Baptism in the Lake

Posted: October 3, 2011 in Uncategorized
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It’s how it used to be done all the time – baptisms in the river, the lake, the stock tank, the farm pond. Then churches moved baptismal fonts and pools indoors. And that was early, of course. Archaeologists have discovered them in the uncovered strata of our earliest Christian churches in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, Turkey …

So baptism inside is not a new thing. In fact, having a baptismal pool or font inside the church house (more an urban than rural phenomenon) in 19th and early 20th century America was a sign of respectability. It was a sign of establishment. Today few congregations consider the building of a sanctuary without one.  This is not only for practical reasons, but liturgical and  symbolic ones. The sign of baptism should be present and accounted for every time someone enters sacred space. That’s who we are, baptized.

I get that.

But this past Sunday we had a baptism in a lake. One of our young women plunged headlong into Christ. She and the pastor waded out into the chaos and she plunged to her death, rising out of the waters to new life. And on the shore, brothers and sisters awaited her – with hugs, blessings and  gifts and signs of baptism. Communion followed with a real meal around a fire.

I suppose that when you conduct baptisms in one setting for such a long time, as in my case, and then move to a different one, you notice what’s happening differently. At least I do. The same scripture is read, the same thoughts shared, and many of the same rubrics take place. There is the baptismal formula, the immersion, the blessing. But it’s different, too.

Christians may identify with Jesus’ own baptism which was in the Jordan river. And millions of Christians afterward followed suit. Who can forget the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-38)? An official in the Ethiopian court is driving along in his chariot, passing the time reading portions of Isaiah (there was and is a large Jewish community in Ethiopia). Phillip shows up, interprets the meaning of the scripture and our Eunuch is convicted by the good news of Jesus. Then – and here is the good part – they come to some water and Phillip says, “Why not here?” Actually, as we find later, the Eunuch in the story recites an ancient baptismal formula: “Here is water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The point, I think, is the spontaneity and availability of any water. Now is the time and the creek, swimming pool or pond will do.

Human communities have always ritualized water, appealing to its symbolic nature. This shows up in a multiplicity of cultures and religions. And humans tend to use water in the service of art, by containing it, channeling it, and pooling it. We pour it into a font and then repeat a ritual with it. We wade into the baptistry and it becomes sacred space, transforming space filled with water.

Again, I understand that, I appreciate that. But there is also a special connection with non-human-made water in its natural setting. In a strange kind of dance the human rituals intersect with the power of nature, a force that plays by its own rules, not ours. We don’t pour nature into our constructions; rather, we get poured into it. And that feels much more like grace than works, like plunging into that which is bigger than I.

Many years ago I served a church that was celebrating its 50th anniversary. As churches go, that’s a short time. But every marker is an important one. One evening we had a church dinner and told our baptismal stories. Some were typical coming of age baptisms, a line of young people moving through the baptistry like a row of penguins. But there were also were the breathtaking baptisms, stories of breaking the ice, plunging into the freezing waters, sisters welcoming the shivering babes in Christ back to shore with blankets and warm beverages.

Once I knew of a woman who had lived a hard life. Her history was memorable, too memorable, really. And as she turned a hard corner into a new way of living, she began to walk with Jesus. She was baptized. And every time that the old nightmares came back, every time that the gravity of the old slide pulled her toward her old self, every time that shame or regret came to collect their dues, she just repeated to herself, over and over, “I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.”

For her, it didn’t matter, whether inside or outside, flowing water or still, in a human made tank or the waters of nature. She was baptized into the death and new life of Christ.

It is in our attending to what is happening that it remains fresh and new. Sometimes a change of setting will trigger that. Suddenly, without warning, there arrives some new attention, some awareness of the moment, of the many ways in which we plunge into God.

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