From the Clutch of Death to Life

Last Sunday I watched The Rev. Marsha Brown pour water into the baptismal font, reminding us of our forgiveness of sin that is ours in baptism. Water serves as a powerful image. Always life-generating and restoring, water can also be terrifying and destructive. The floods during the early part of this year are an example. Affected people have a long recovery ahead of them. We cannot live without water, but water can be a threatening force. While participating in a mission trip in El Salvador, I almost drowned.
On the last day of our tour, we debriefed our experiences with our companion travelers, reviewing the people we had met and the work of our PCUSA Coworker. And then, we relaxed on a welcoming beach. I swam out far from the shore to catch the breaking waves and body-surf. Until that day, I had considered myself a strong swimmer. As I child swimming with the local team, I had competed with and defeated my challengers. While living in Southern California, I exercised in outdoor pools year round. That day we learned that the Pacific (calm) Ocean was not always what it appeared to be. Unknown to us, the calmness of the Pacific Ocean was deceptive that day. Later, searching the internet to understand what happened, I discovered that a dangerous rip tide had claimed the life of a woman not far up the coast a few days earlier.
Reaching the place where waves were breaking, I tried to ride the waves to shore. Every time I tried to catch a wave, I was dragged backward toward the ocean. After several minutes of trying, I began to realize that I was continually being dragged backward and under. Remembering my life-saving course, I tried swimming diagonally toward the shore, but was exhausting my energy, being pulled underwater with every stroke. I realized (with a sinking feeling) that I was caught in an undertow.
About 100 yards away toward the shore, I saw one of my fellow travelers. A tall and substantial guy, Bruce was the closest one to me, but he had been smart enough to stay where he could still touch bottom. He was about 80 yards closer to shore. Between spurts of sea water, I began shouting, “Help! Help!” as loud as I could as water filled and refilled my mouth. My trained self was observing my panicking self! “O God, O God… HELP ME!” I repeated in desperation. I knew that God and Bruce combined were my only hope. Shortly before Bruce grabbed my flailing arm, I remember thinking with a sense of surrender… “in life and in death, we belong to God.”
But my baptism was not complete that day in the Pacific Ocean. While I was ready to accept transition from this earthly (and watery) existence to life in the presence of the One who loves us forever, I lived… I lived to continue to bear witness to God’s amazing grace.
In the early days of the church and still in many Christian traditions, catechumens prepared during Lent for baptism during the Easter Vigil. In baptism, we die to the old life (going under the water), and rise from the water to new life in Christ. Every Easter offers an opportunity to embrace the new life God gives in Christ who lived and died for us, claiming us as God’s own. In Jesus, God reaches out to save us!
The women went to the tomb, expecting death. Instead they found it empty, and angels directed them to go and tell the disciples, “He is Risen.” In Jesus Christ, God reaches out to rescue us. Thanks be to God!

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