When I was very little I learned to swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other. I did not yet know how to swim on the surface, but was surprisingly proficient two feet under it. I would climb down the ladder at the deep end of my grandparents’ pool, take a huge cheek-puffing breath, then kick like a tadpole across to the shallow-end steps and climb out. No problem. I was entirely comfortable under the water.

Several years ago, my husband and I traveled with a group to the Holy Lands. Having arrived at Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, our guides David and Elizabeth shared that on the next day we would have the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River. Having been believer-baptized when I was nine, I was intrigued by this opportunity to revisit and remember my childhood baptism by experiencing the plunge in the very river in which Jesus experienced his own.

The next day, our bus pulled up to the Yardenit Baptismal Site and I donned the requisite white baptismal robe. Before we began, I pulled David aside and told him that if I was going to “do this” I wanted it to be really significant. I didn’t want to be flippant about the experience, or rush through it without being present to it. He waited for more from me, so I added, “I want you to hold me down under the water longer than usual.” He smiled and nodded, and we began the ceremony.

Not long after, it came time for me to step into the river.  Up to my knees, dozens of tiny fish immediately nibbled at my ankles and shins: a little unsettled. Realizing I couldn’t see the minnows for the murkiness of the water: mildly unglued. Up to my waist, I approached David who waited for me with a smile: just a little tense, nervously anticipating my imminent dunking.

Then came the moment: I was going under. Assuming the crossed-hands-in-front-of-face-and-hold-nose position, I opened my mouth to inhale one huge cheek-puffing breath, and… water! Water in my mouth, water all around me, water turbulently entrapping me: now completely uncomfortable. Expecting to fall gracefully back into the water, I had been shoved into it instead. No time to take that breath; my gaping mouth and throat had been filled with the minnowy, murky Jordan River. And now David was plunging me, plunging me, plunging me, three times over (for good measure, apparently.) My feet rose up and broke the surface, yet still my face was deep underneath. Realizing we hadn’t worked out a plan for just how much “longer than usual” he would hold me down, I began to panic. I was entirely uncomfortable under that water.

The funny thing was that my first response upon re-emerging was fury; my discomfort, panic, and helplessness under the water gave rise to a fight response once above it. (I think I may have even thrown David a side-eye.) My second response, however, was immense gratitude. And so, I gave him a hug.

Let me tell you why: In those frightening, longer-than-usual moments under the Jordan River, God had created a formational experience out of my baptism. He impressed upon me the gravity of my sin and my helplessness to rise above the surface of it. By staying down for an extended moment (seemingly having no choice) I was forced to attend to my current situation: My sin was deep and dark and murky; it was prevalent and weighty; and until I understood the significant need for God to forgive my sin, I would be drowning in it.

Being held under the water was like being forced to face—and be surrounded by—my fallenness and failures; being lifted up out of the water was like being embraced by God’s grace and mercy, forgiven, welcomed back, taking in God’s wide-open, cheek-puffing, lung-filling breath. Breathing his very life back in.

How comfortable have you become with the brokenness and sin in your life? Do you long to feel less comfortable with it? In this Lenten season, would you ask God to help you reckon with your sin? Ask Him to reveal the things that stand between the two of you. Be okay with being completely uncomfortable. Tell Him you long to be formed by your own going-under experience. Sin leads to death and darkness if we don’t have God. But when we do have God, our sin is forgiven and exchanged for light and life. He reaches down, breaks the surface, and rescues us from the deep. And gives us his Spirit as breath.

When I kept silent,

    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, ‘I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.’
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.”

—Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)




Jordan River, Israel, 2016