Monday, June 7, 2021

Stirring the Water: Swimming as Prayer

There was no such thing as a neighborhood swimming pool when I was growing up in the 1950s in Columbus, Ohio.  Families who were affluent joined a country club in a wealthy suburb on the west side of town and could swim whenever they wanted in the summer. The only place for a kid like me to swim was the inside pool at the downtown YMCA twenty-five minutes from my house. 

One year, the YMCA offered swimming lessons for girls participating in Brownie Scouts. Learning to swim seemed like a good idea, but I was apprehensive. Not only had I never seen a swimming pool, trying new things was overwhelming to me, a child whose world consisted of going to school, attending church, and playing around the house or in the backyard.

I didn’t even have a bathing suit of my own to bring. Fortunately, the Y provided towels and cotton suits in navy blue for all of us to wear. My suit didn’t fit, but there were no smaller sizes available. The straps hung loosely over my thin shoulders. I feared my suit would slip off in the water. I hid at the back of the line, embarrassed at my small frame in a suit that was too big.


The pool was bordered by a narrow tile deck that looked too close to the water for my safety. I scanned my eyes from the shallow end where the water was light aqua to the deep end where it became dark blue. A plastic divider stretched from side to side, separating the shallow from the deep. 

My friend, Rachel, asked, “What’s that smell?” I wiped my runny nose with the edge of my towel. My eyes watered. 

The teacher replied, “That’s chlorine. Chlorine kills any germs in the water and keeps the pool clean. Once you get swimming you won’t notice the smell anymore.”

The friend in front of me slipped on the slick tiles around the edge of the pool. I pressed my feet into the ground with each step to keep myself steady.  I followed the lead of the other children and found a spot on the edge of the pool.  We began the class by kicking our legs in the water. I started slowly, but in a short time I was making big splashes like the others. 

The teacher instructed us to get into the pool and jump up and down. I was the last one in. I gripped the side tightly. Because I was short, I couldn’t touch the bottom. The water was cold. Everyone else was laughing and splashing and making waves in the water. I wanted to go home.

I knew I needed to participate. With reluctance, still clinging to the side of the pool, I stretched my legs to the bottom, the surface of the water almost reaching my mouth. My first jumps were short, but gradually I gained confidence and began to make my own pattern of splashes and waves. 

Soon, the teacher instructed us to take a deep breath, put our faces in the water, and blow bubbles. Once again, I let the other girls take the lead. Although I wasn’t afraid of the water, trying anything new required that I give myself a pep talk. In time, I put my face into the water. I felt the bubbles brush against my cheeks, tickling my face, making me laugh. Blowing bubbles was fun. 

Right before the lesson ended, the teacher had us extend our arms from the side, blow bubbles, and kick our legs. We were beginning swimmers, learning the basics of what to do with our bodies while in the water.

Pulling myself  out of the water, the warm, stuffy air, was surprisingly cold against my wet body.  I quickly wrapped a towel around my shivering shoulders, feeling water drip down my legs from the heavy cotton suit. We walked into the locker room, changed our clothes, dried our hair, and prepared to return home. 

I was glad to leave the pool. Although I was pleased with my efforts and ended up having a little fun, I needed some time to think about what I had learned and experienced. Even when I was seven, reflection was important. I needed time to recover from the stress of going to an unfamiliar place, meeting people I didn’t know, learning the procedures for swim class, and immersing myself in a container of water so much larger than my bathtub. Riding in the car on the way home, I realized how much I had accomplished in one short lesson. Each step of learning to swim came with hesitation, yet I had the courage to try anyway. 

The remaining lessons taught us to coordinate our arms, legs, and breathing. I learned quickly and enjoyed the feel of the water over my back. The uncoordinated movements of my arms and legs soon became a smooth rhythm. I liked swimming!

The last day of class, we went to the deep end. Oh my, there was so much water.  Would the water hold me? Would I sink? Would I disappear? The teacher reassured us swimming in the deep end was just like swimming in the shallow end. 

Instead of jumping into the deep end and swimming across like the other girls, I slid carefully into the water. The other side seemed so far away, but when I took a quick glance to compare  the  width of the shallow end, I realized the distance was the same. I had swum the freestyle stroke across the shallow end many times over the past few days with success. Taking a deep breath, I pushed away from the side. My arms moved in a steady rhythm. I turned my head to get a breath when needed. I somehow made it across without swallowing any water. Although no one cheered or celebrated my accomplishment, I realized how far I had come in two short weeks. 

I was developing a connection with the water. I felt a sense of success there like no other experience or environment I had been in. I longed to come to the pool and swim every week. I felt there was more the water wanted to provide for me than just a place to exercise.

