Poised in the wilderness
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Taking the lifeguard job, I mean. I saw the advert in the Caesarea Chronicle: Lifeguard wanted, Transjordan side, no experience necessary. Generous salary and three week’s holiday plus high holy days. Apply to Simeon ben Samuel, Ministry of Public Safety, Sanhedrin.
Well, I was pretty fed up of my work as carpenter. I mean when did a carpenter ever make a difference to the world? So I applied, and got the job. They kitted me out with a swimming cap with the Sanhedrin stripe and built-in phylacteries and sent me out to save people.
For the first few months it was pretty boring. I’d go days without seeing a soul. I guess that’s why they call it the wilderness. Once or twice I got to rescue a goat that had fallen in. But not a sniff at saving a person.
Then one day this bloke appeared. A real rough-looking character, he was. Wild, if you know what I mean. Long, matted hair; rough sackcloth clothes that looked as if they’d been made from camel hair; a course leather belt; and a fire in his eyes. I wouldn’t have liked to get on the wrong side of him.
And he started shouting. Out there, in middle of nowhere, shouting. I was on my guard. Mad as he clearly was, perhaps he’d fall in and need rescuing. Perhaps, at last, I had the chance to make a difference.
But then a crowd started collecting. They sat and listened to the madman. John, I think they called him. And they treated me like some sort of usher. Where are the public conveniences? Where can we buy bread and fish? Couldn’t they see my lifeguard uniform?
Anyway, this John character kept talking about God, and approaching judgment. And about someone coming, more important than him. And the crowd listened and nodded. And then, suddenly, they all started wading into the river.
‘Whoa!’ I wanted to shout. ‘I can’t save all of you at once. Swim if you must, but in an orderly fashion, please.’ But they weren’t listening to anyone except John. And in they waded, with this curious light in their eyes, like they were doing something really amazing.
John stood in the middle of the river, and one by one, he pushed them under the water.
‘Now that’s really dangerous,’ I wanted to say. ‘You know the rules. No running. No diving. No ducking.’
But, in all honesty, I can’t say anyone needed saving. Under the water they went, up they came again – water streaming off their faces and sins draining into the river.
All except one man. I could tell he was different from the rest, I don’t know why. He dressed like the others. He queued quietly with the others. But he had a quality, a translucency that was curiously compelling. I watched in fascination as he came to the front of the queue.
John saw that he was different, too. He turned quite white and started to shake. ‘I can’t baptise you!’ he said. ‘You should baptise me!’
But the man gently shook his head and murmured some words I couldn’t catch. And with less than his usual composure, John pushed him under the water like the others.
Weird, though. When he came up, there was this enormous clap of thunder. And the man stood, for a moment, like a child receiving a blessing from his father.
Things quietened down over the next few weeks, and the crowds gradually died away. I later heard that John had been arrested and that the other man was gathering crowds now. Strange, that one had grown less as the other grew greater.
I never did get a chance to save anyone. No-one comes out here any more. Still, I’m glad I didn’t stay a carpenter. When did a carpenter ever make a difference?
I hear there’s a lifeguard job going on the Sea of Galilee. I think I’ll apply. Maybe there’ll be lives to save there. Knowing my luck, though, someone’ll start a trend of walking on the water.
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