever, in order to stay clustered in the shallow end of the waters of our world, floating serenely and talking to each other. Nor is the practice of our faith supposed to be simply about “staying in shape,” repeating the same exercises back and forth, over and over, so that we ourselves remain strong and healthy but ultimately disconnected from others and our surroundings. No, we are called to follow Christ out into the deep end: to plunge down into the depths of life and faith and Scripture until we have to come up gasping for air, then dive down once more; we are called to look for the person who’s sitting alone on the side and welcome them to join us in the water; we are called to jump in next to others who are struggling and exhausted and afraid, raise them up, and say, “I’ve got you; you’re going to be fine. You can do this. And I’m going to be right here with you as you do. So let’s start swimming together.” And so much more, because that’s actually following Jesus’ lead into the waters; that is what it means to look and act like Christ out in the world. And when we do that, we, too, can hear God’s voice saying, “in you I am well-pleased.”