Wade In The Water: thoughts on baptism
When we moved to the Pacific Northwest and started attending a Presbyterian church, I was utterly confused one morning as I witnessed a baptism. Where was the swimsuit? The submersion? The waiting towel?
As I moved into middle and high school, my family started attending other kinds of churches. These people believed in submersion, all right, and they did it in a lake.
There was no set time for baptism in my evangelical tradition. “When you’re old enough to understand” seemed to be the general consensus. I’m not sure that it logically followed that the majority of people seemed to be baptized during their teen years.
There were countless opportunities for this profession of faith. Summer camp was always a popular choice, after a week of praise music and sermons three times a day in the great outdoors. Most of the churches I went to had some sort of tank as well. Every once in a while, they would pull it out and dip each person three times, until they came up after “and in the name of the Holy Spirit” dripping.
But standing aside from these two options was the once a year, Holy Grail of evangelical baptism: the church picnic.
The year I chose to be baptized, the picnic was at Spirit Lake, which seems sort of poetic now. I was fifteen, and I didn’t know a lot of things for sure. But I knew that I loved Jesus.
I waded into the water with the senior pastor and youth pastor. He was wearing a t-shirt I saw often at youth group, it said: “I do my own stunts.”
The pastor prayed a few words and they lowered my church appropriate one-piece clad body into the lake three times, leaving my old self to settle on the bottom, amongst the weeds.
I will never forget how it felt to come up out of that water and see everyone gathered to watch. They clapped, and many rushed forward to hug me. I felt warm, and so very seen.
I haven’t seen any of those people in years.
Months later, as I began to ask the first (and probably the most tentative) of my theological questions, I found myself in conversation with that youth pastor about whether or not baptism was crucial to salvation. “Well, are you going to just not get baptized and find out that way?” he asked in frustration.
“You baptized me,” I said.
In college, I began to sneak away from my evangelical roots and explore the richness of liturgy in the Episcopal Church. There are few places that still give me a sense of home, even after time has passed between us, but that little church in central Indiana is one of them.
I watched baptisms populated by squirming babies and earnest parents. I fell in love with the prayers spoken over the water, the questions and their responses. I began to whisper along, on those days, echoing the words of the baptized.
These days, I’ve found a home in a lovely little Lutheran Church. After some time away from church as a whole, I’m finding beauty and new excitement in celebrating the church year once more. This last Sunday, as part of Epiphany, we listened to the story of Jesus’ baptism. As my pastor began her sermon, I couldn’t help but travel back to that day at the lake, so many years ago. And while I’ve heard this story many times, I was struck by something new. Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of His ministry, an inciting incident for three full and miraculous years. It is here, in the water with John that the Father chooses to speak, telling Jesus (and everyone around) that He is His Beloved, that He is pleased with Him. For the first time, I think that perhaps I didn’t leave my old self at the bottom of Spirit Lake. Perhaps God used that water to tell me that I am Beloved, and that He is pleased with me. Perhaps in the water, I was not abandoned, but transformed.