Believe it or not, water is fascinating. I looked up a few facts about it. For instance, hot water freezes faster than cold water because of something called the Mpemba Effect, which is not something we learned about in seminary. Water has an electric charge that makes it stick to itself, which is why it forms into droplets. This stickiness explains how trees are able to exist, because as the water evaporates out of the leaves, the exiting water at the top literally pulls new water up out of the ground and into the trunk. Without that, trees would dehydrate and die. Every liquid in the world contracts and gets smaller and more dense when frozen, except water, which expands, gets lighter, and then floats. If it didn’t, then ice wouldn’t form at the top of lakes and rivers. Instead, they would freeze solid and we’d probably all run out of fresh water and die.
Water also exercises a certain attraction for us spiritually. Where do we all go for vacation? To a place with water. The sea, the beach, a cabin by a lake. Poems are written about water, songs about the sea, paintings of the ocean. Our Lord says over and over, “I am the living water.” It is a beautiful, mysterious thing, water is, providing us with life.
But it is also dangerous. I lived on Cape Cod for a while (with a bunch of retired Harvard grads, they taught me to hate socks). Cape Cod is where Jaws was filmed, and there’s an island just off the cape, Monomoy Island, that is full of seals. You’d go by on a boat and they’d all be out on the shore crawling all over each other and barking, high-fiving with their fins because they were so happy to have the island all to themselves. They loved it there because the Atlantic Sea, as it runs down the coast from Newfoundland and squeezes between the cape and Nantucket, it rises up onto these massive shoals. The water runs fast there – it’s kind of like putting your finger over the end of the garden hose – and the striped bass would come up into the shallow water to feed and then the seals would hunt them. It was great, except for one, little problem. You know what likes to eat seals? Great White sharks. The sharks start stalking every beach in town. A bigger concern, to me at least, is jellyfish which sneak up on you and they’re all transparent and weird. Don’t get me started on jet-skis, which have been my enemy ever since my parents convinced me to get on one and it promptly capsized. Jet skis are my enemy. Fear of the ocean is called Thalassophobia. There is no word yet for fear of jet skis.
The ocean is endless horizons, tidal waves, storms, and whatever prehistoric monsters are lurking in the deep. The ocean is a habitat for which we are not properly fitted. If God wanted us to hang out in the middle of the sea, he would’ve given us gills. In Hebrew poetry, the sea is a metaphor for death, of slipping into the deep with mountains of water covering you over. The great flood bring death to creation. During the exodus, the people walk through the Red Sea in a foreshadowing of baptism, protected by God from death and brought safe to the far side. The poetic background makes the miracle of Our Lord walking on the water a fascinating study. He conquers death and through him the human soul will arise and walk.
Water is a two edged sword, bringing both life and death. This is exactly what we have in baptism – a death, and a birth. We bring our babies and it’s so cute and the baby always gets mad at me and cries when I pour the water on his head, but don’t let that confuse the fact that it is a moment of life and death.
Baptism changes the shape of our souls so that we have a capacity to receive the Holy Spirit. The old man is dead, the new man has met Jesus Christ in those waters and is brought into being. Think about it, the God who is infinite, who has no boundaries, no limits, majestic beyond imagination, that very same God, through the grace of baptism, dwells within you. This is a miracle.
In 1875, there was a steamer called the Deutschland that was broken up by a storm near England and everyone aboard drowned, including five Franciscan nuns. The priest Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem about it in which he asks God, “Is the shipwrack then a harvest, does tempest carry the grain for thee?” In other words, is the shipwreck God’s way of bringing in the wheat and gathering up his saints. Remember that the seed must die before it springs to life. For those nuns, the tragedy of the shipwreck was a baptism.
Shakespeare uses the theme of a shipwreck for his very last play. The Tempest is based on the readings from the season of Advent, a season that looks both backward and forward, to both death and life. The tempest in the play is a sort of death to the limitations of time, a death to the old life, and an introduction into eternal life.
Through baptism we no longer live for this life alone, we live for the next life. What responsibilities does a baptized Christian have? The old desires, ambitions, and goals must die along with the old man. The new man is, before all else, a disciple of Jesus. This demands obedience, humility, trust, faithfulness, and sacrifice. It means to carry about the crucified Christ within you, always dying to self, always living for him.
We all die. It’s a fact that defines our lives. There will be an end, and it will not be easy. We can fight it, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t matter, sensationalize it on television, but it is part of who we are. Hopkins knows it, writing, “I am soft sift/In an hourglass.” The saints all know it, and are agreed on this point, the secret to living a happy life is to enter into an early death, the death of baptism, through which the soul is reborn in the fire-hearth of love.
Shakespeare is wise when he writes, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful.” God asks great sacrifices of us, that we die to our old ways. This death happens in baptism but the death throes continue as sin rattles about in its desperation. So we have our moments, our troubles, depression, aimlessness, feelings of inadequacy, wondering if you’re a good parent, a good person, arguments, alienation. Through it all, remember that you are baptized. You have been given the precious gift of new life, and the mercy of Jesus reaches to the very depths of death itself in order to lift us up. His love outrides fear, and the Son of God is fetched in the storm of his strides.