As a child, I had a terrible time learning to swim. My mother must have enrolled me in the beginner’s swimming class half a dozen times. All that thrashing around in the shallow water did not come naturally. The deep water called my name.
I was about eight years old the day the instructor announced that we would go to the deep end—to the twelve foot water—and attempt our first jump off the diving board. Pressing to the front of the line, I watched as a few kids jumped. It looked easy. Other kids began to drift away. Some kids cried and began to look around for their mothers.
As I climbed the short ladder to the low board, the deep water beckoned. I remember simply walking to the edge of the board, stepping out into the air, falling, making contact with the water, and sinking, sinking, sinking until my feet touched the bottom of the pool.* Twelve feet under, there I stayed.
In my memory, this first experience of the deep water remains one of clarity, beauty, and satisfaction. Yet, fairly quickly anxious faces began peering over the side of the pool; the instructors’ arms flailing in some kind of motion I could not decipher; someone diving into the water yanking on my arms, pulling me toward the surface.
Poolside, I remember frantic voices: “Are you alright? You scared us to death. Don’t ever do that again.”
No one asked about my experience of the deep water. Everybody focused on the surface. I realize that eventually I needed to surface to breathe. Yet something about that experience has stayed with me for almost fifty years. Since that day, I pay attention to how powerfully we avoid life’s deep waters.
Left to our own devices, most of us choose to skim life’s surface; to dog paddle around in the shallow end; taking the beginner’s course over and over and over again. We carefully avoid walking to the edge, stepping out into the air, falling, making contact, and sinking down, down, down into the deep water of life.
Yet far beneath life’s surface, in those very deeps, the great energies of God live and move and have their being: forgiveness, grace, and mercy; faith, hope, and love; justice, righteousness, and peace. These energies cannot come to us with fullness in shallow water.
God beckons us to deeper living. God calls us by name as we pass through the baptismal waters. God covenants with us, promising to accompany us through all that life brings, forever and for always. Not to keep us safe: to accompany us.
Today, in our morning services, the parents of Devere, Griffin, Eleanor, and Margot present their children to God’s people, bring them to God’s house, to be plunged under God’s waters and into life’s deeper streams.
Specifically, in baptism, God calls us to lives of loving obedience. Yet we resist obedience; resist because we want no limits on our freedom; resist the possibility of domination or diminishment; resist what seems an oppressive burden. When I started out in ministry, couples used to marry promising to love, honor, and obey. No one promises that anymore.
Gospel obedience, obedience within the covenant of God’s love, asks a very simple question: Whom do we listen to? Human agendas, appetites, and anxieties? Or can we listen deeply enough to hear the voice of pure love whispering the one thing our hearts most desire: “Beloved. You are my beloved.”
Jesus kneels in the Jordan, before a reluctant John, an act of humble obedience. What begins this day will take him to Jerusalem, to Calvary’s hill, to death and resurrection. And as Jesus rises, dripping wet, the heavens open and the great energies of God descend. God speaks with unmistakable clarity: “Beloved. This is my beloved Son.” Loving obedience delights the divine heart.
And still we listen to shallow voices, promoting a human-shaped obedience. Voices of power, cynicism, and spin; voices that slander, lie, and seduce; voices of scarcity, anxiety, and suspicion. These voices appeal to us when loving becomes too difficult.
Every year at this time, in my United Methodist tradition, John Wesley calls us to celebrate a renewal of our covenant with God. At the heart of the service we pray a prayer of loving obedience. I keep this prayer taped to my computer as a reminder that baptismal waters run deep. Obedience means resisting the shallow way: every day, every day, every day. We pray:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing; put me to suffering.
Let me be full; let me be empty.
Let me have all things; let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O God—thou art mine and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
God desires more for our lives than surface living. God wants for us lives born out of the deeps of loving obedience. And while I can’t say exactly how we find lives like these, I believe it has something to do with walking to the edge, stepping out into the air, falling, making contact with the water, and sinking, sinking, sinking into life’s deep places.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
*Note: Some years ago, I read this phrase or something very close to it: “Walking out to the edge, stepping out into the, air, falling, making contact.” I cannot remember where, nor if this is the quote exactly—but the thought captured my attention and stayed with me. I am indebted to the author for the theme of this sermon.