Like Cats Swimming

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
© Stacey Steck

Some animals are afraid of water. It’s just not their element. Cats come immediately to mind, but bats, raccoons and certain other mammals also avoid water except to drink it or clean their food with. In fact, cats are basically evolutionarily opposed to water. Experts believe that domestic cats were descended from Arabian wild cats and that their ancestors lived in an area with very few large bodies of water, so they never had to learn how to swim. There was just no advantage to it. And so they have avoided it to this day. Cats and water just don’t mix. If you don’t believe me, just try to give one a bath.

Otters, on the other hand, couldn’t possible enjoy water more. I could watch them for hours just playing to their hearts’ content. Bears seem to like it while fishing for their salmon. Lemmings must love it, since they are willing to rush into the water together and drown. And then there is that one domesticated species that loves water the most. The Baptists. Did I say Baptists? I meant to say dogs. Yes, dogs love water. You can’t get them out of the water. They’ll chase a ball into the water. They’ll retrieve a duck from the water. And when they finally get out, they shake all over you and get their muddy feet on everything, and then they stink for a long while. Dogs and water do mix, maybe a little too well.

Did I really say Baptists earlier? I guess it must have been a Freudian slip. Maybe what I meant to say is that Baptists are dogs, since they like water so much. Wait, I mean, Baptists are like dogs, because you can’t get ‘em out of the water. They’re always trying to throw someone in and shove their heads under. You see, Baptists don’t do baptisms that aren’t the kind of full immersion, wave-making scenes that dogs love. If a Baptist service doesn’t end with a baptism, they all go to lunch disappointed. They get that hangdog kind of a look if nobody responds to the altar call. Yes, Baptists are like dogs.

Presbyterians, however, are kind of like cats. Cats don’t do water. Cats do Friskies and Fancy Feast. At the lake, we are the ones cooking and eating while the Baptists are swimming. Not to mention drinking our wine. I mean, let’s be honest, we drink way more than the Baptists, or at least if we believe what they say. Yes, when it comes to the Sacraments, Presbyterians, as a general rule, are much more comfortable with the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We love a good meal, and the way we do it, oh so controlled. A sip and a morsel. Crumb-less bread and booze-less wine. No fuss, no muss. There’s no water getting everywhere, no splashing. Nobody gets a hair out of place during communion, unlike even a sprinkling baptism. We’re not as uptight as the Episcopalians and we’re not fired up like the Pentecostals either. We just like our church a certain, respectable way, decent and in order, and if you don’t like it, well, we’ll just show you our tail and walk away, like any self-respecting cat.

Now, it’s true that the sacraments have different purposes, so to speak, beyond their main purpose of demonstrating God’s grace. Baptism celebrates an inauguration. Communion celebrates maintenance. In astronomical terms, baptism is blastoff, a rocket being loosed from earth’s bounds. And once it gets into orbit, communion is firing the little jets every once in a while to keep it safely in orbit, circling around the earth. Orbit is a very comfortable place to be. The view is gorgeous, and you just float in space going round and round the planet. You can do amazing scientific experiments there. You can build international space stations there. But here’s the thing. Without the blastoff, there is no orbit. And in theological terms, without blastoff, we are earthbound, stuck in our sin, with nothing to launch us to that higher altitude from which to see the world differently, and be a benefit to society. The bread and wine are great, but they must be preceded by water.
No, we Presbyterians don’t spend a lot of time with the waters of baptism, and perhaps that’s because they signify what water really is: wild, dangerous, uncontrollable stuff that changes lives and changes history. When we, like Jesus before us in the story we heard from Luke, when we come up from beneath the water, our lives are forever changed, or at least they are supposed to be. When Jesus emerged from the Jordan River, he was propelled into a new phase of his life; he was ready to go, he changed history, he changed lives. That’s what water does. And dogs love it.

