I am a poor swimmer. I put this down to an incident when I was young, maybe 5. My brothers and I had gone swimming in the Nepean River. I was happily paddling in the shallows when I stepped into a pothole. I have a graphic recollection of going down and the water closing above my head. Fortunately one brother pulled me out very quickly. The memory remains. It took me a very long time to learn to swim and even now, I avoid putting my head under water and entering water beyond my depth. For me such things become a battle ground between the powers of rational thought and instinct.
Last week, on my vacation, five of us went to Baird Bay on the Eyre Peninsula to swim with the sea lions and the dolphins. The water around the sea lions was pretty shallow, so I popped on a wetsuit (there’s a first time for everything) and hopped into the sea. In the unfamiliar circumstances, with the slapping of the waves, the unexpected buoyancy of the wet suit, etc., I began to flounder.
That’s when I met Dorothy. She came over to me, close. Perhaps she was just curious. Or perhaps she realised that here was a critter who was unfamiliar with the sea, in trouble, and needed help, just in case some shark wandered by. Perhaps she cared. Dorothy is a 3 year old sea lion. I got back to the boat safely with help and enjoyed watching the rest of the visit, as the others played with the sea lions in the water and later, in much deeper and choppier water, swam with some dolphins.
Our gospels talk about the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist and relate how the Spirit like a dove came to Jesus as he came up out of the water (Mark 1:10). I wonder how Jesus felt as John baptised him. Was Jesus a competent swimmer? It seems likely some of the disciples would have been as they were fishermen (e.g., Peter, John 21:7, but Peter got into difficulties in water too, Matthew 14:29). Would we expect a lower class tradesman, a carpenter, to be able to swim or to be comfortable with water going over his head? What is more, baptism in the early church was considered a transition from an old life to a new life, a type of death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-4). A feeling of separation from the world, with anxiety, corresponds to my childhood experience.
How would Jesus have felt as John covered his nostrils and dunked him under the water? As he came up again, spluttering for air, feeling the rough camel hair of John’s cloak and smelling the locusts on his breath? Would it have been a little moment of Gethsemane, of panic and regret, followed by the confidence that he was safe in caring arms?
How do we feel, when we find ourselves in moments of ‘baptism?’ At this time, many of us at Scots are going through periods of disorientation and anxiety, when we might easily feel that the waters are closing over our heads and the sunlight blurring and when we are struggling to draw our spiritual breath. At these times of baptism, it is easy to overlook that we are held in caring arms, arms that support us and lift us up. Yet, in these moments, that care is still present for us.
When I was floundering in the water, Dorothy the sea lion swam over to me. We are not just held by God. We are also held by our community, sometimes people familiar to us, perhaps from our family or from Scots, yet at other times, completely unexpected.
Divine care is brought to us in surprising ways. May it be so for you.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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