And when Jesus was baptized, just as he came out of the water, the heavens suddenly opened up to him and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3: 16-17 (NRSV)
It was a hot day, a sticky day, a long day of rowing our second day out on this canoe trip I took for high school girls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. We got up early, paddled through a series of very long lakes, heading back because we got lost several times while looking for flows. I felt less than great as the leader of this group. The responsibility to make this a positive experience for these girls was a big one on me.
By the end of the day, my mood was extremely sullen.
We finally found the last point of the day and of course, it was a doozie – 300 plus poles – almost a mile uphill – a brutal climb to carry our gear and canoe to get to the next lake. The girls, along with the other leader and I, had already traveled through this port once and were now loading for our second and final journey across. Morality was extremely low. That could be expected. No one felt particularly inspired, just sweating. I helped the others load up and sent them along. I was determined to bring everything else, so I picked up what was left with the pack in front, the pack beast in the back, and staggered out of the oven in each hand.
As I stepped over, I thought about how I would strengthen the spirit of these girls. What was I even thinking of taking them into the wild? So I wanted this to be a positive experience for them; an experience that would empower them in ways they would never have expected. I wanted this trip to change their lives as it was for me when I was a teenager canoeing at the BWCA. That portage was quite a spiral of negative thinking on my part.
I felt defeated by the wilderness and it was only the second day of the trip.
However, that mile was more than enough, because when I climbed that last hill, I was determined to save this situation. Firmly stretched with a smile and rehearsed reassuring speech, I was ready, but the words died on my lips. I stopped, watching the scene, stunned by what I saw in front of me. All the girls and the other leader were floating in the water, their legs swollen, laughing and screaming. And that day opened up in a new way. I dropped my gear and jumped — cold clear waters rising to embrace my aching body and my discouraged spirit.
I wrote this article last week. Our church has just celebrated Christmas Sunday – that Sunday when we remember and give thanks for our baptism. This BWCA experience is an image that always comes to mind when I think of baptism. I can’t help but smile – God’s mercy on a hot day in the Border Waters; God’s grace through water and the Spirit. Many and one. Refreshed and renovated. Restored and ready.
I underestimated the resilience of these young women. I have forgotten how the Spirit can bring beauty and grace in the most unexpected ways. I thanked him for that touch of water that can take my breath away. I was reminded of the raising of baptismal water in all situations of our lives.
I need some resilience and beauty as the number of COVIDs grows again. I have to feel those cold waters because this pandemic is causing human spirits to descend. I long to allow my body to sink into the baptismal waters and come out refreshed and renewed.
Come into the water and let your socks lift!
Rev. Nan Smith serves as pastor of the Hope United Methodist Church in Marshalltown, Iowa. This post was republished with permission from the “Abiding in Exile” series of the Iowa Annual Conference.
Subscribe to Abiding In Exile newsletters.