The child was not yet five. She stood at the water’s edge, looking at the gently rolling waves as they lapped the shore.
Where were her parents? Momma was gone inside the little building a hundred yards away. Gone to get a key to a little cottage where they would stay for a week. It was the family’s first true vacation since the child was born. They had no money – Daddy drank it away – but somehow Momma had put aside enough to provide a week in a cottage by the seaside, so they could have a real vacation, like real families. And maybe, just maybe, it would be a good week, with no drinking, no yelling, no stomping out the door. Dreams die hard, you know.
And so Momma had ducked into the building on the bay to pick up the key to the cottage. She had said to the child, “You stay right here by the door. Don’t you go near the water. We’ll have time for that later on, once we get settled into the cottage. Daddy was sitting in the car, sullen at the thought of a week where he’d have to sneak out to get a beer and a shot. He was looking elsewhere, thinking of something long past, time during the war maybe, when he was building bridges across a foreign river.
Momma’s words had quickly faded from the child’s memory, because those waves, those rhythmic waves, were beckoning to her. “Come see! Come see!”
And now the child’s feet, clad in thin sandals, were feeling the tickle of the water. Her toes were cool on this hot day, and she was hot all over after two hours in the old car, so she decided to step in further.
Cool legs now, and knees. It was like the Saturday night baths, and yet it wasn’t, because it was cool, not warm. But the cool felt so good. So she stepped in a little further, and a little further, and a little further.
And then there was a wave, and an undertow, and she felt her cool feet slide out from under her, and she was in a wash of rushing water, churning in all directions. And she was tumbling, tumbling and there was no air, just water, and she thought for a minute, “Momma’s gonna be mad.”
And still she tumbled, and even though she was only four years old, there were pictures flashing through her mind, the Christmas tree, her teddy, sitting on Uncle George’s lap and being glad he was not yelling like Daddy, and Momma’s chicken gravy, and she didn’t know what was happening but now she was scared and she couldn’t breathe, until something shifted inside her and she was calm.
She wasn’t thrashing anymore. She thought, “fish breathe in water. Maybe I could too…” and then suddenly a strong hand grabbed at her leg and arm and pulled her up into the air and she gasped and coughed and the man was saying “where’s your parents, kid?” and she was still coughing and sputtering when Momma came running out of the building, her purse slapping against her side, and now Daddy was running out from the parking lot, not sullen but scared, and they were yelling, “Baby! Baby! Baby!”
Momma was crying and saying “I told you to stay away from the water. Why did you go there? You could have died.” And the man with the strong hands was walking away and fading from view, before Momma and Daddy could say thank you for saving our baby.
The child had died, or nearly died, in that bay. A few seconds more and she would have been only a memory. The child that this Momma and Daddy had prayed for for years in a childless marriage, until the child was given to them. But the child lived. She grew. Momma still struggled, and Daddy still drank – it would be the death of him – but the child knew…SHE KNEW IT as surely as she knew that Bella the cat would scratch her if she played with her tail … she knew she was loved and she had been saved. She remembered the feel of those strong hands pulling her up out of the water. She remembered her parents’ fear and love and anger and how they clutched her in her wet sundress and soggy sandals as she hacked the last of the water out of her tiny belly. She remembered being saved.
When St. Paul says to the Romans “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection” he is telling that little girl’s story. He is telling our story. It is a story of our death in the water of baptism – we get little sense of that in our Episcopalian baptisms where a genteel sprinkling of water is a faint memory of the immersion the early Christ-followers experienced – and then getting yanked out again, gasping and coughing and breathing in the air, that beautiful air, that knowledge that we have been given a second chance at life, a different kind of life. We cannot forget the death of our old way even as we celebrate our resurrection into a new way.
This night/day is a reminder of that death and rebirth. Jesus’ fearful crucifixion and glorious resurrection shows us that death is not the final word, because as Jesus is resurrected from the dead, so too are we. We sing praises to God on this night/day not because Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but because his resurrection is the story of our rebirth as well.
Because of Jesus Christ, we breathe again. We are grabbed by his strong hands and yanked out of our old ways, the ways of death, and pulled into new air, clean air, into our own new lives.
The child in the story went onto live the usual complicated life – don’t we all? – with moments of failure and sin as well as moments of grace. But she remembers still the feel of the strong hands lifting her out of the waters of death into new life. And in those memories, she finds peace and thanksgiving for what she was given. A new life, as we are all given new life. A grace to try again, as we are all given chances to try again. Abounding love, as we are all the recipients of God’s abounding love.
The Easter story is her story. It is our story too. Jesus’ death and resurrection serve as a constant spiritual memory that we are saved and that those around us and around the world are saved as well.
But with that salvation comes something more: obligation. Having been the recipients of grace, of strong hands pulling us up out of death into life, now it is our turn to be strong hands helping others. We show Christ’s love by pulling up others, by retelling this story of a better way, of Christ’s way. Will you be the stranger on the beach? Will you pull another child of God who is lost and drowning out of the ocean of despair? Having been given the gift of life, how can any of us do any less?