By: Nan Smith
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3: 16-17 (NRSV)
It was a hot day, a sticky day, a long day of paddling on our second day out for this canoe trip I was leading for high school girls in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of northern Minnesota. We had been up early, paddling through a series of very long lakes, backtracking as we repeatedly got lost while searching for the portages. I was feeling less than stellar as the leader of this group. The responsibility for making this be a positive experience for these girls was weighing heavily upon me.
By the end of the day, my mood was decidedly grumpy.
We had finally found the last portage of the day and of course it was a doozie – 300 plus rods – almost a mile of uphill - a brutal climb to carry our gear and canoes over in order to get to the next lake. The girls, along with the other leader and I, had already made one trip across this portage and now we were loading up for our second and final trip across. Morale was decidedly low. One might expect that. No one was feeling particularly inspired, just sweaty. I helped the others load up and sent them along their way. I was determined to bring everything else, so I hoisted up what was left and with a pack on the front, a beast of a pack on the back, and with a camp stove in each hand I staggered off.
As I trudged across, I thought how am I going to bolster the spirits of these girls. What was I thinking taking them into the wilderness in the first place? I had so wanted this to be a positive experience for them; an experience that would empower them in ways they would never expect. I wanted this trip to be as life-changing for them as it had been for me when I had canoed the BWCA as a teen. That portage was a lot of spiraling negative thinking on my part.
I felt defeated by the wilderness and it was only the second day into the trip.
However, that mile was more than long enough, because when I crested that last hill, I was resolved that I would salvage this situation. With my smile stretched tightly and my pep talk rehearsed, I was ready, but the words died on my lips. I stopped, taking in the scene, dumbfounded by what I was seeing in front of me. All the girls and the other leader were floating in the waters, pant legs billowing, laughing and shrieking. And that day cracked open in a new way. I dropped my gear and jumped - the cold clear waters rising up to embrace my aching body and my disheartened spirit.
I wrote this piece last week. Our church had just celebrated the Baptism of the Lord Sunday – that Sunday when we remember and give thanks for our baptism. This BWCA experience is the image that always comes to mind when I reflect on baptism. I can’t help but smile -- God’s grace on a hot day in the Boundary Waters; God’s grace through water and the Spirit. Many and one. Refreshed and renewed. Restored and ready.
I had underestimated the resiliency of these young women. I had forgotten how the Spirit can bring forth beauty and grace in the most unexpected ways. I gave thanks for that touch of waters that can take your breath away. I was reminded of the buoyancy of the baptismal waters in all the situations of our lives.
I am in need of some of the resiliency and beauty as the COVID numbers continue to rise again. I need to feel those cool waters as this pandemic causes human spirits to spiral downwards. I long to let my body sink into the baptismal waters and emerge refreshed and restored.
Come to the waters and let your pant legs billow!