Jesus came to Rainhill, message in hand: “It’s time”, he said, “Things are changing. So change your outlook. The news is good.”
I remember my first trip to the swimming baths from school, all excited, heart racing, aged maybe 5 or 6. The sharp stink of chlorine and disinfectant and wet changing rooms. Actually I’m lying about that because all I remember is a single image. A snapshot, a frozen frame, of a girl, a classmate—name erased by years—drowning that morning. I think she missed her step climbing down into the shallow end. She’s etched sharply against the black and white tile … floating underwater, her hair spread out all around her like a mane, a halo, eyes open, mouth gaping. I’m standing there on the pool side in wonder … here is something new, something astonishing, here is time frozen, here is death working, here is life all suddenly dangerous. Fear and wonder and chlorine all tasted together.
I don’t for the life of me remember how it was that she was saved. I don’t remember her being pulled out. I don’t remember her gasping. I don’t remember her telling the story. I just remember her weightless, motionless, … under.
I didn’t learn to swim that day. In fact a dose of viral pneumonia intervened and I didn’t go back in that pool for six months and I didn’t learn to swim for 15 more years. But this I did learn then and there: life is as easily lost as a missed step.
I spent those intervening, un-swimming years with one foot always on the bottom, in an ungainly and uncomfortable compromise between gravity and buoyancy. I wouldn’t let go the sides. I splashed about, had fun in my own way, and privately hated my otter-bodied friends cutting a carefree wake into deep waters.
Lent, we learn today, is about baptism and baptism about dying. The waters of the Easter Vigil which we aim for through Lent are not waters of washing but a pool for drowning in—for dying and rising with Jesus. And that means Lent is not about cleaning up our act but about letting go the sides and going under.
When I finally did learn to swim it was because I learned I had to take my feet off the bottom, I had to let go, I had to go under before the waters could buoy me up, I had to die before I could live. I had to repent, change my outlook. I had to believe the good news. And live deeply.