But for us cats, it’s kind of scary to invite that kind of water, that kind of experience, into our lives. Remember, water is that wild, dangerous, uncontrollable stuff that changes lives and changes history. And floods destroy things, right? Erosion carries away land. Tsunamis sweep people out to sea and they drown. And our houses are in order. We don’t need upheaval in our lives. We’re fine just as we are, or at least we like to think so. And none of that unpleasant stuff happens at dinner parties. A little bread and grape juice never hurt anyone, right? Ah, but maybe here’s where the tide turns, and where we might begin to consider a return to the water. Because did you know that more people die of accidental choking each year than drowning? And that choking is a leading cause of death is children under 4? Both of our kids had to be rescued from choking when they were little. Our meals, which seem so safe, can be as unpredictable as open water. The threat is real, even for the most careful among us. So maybe Communion is not really the safer option after all.

No matter which Sacrament we’re talking about then, God’s words through the prophet Isaiah are words we need to hear. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.” Lovely, lovely words.
And why do we have nothing to fear? It’s because Jesus went through it all before us. He’s been there. He came up out of those chaotic waters and brought order to the world and invites us to take the plunge with him. When Jesus was baptized in that old Jordan River, he was like the cupbearer to the king, the poor sap who tests the wine to see if it’s poisoned before handing it over to the VIPs. Jesus goes in before us. He tests the waters, so to speak, to make sure they are safe. And you know what? They’re fine. No, they’re better than fine. They’re amazing. They’re life giving and life changing, as they should be. There’s absolutely nothing to fear from God’s water, even for cats like us, who don’t like to go near it any more often than we have to.

It’s true that we only get baptized once, but that can’t be the end of our encounters with water, because there are too many stories in the Bible where water renews the people of God, or sets them on a new course, something each of us needs every now and then. God cleansed the world of sin in Noah’s time with water. Moses parted the waters to lead the Israelites into freedom. God brought fresh water from a rock in the Sinai desert. The waters of the Jordan stood still for the people to pass through into the Promised land. Jonah learned something about himself in the belly of that whale in a big body of water. So many stories of God using water to change lives and change history. And that can happen to us too, if we let it. You see, those waters are still there for us to encounter, at least once a year on Baptism of Christ Sunday, and sometimes more, when we baptize children or adults. If we choose to overcome our fear of water, there’s life to be found embracing God’s wild, dangerous, and uncontrollable side, the one that can free us when we are held in bondage.

Maybe you recognized that the prelude this morning was an old recording by Jascha Heifetz, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, playing an even older song about water, “Deep River,” an old Negro Spiritual. We only heard the instrumental version, but Deep River is one of those Spirituals that has words that are sometimes hard to understand, and it’s that way by design. Many of those old spirituals contain hidden messages instructing slaves how to avoid danger, or find their way to freedom, and “Deep River” is no exception.

“Deep River,” it goes, “my home is over Jordan….deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.” Most scholars believe that the reference to the Jordan River symbolizes the Ohio River, a dividing line between the slave states and the free states. And “Campground” calls to mind a place for camp meetings, a type of gathering that, even though illegal in some areas, served as a vehicle for slaves to commune and share their sorrows and hopes. Those camp meetings were among the rare occasions during which slaves could actually experience feeling free for at least a little while through singing, playing instruments and sharing stories. Some of the lyrics most likely have a double meaning as well, suggesting that the camp meeting they looked for was in Heaven, the place where they would truly be set free. Such great meaning in so few words and so much water.

The good news is that we don’t have to become dogs or Baptists to love water, and fully embrace our baptisms. But if we want to experience the kind of freedom water brings, we’ll need to overcome our fear of water, and all the chaos it sometimes brings. And it’s right there in Scripture for us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” Isaiah speaks to Israel as they wonder about their future. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God speaks to Jesus as he comes up out of the water. We’re not cats. We can change our behavior. We can trust God. And we truly can live without fear in the wild, dangerous, uncontrollable waters of baptism. Amen.