back to list

The Fear of Drowning


Passage: Mark 1:4-11

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

It was shaping up to be a calm Christmas Eve and my first one home with my family in almost twenty years of ministry. I spent a long afternoon walking with my girls in our neighborhood. On our walk, the girls found bright red leaves to take home with them and proceeded to shove them in my jacket pockets. Bea found a sprig of a Christmas Tree that had fallen off someone’s live decorations. Annaleigh gathered a bunch of acorn caps and flowers. When we got to a big stick with two long prongs, the girls thought of placing that stick in the ground standing straight up, surrounding it with the collected flowers and placing the acorn caps on the tips of the branches. It looked like a pretty impressive art project. The girls ended up calling it a winter tree. They wanted us to come back and see if it was still standing a couple of days later because they were worried that the wind would blow it over.

After our long and creative hike, we settled in by the fire, ate a bowl of chili (no tamales this year), and watched the Royal Lane Christmas Eve service. After the service, having full bellies and full hearts, I began to put the girls to bed. As I was getting Beatrice all tucked in for the night, I heard a commotion coming from the other side of the house. Amanda was yelling for me to hurry and come – she needed help. Ford had awoken out of his sleep and was acting weirdly and crying loudly and inconsolably. He had been a little under the weather and we weren’t really worried about it. But now, something was wrong. He was crying in a way we had never heard before. We now think he woke up from his sleep terrified because he couldn’t clear the secretions from the back of his throat – he couldn’t catch his breath. And not being able to breathe properly put him into panic mode, which just made him cry harder. The continued struggle to breathe and crying used up his oxygen reserves. He cried until he choked and began to turn that dusky, pale blue around his lips. He stopped breathing and his body went limp.

I immediately called 911 and was on the phone with dispatch as Amanda was beginning to take measures to resuscitate Ford. As I frantically spoke with the dispatcher, Ford began to breathe on his own again and came to. The paramedics got to our house in two minutes, entered our bedroom, and checked baby Ford. Although not as sparkly and happy as he usually is, he wasn’t scared anymore because he was finally able to clear his throat and he could fill his lungs again. He was still struggling to breathe normally so the medics ended up transporting him to the hospital where he was admitted. Not quite the first Christmas with Ford we had hoped to have. But he is alive and well, and we are relieved and extremely grateful for the intense training we received in the NICU and for good ongoing medical care.

We’ve talked about fear a lot in our “Be Not Afraid” worship series during Advent, Christmas, and now after Epiphany and we’ve explored how the coming of God to earth is that perfect love that casts out fear. There aren’t many things that frighten me as an adult, but let me tell you something, that night with a nonresponsive and oxygen deprived baby was the scariest night of my life. And, to be honest, I don’t know how I’m going to preach yet another sermon on not being afraid. I was afraid. I’m still afraid every time Ford coughs or gags.

But here we are in the scripture with Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River, being immersed fully in the water, nose and mouth completely covered where he too couldn’t breathe. The God of the universe who came in the flesh couldn’t breathe. And we are pretty sure that the baptism carried out by John was full immersion because it is believed that he was part of a monastic group called the Essenes, who used baptism as a form of ritual cleansing. It’s hard to get totally clean with just a trickle of water. No, John’s baptism of repentance was a full-on dunking, submerging, in which one was washed completely of their sins.

This practice of baptism, especially for Anabaptists and later Baptists, was to represent death, being buried in our old selves and then rising up to new life, a new and reborn self that followed Jesus with every ounce of our now soaking skin. This form of baptism was death! It was death before it was life. Full-immersion baptism was a cutting off of oxygen BEFORE it was breathing in the Holy Spirit. Baptism was being laid down, put down in the depths of darkness before rising into the light. There had to be death before there was life. There had to be drowning before there was rebirth.

And boy, don’t we have a fear of drowning? Don’t we have a fear of not being able to breathe? Don’t we have a fear of the effects of Covid and being on a respirator? Don’t we have a fear of our babies not getting enough oxygen and not responding? Don’t we have these fears? I do. And I did on Christmas Eve. I wanted more than anything for Ford to breathe. Breath, air, lungs, water, fear, hope, all of these are a part of our lives today and in this Baptism of Christ Sunday we are reminded that all of these things were a part of God’s life when the divine was born into human flesh, baptized in the river, and died on the cross.

