Come to the Water

Preaching on baptism in the third century, Tertullian of Carthage said, "We being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound." So it was for Paul Maclean in the movie A River Runs Through It.

The mysterious presence of grace in the world haunts this movie, even as its writer, Paul's older brother Norman Maclean, confesses at the end: "I am haunted by waters." In the midst of wounds known and unknown, and finally death, a river of life runs through it.

Paul knew grace when he was fly-fishing. Wading in the midst of Montana's Blackfoot River, those waters of danger, of ancient time, and of beauty were waters of baptism. His Presbyterian father believed that life rested on grace, that grace came from art, and that art required work. So when Paul has nearly lost his life catching the trout of his life, Norman realizes he is "witnessing perfection, suspended above the Earth, like a work of art," full of grace and truth.

But "life is not a work of art," and that moment, held beyond time, does not last. Grace perceived in others becomes grace extended to us.

Glimpses reappear, even away from the water. Paul tells Jessie, Norman's girlfriend, that her brother's sizzling, drunken, sunburnt body "was my fault. Is Norman forgiven?" He could cover the sins of another, but Paul couldn't confess nor have his own debts forgiven.

With tragedy stalking his memory, Paul and Norman's father says from the pulpit, "We seldom know how to help those closest to us." Then he adds, "But we can love them completely, even without complete understanding."

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Sojourners Magazine July 1993
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