Each month we young Dominican students used to be turned out of our Oxford priory with a bit of pocket money and the sandwiches we had made. In the summer we would pool our funds to hire a punt for the day. And we would buy some cider, which we kept cool by towing it in the water. If the weather were fine we would have a swim -an idyllic way of spending a day!
But not so on one occasion. Although I was quite proficient at punting I certainly wouldn't claim to have been an expert. But for all of us it was a matter of pride not to lose the punt pole or fall into the water. And pride, literally, was my downfall!
There was I, with a certain elegance, propelling the punt forward as I prodded the river bed with the long pole. Woe is me! The pole got caught in the branches of an over-hanging willow tree. To my dismay the punt and I parted company. As it raced away from me I instinctively grabbed a branch, hoping to avoid falling into the river. A big mistake! I was no heavy weight, but solid enough for my shoulder to be jerked right out of its socket. Good thing I was wearing my swimming trunks when I fell into the water!
Seeing my painful distress, a burly young man in another punt claimed he'd dealt with similar accidents on the rugby field. So he kindly offered to pull my dislocated shoulder back into its socket. But, being unsure of his expertise I graciously declined his generous offer and chose to be taken to the local hospital. There, much tugging and twisting failed to get my shoulder back into its socket. So I was given a shot of morphine to relax the muscles and relieve the pain.
That did the trick and I was taken to the recovery room. There I sat groggily on the bed. On that gloriously hot summer day I was wearing only my swimming trunks -that's important for what happened next. A young nurse drew back the curtains, and to my surprise and alarm asked, "Are you the young man with the hairy legs? I've come to shave them!" Never before have I had less desire to have smooth limbs! What, I wonder, would have happened if I'd been unconscious and unable to tell her she'd got the wrong patient. I could have lost a leg!
My floundering helplessly in the river has reminded me of Christ pulling the fool-hardy Peter out of the sea. His pride had led him to start trusting himself as he tried to do what was humanly impossible -to walk across the water. Inevitably he began to sink beneath the storm-tossed waves. Only then did he cry, "Save me, Lord, I'm sinking!" Peter could only be saved when he grasped the hand Jesus extended towards him.
But what did my dislocating punting experience tell me about my relationship with God? And now my imagination leaps off in several directions.
First of all, after I'd dislocated my shoulder I no longer had the strength to get to safety in the punt or onto dry land. I needed to use my good arm to grasp the hand reaching out to rescue me. I could not manage by myself. I needed someone else to save me from the water. And so did Peter, when he was in danger of drowning. He was helpless; he was terrified -until Jesus reached out to him. Only then was he safe.
For me, that simple gesture of their grasping each other's hands sums up the whole of salvation history. In our helplessness God reaches out to save us. As we grasp His hand we are saved. Like Peter, I must place my trust in Christ, and not try to go it alone. With Peter I desperately, yet confidently cry, "Save me, Lord, I'm sinking!" That is the only way, I, or anyone else, can meet God.
Then, in hospital, I see the medical staff continuing the work of Christ, the Good Physician, who came to repair our relationship with God, dislocated by sin. As for the nurse, who threatened to shave my hairy legs -at first she was sinister, threatening, scary. But then I quickly realized how zany, how hilarious was her question. Decades later I still chuckle about it. I'm sure God sent that charming ministering angel to distract me with something crazy when I was feeling sorry for myself. What a delightful way of experiencing God's compassion, expressed with a divine sense of humour! But I do thank God for delivering me from that close shave, which was meant to be the prelude to something more drastic -what? And I do hope the nurse found our brief encounter as amusing as I did -and still do.
Next week Fr. Peter will meet God while sleep walking