You see, Jesus had already been a weak and fragile baby, born into the struggles and pain of creation and life. And we are reminded at Jesus’ baptism that he too could easily have died in those waters, could easily have drowned if held under too long. Jesus needed breath. Jesus needed the wind of the spirit to fill is lungs and his body with the strength and life to battle Satan in the wilderness. Jesus, so dependent on the divine Creator, might also have been afraid of drowning.

But, I wonder, could it be that fear of drowning is what makes baptism so powerful? Maybe it is in the fear of going under the water, remembering that we are all held hostage by time and human constraints, that we come up out of the river with renewed vigor to live lives that are for the good of all of creation. We come up out of the waters knowing that every breath is a gift. We come up knowing that Jesus took his last breath on a cross so that new life could be born in us. We come up so we could breathe hope and grace and justice into the world and pick up where Jesus left off.

Yes, we have a fear of drowning, but drowning is a part of baptism, because baptism is dangerous. Being sold out, soaked to the bone, spirit-filled and savior led is dangerous. If we didn’t have the risk of drowning, then the new life wouldn’t be worth living. We, as a baptized people, are meant to radically change the world, no matter the cost. It is by drowning that we bring life, breath, and love to all people.

Before the Thanksgiving and Christmas break, the Pastor’s Book Group read Sara Miles’s book, “Take This Bread,” a memoir highlighting the path to faith for a white, queer, agnostic journalist. We begin another book on Tuesday and so I hope you might consider joining us for this next study. In “Take This Bread,” Sara tells many stories about her opening of a food pantry in the Sanctuary of St. Gregory’s church. One Friday, she saw a little six-year-old black girl named Sasha lingering at the baptismal font in the foyer of the church as her teenage aunt was picking up food inside. Sasha was disheveled and had a split lip. Sasha looked up at Sara, not smiling, and said, “Is this water the water God puts on you to make you safe?”

Sara put down her food boxes and remembered her own baptism as an adult several years back. This is how she describes it. “Nothing about that water had made me safe. It had pushed me further out from the certainties and habits of my former life, taken me away from my family, and launched me on this mad and frustrating mission to feed multitudes. It had eroded my identity as an objective journalist and given me an unsettling glimpse of how very little I knew. I was no less flawed or frightened or capable of being hurt than I’d been before my conversion, and now, in addition, I was adrift in this water, yoked together with all kinds of other Christians, many of whom I didn’t like or trust. How could I tell this child that a drop of water could make her safe?”

Sara went on to say that “baptism wasn’t a magic charm but a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of unresolved human pain.” Sara then asked if Sasha wanted it. Sasha then locked eyes on Sara and said, “Yes. Yes, I want that water.”[1]

So, what will it be, Church? Do we want that water, even if there is the chance we could drown? Do we want to be changed, dripping wet with God’s love, saturated so much to the core that everyone can see the busted lips and our disheveled appearances and know that we’ve been through hell but have come back stronger and more determined? Will we be so afraid of drowning that we forget that there is power in baptism, and that the power of our baptisms and new life is birthed through struggle and strain, labor and pain?

I wonder if it is time to risk being suffocated with the world, to be in solidarity with those who can’t breathe, with those who are hungry, with those who are broken, with those who are homeless, with those who are abused, with those who are ignored, with those who are lost, with those who are drowning. For you see, Baptism of Christ Sunday is when we stare at the baptismal font and remember when we were once drowning and yearning for these waters to make us safe, when we could be wrapped up and enveloped in God’s love. Will these waters make us safe?

Maybe. But, in the end, our baptisms are also dangerous! They are dangerous because our baptisms require us to radically change and to be those followers of Jesus who don’t let our fears win the day, to show that we are drenched in the grace of God! Our baptisms have thoroughly transformed us, given us the power of the Spirit, soaked us to our core, taken our breath away, all so that our new lives, our new and completely-cleaned and prophetically-prepared lives, could radically and dangerously change the world, one life-giving breath at a time.

Is this the water that makes you safe? It is. But it is also the water that is dangerous enough to change the world.


[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread, p. 236.