I was at home in the pool. Enveloped by the water, I felt held and secure. Even though I was fearful at first, I enjoyed the freedom of movement the water allowed. I kicked my legs and swirled my arms over the water, making the water smooth, like icing a cake with a knife. When I let go of the pool’s edge I did jumping jacks in the water.


Although opening my eyes underwater made them sting, I liked watching the bubbles circle around when my friends swam near. Whether I floated on my stomach or my back, the water held me. Being in the pool was a calm and safe experience, something I was missing at home., I wouldn’t have the chance to swim again until four years later when I was eleven years old. 

When I was twelve, my family returned to Columbus, Ohio. Again, I would be absent from the water for a few years. At one point, a new housing addition built a swimming pool offering memberships to anyone in the area. My mother and her close friend chose to join. 

The first afternoon we went to the pool I was so excited. I put on my new green suit. The straps on my shoulders criss-crossed in the back and fastened my suit securely with  clear buttons. Unlike my first experience in the water at age 7, both this suit and the idea of swimming were now a good fit for me. 

During the ten minute drive, I thought about the strokes I knew the free-style and the breast stroke. From the front seat, my mother told me all children must be able to swim from one side of the pool to the other before having permission to use the diving board. In the back seat, I practiced moving my arms and turning my head to breathe. I remembered the strokes in the car, but what would happen in the water?

Arriving at the pool, I immediately joined the line of children waiting to pass the test. I didn’t want to waste any time sitting on the side. I was so confident, I jumped right in the pool when my name was called. The movements of the free-style returned like an old friend the minute I felt the water around my shoulders. I easily swam to the other side of the pool, my arms, legs, and breathing in perfect rhythm. I climbed out of the pool with a big grin.

“You passed!” the life-guard said, And with that , I jumped right back in the water making a huge splash and celebrating this moment of personal triumph and success.

I was in the pool for two hours. I swam from side to side and  went off the diving board multiple times. I swam underwater, watching bubbles dance and swirl from other children who were learning to swim like I did years ago.  I felt at home in the water. 

When I finally pulled myself from the water, I found my mother and her friend in a grassy area a few feet from the pool. The day was hot, there was no shade at the pool and I was thirsty.  I grabbed my towel, explored the snack area, and got a drink of cold water from the water fountain.

On the bulletin board, I noticed a sign advertising a life-saving class. In just two hours a night for one week I could become a certified life-guard. Although I wasn’t old enough yet, I decided to take the class the following summer when I was fifteen. Being a life-guard would allow me to earn money to buy clothes, but more importantly, I would have the opportunity to spend more time in the water and teach children how to swim. 

I thought about the life-saving class long after the pool closed and school started. Even in the middle of winter with snow on the ground, I thought about being in the water and taking the class when summer came. I was so excited to finally find a place to develop my skills as a swimmer, but also to teach children how to swim and be responsible for the safety of others in the water..

The next summer, I took the class and became certified as a senior life-saver.  I could life-guard, but I was most looking forward to the first week-long session of preschool swim classes. I got to the pool early on Monday morning and was paired with another guard, Ben. At 9:00 we  met our group of four-year-olds.. Every child jumped into the waist-high water, bobbing up and down with excitement…except John. John sat crying at the side of the pool, fearful of the water, holding on to his mother who sat with him. I wondered what it must be like to have a mother who cared enough to sit close and talk through a child’s reluctance. I had not had a caring mother like that, but I had been coached by a caring swim instructor. I had not cried during my first time at the edge of the pool, but I had felt uncertainty and anxiety. I was drawn to this hesitant child.  

“Ben, I want to work with John until he feels more comfortable.”

“Go ahead, “ replied Ben. “The other kids are doing just fine.”

I started talking with John, hoping to gain his trust. Each day, he returned to the pool, more confident. His mother was finally able to sit and relax at the picnic table close to the snack bar.

By Wednesday, John was putting his face in the water, joining the other children playing and splashing. All five children passed the beginning swimmer test on Friday, including John. Their coordination was a little out of rhythm, but they were off to a good start as they swam from one side of the shallow end of the pool to the other.

As I was saying good-bye to the children and getting ready for the next class, John’s mother walked toward me. In her hand, she carried a  plate covered in aluminum foil.

 “Thank you for helping John learn to swim,” she said as she handed it to me, “His father and I are so excited.” Surprised and not accustomed to affirmation, I thanked her and told her how much I had enjoyed working with John. I told her the story of how scared I was when I first learned to swim. I felt honored to help this little boy overcome his fear. I hoped in time he would come to enjoy swimming as much as I did. Watching John and his mother walk out of the pool gate laughing and holding hands made me smile. 

