Neck Deep in Life With You

Matthew 3:13-17

By Patrick Gahan

The only way to reach him — the only way — was through his feet. Imagine that: the great Parker Palmer, noted educator, speaker, activist, and author of such best selling books as The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy, was so down, so terribly depressed, that he could scarcely rise out of his chair to shave or bend down to tie his shoes.

This almost iconic 20th- and 21st-century standard-bearer of hope was in a black place. Palmer admits, people would stop by and say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go and smell the flowers.” “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You helped so many people.” All these well-meaning people only left him feeling more depressed and guilty for being in that state.

Then a friend, an elder in the congregation, came over and asked if he could massage Parker’s feet. Parker assented, and every day at 4 o’clock, without fail, the man came over, took off Parker’s shoes and socks and massaged his feet for an hour. He said almost nothing for all those days and weeks, but Parker concluded, “I really don’t have the words, but the act of massaging kept me connected to the human race.”[1]

He could only be reached through his feet. I wasn’t really surprised by his story because I share it. We all share it. We are spiritual beings, who experience everything through our bodies. That’s why talking about the “spiritual life” as some disembodied phenomenon is about as much help as Parker’s friends vacuously telling him to “snap out of it.” Their words could not touch him, and touch was the prescription he needed.

Thinking about Parker and his feet, let’s revisit the moment of Jesus’ baptism. Think about him wading into the water with all the rest of the rank-and-file folks gathered there. Taking off his sandals, first the soles of his bare feet touched the cool water of the river, then his ankles, his knees, until he was up to his waist and dunked by John in the Jordan. Consider what Jesus was saying without uttering a syllable: “I’m neck deep in life with you.” Can you see how that is like the elder who came every day and massaged Parker’s feet? He acts like his Lord. “Parker, I’m in this life with you.”

On every occasion that we baptize in this room, Jesus says to all of us, “Come back to the water, because that is where I am. Come and know my real presence, which I pour out to you freely. Know that I will never leave you. These waters will connect you and me forever. If you’re experiencing a cool, refreshing spring of joy in your life right now, I’m riding the stream with you. If you are falling on the floor with a torrent of tears flowing off your face, I’m in those hot, salty tears. If you have ended up in boiling hot water due to your own bad decisions, I am in the middle of that roiling water with you.” Jesus’ life touches ours.

In the same way, those of us who wish to live in the Spirit must be willing to touch others. If we do, we will become healers in the same way that Jesus heals. Remember Paul’s words: “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you” (Rom. 8:11). We don’t have to be full of clever words or tactics, just open to receive the Spirit, which Jesus yearns to give us, and then we will be healers. I know that truth deep in my bones, and I witnessed it yesterday at the food pantry, where our youngest adults were handing out soup, warm clothes, coffee, and toiletry bags. They dared to touch others.

Evan LaGrange is only 9 years old, but he knows the truth of this. On Christmas Day, when all the other kids in his neighborhood were trying out their new bikes, enrapt in the latest video games, or sitting down to a sumptuous repast with family, Evan was sitting at Colonel Von Der Bruegge’s feet in Room 736 of the Methodist Intensive Care Unit, while Eric Fenton led the room in a Christmas Eucharist. Later, when asked if being part of the service in the hospital made him sad, young Evan said, “Yes, but it is my best Christmas ever.”

And a little child shall lead them — into the deepest spiritual truth (Isa. 11:6).

The Rev. Patrick Gahan is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in San Antonio.


[1] Krista Tippet, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016), 93-94.

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