*This reflection is inspired by the Lectionary readings for this week: Genesis 9:8-17 and Mark 1:9-15. The reflection comes from the Lenten Retreat I wrote a few years ago.
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The first time I went water skiing–when I was in college–I was a little worried. I’m not particularly athletic, and the prospect of moving across water on basically two oversized shoes was daunting. But somehow I seemed to have a knack for staying up on the skis. And I loved it. I loved sitting in the water behind the boat, leaning back onto my life jacket, legs out, skis sticking up from the water. I loved the tug on the rope as the boat took off. I loved skimming and bumping along the surface of the water.
I loved it until I lost my balance and hit the water. This water that I thought was soft and fluid had somehow turned solid, hard. My neck ached for a week and I never again looked at water quite the same way.
We all know, of course, that water can be destructive and life-giving. We’ve seen floods and droughts. We’ve, unfortunately, heard of waterboarding, and we know people can die of thirst. This ambiguity is part of what makes the water imagery in the Bible so powerful. Images of floods and wells; water from the rock and storms at sea. I think it’s no coincidence that this ambiguous, powerful, image of water is at the heart of baptism. While baptism is a symbol of forgiveness and new life, we also know that questions surrounding baptism have divided the church through the ages.
As a Mennonite, I hear stories of my ancestors in the faith being executed for refusing to allow their children to be baptized. And I hear stories of arguments within my own tradition about how to baptize. I nearly created a scandal when I brought in a large tub and baptized two people by immersion. Distinct lines are drawn between those who sprinkle, those who dunk, and those who pour. (At least those traditions that practice infant baptism generally agree that sprinkling is the appropriate method of baptizing babies.) How is it that this symbol of Christian commitment and unity has been so divisive?
The ambiguity extends to the personal level as well. Through baptism we find freedom in Christ, yet it is a freedom that confines. In her book The Soul Tells a Story, Vinita Hampton Wright notes that as baptized believers we commit to living within certain parameters. For writers and visual artists and actors and musicians, our baptismal commitments mean that we will not write or paint or act or sing just anything. The limits for artists aren’t as clear and harsh as some Christians suggest, but they are there. Our commitments to follow Christ push us to create in ways that nurture rather than degrade life; in ways that lift up rather than tear down other people.
The paradoxes within baptism (or confirmation) are many. We are at once freed and bound. We make a deeply personal decision that connects us–often in uncomfortable ways–to a whole bunch of people around the world. We humble ourselves and accept our identity as a beloved of the Holy One. We promise to walk a life path that we can barely begin to understand.
The space of baptism is indeed a holy space. And it is not a comfortable space. This is an important realization for me. Sometimes I imagine that a holy space will be calm and beautiful–like Monet’s garden or a mountaintop monastery. When I find myself–as I often do–in places of ambiguity and discomfort, I often do not even consider that maybe these spaces, too, are holy. Maybe my life is pushed most abruptly up against the Divine in these places of tension and uncertainty.
It is the tension, of course, that allows the rope to pull us along behind the boat. It is the uncertainty of our balance that focuses our attention.