I took a minute before the next class of the day to look under the foil. It was a plate filled with brownies. I smelled the chocolate and could hardly wait to eat one. Although I had heard of brownies, this would be my first time actually tasting one. And this was also the first time in my life I could remember someone expressing appreciation to me. I was almost sixteen. I grew up in a home unaccustomed to extending kindness. Holding the plate, I savored the grace of her gesture. I felt special.  

I only taught swimming one summer. Life changed the next year. My mother went to work full-time and I had no way of getting to the pool. I was sad and disappointed. I yearned for the peace the water gave me. Unfortunately, many years passed before I would swim again. 

Four months after my husband, Mike and I were married, I convinced him to start swimming laps at Duke University where he was a Divinity School student. I remembered how much fun I had swimming in the summer when I was a teenager teaching children and lifeguarding. Since none of the  eleven high schools in Columbus had pools, my time in the water was limited to summer workouts at the neighborhood pool. Now, with Mike in school, we had free access to the university pool year-round. I was eager to get into a regular habit of swimming.


While Mike went to school full-time, I worked in a school for hearing impaired children.  Every evening after dinner, Mike would study for a couple of hours and then at about 9:00 pm we would drive to the university pool and swim laps.

The first time we went, Mike mentioned his breathing was not well-coordinated with his arm movements. I gave him a few suggestions. He practiced holding on to the side of the pool, turning his head to breathe with his arm overhead. His timing improved, and he swallowed less water with each stroke. Gradually, he developed a smooth, coordinated rhythm eventually moving faster than me! We swam for almost an hour each night, returning home refreshed, ready for a snack and bedtime. We continued this routine until he graduated.

After Mike was assigned to a pastorate, I swam intermittently as pool availability was limited.  One small town where Mike served two churches, had an outdoor pool open only in the summer. The next church was in a large town with a YMCA. We joined within a week of moving.

I swam half a mile the day I went into the hospital to deliver our first daughter. For the second daughter, I had to stop swimming two weeks before she came because I was in early labor. Otherwise, I have continued to spend at least five days a week swimming laps since January 1975.

Swimming began to take on a deeper meaning after I had children. I realized the forty minutes spent going back and forth from one side of the pool to the next offered peace and a quiet rhythm, which I lacked during the day. 

In 1997, as memories of my childhood trauma surfaced, I found myself overwhelmed, out of control, grasping to find ways to cope. Water, a continuing thread in my life, was sustaining during these challenging years. I thought back to passages in the Bible where Jesus interacted with water. He walked on water, taught large groups of people next to rivers, baptized with water, and changed water into wine. 

I especially connected with a story in John 5:1-5, describing the pool called Bethesda near the sheep gate in Jerusalem. Crowds of sick people gathered around the pool. Some old manuscripts add a few verses omitted from most Bibles. “The people were waiting for the water to move, because every now and then an angel of the Lord went down into the pool and stirred the water. The first sick person to go into the pool after the water was stirred was healed from whatever disease he or she had.

”I read these verses over and over. When I went to the pool, just before I jumped in, I began stirring the water with my hands, inviting God to be part of my swim. I prayed I too would experience healing with each lap.

Swimming was a way to pray. While I swam, I felt carried, not pulled in by the mental and emotional events with which I was dealing. The time in the water raked away these concerns. In the water, I was immersed in God’s presence. 

When I swim, God often gives me a word, insight, or image, reminders of God’s presence.  Both my muscles and my mind relax. I am grateful for what I encounter in the water, God and myself, growing in strength and confidence to persevere along a difficult path. 

Some days the water loosens emotions which have not been able to surface. Anger, frustration and sadness come out when I think about challenges in my life. The water is always open to receive whatever I bring. God hears the struggles of my heart with each stroke.

Occasionally, tears seep through my goggles blending with the water.  I am grateful for the way I can truly be myself with God while I swim.  I finish my laps feeling like I have talked to a good friend, and when I dry off on the deck, I feel better, cleansed, refreshed. 

In time, I reached a place of wellness. The emotional challenges were overcome. God’s companionship in the water reminded me how well God knew my needs and cared for me. 

I am grateful for the swim lessons offered to me when I was a seven-year-old Brownie Scout. Even today, I follow the instructions my swim teacher gave me all those years ago, stretching my arm and leg muscles and feeling the bubbles tickling my cheeks when I breathe out into the water. I wasn’t as aware of God then as I am now, but I have a sense that God was right beside me carrying me along during those moments of apprehension and anxiety, teaching me to love the water and helping me to feel held and healed.

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