You may remember the water trickling down behind your ears, or perhaps the rush of water covering your head. Some of you were baptized as infants, and likely most of you while you were still quite small. In heirloom robes, or smocked dresses, or little suits that snapped at the crotch—you were each brought to church, some of you to this one, and the water of baptism was sprinkled or poured on your heads, as it has been on so many for two millennia. Some of you were old enough to remember. For others there may be a faint memory of being held by a stranger and perhaps carried up and down the center aisle of the sanctuary to be presented to your new family of faith. Sometimes people are baptized as adults; one of my past ministers always made a point of laying a big handful of water on adults being baptized, that there might be no question in their minds that something was happening to them!
My story is a tale of two baptisms. My Methodist father and my Southern Baptist mother wanted a way to mark the occasion when my adoption became finalized. At that time in Virginia it took well over a year, and for them it was a tremendous relief when that day arrived. In my mother’s tradition there is a practice of believer’s baptism, which means that you have to be old enough to choose baptism yourself. But at the Methodist church, they could have me christened. And in a show of ecumenical understanding that influences me to this day, when the two families gathered in the chapel at the Methodist Church, the Baptist minister was there with them. My christening was a symbol of joining the Christian community, yes, but also a symbol of finally being named “officially.”
Although I had been christened by the Methodists, I went to church with my mother, and as a teenager I had the very different experience of being baptized by immersion. We had an interesting conversation over dinner here Chez Casserole. I guess there are some Baptists who would have wanted to see me baptized again because the first one didn’t really count. But my experience as a teenager was different. It felt like an affirmation of what my parents had done down the street a decade earlier, not a do-over. It felt like what we do when we confirm young people. I claimed the promises earlier made on my behalf.
Whether in a font built into a sanctuary or in a river or some other body of water, baptism by immersion is a tremendous occurrence. You have to trust the person baptizing you, for you let go into that person’s arms and let him or her drop you into the water and pull you up again. Coming out of the water is like being born a new creation. When at my ordination it came time for the laying on of hands, it felt familiar. The weight of the hands, most of them familiar to me, was like the weight of the water. It went on just long enough that I wondered how I would hold myself up, how I could come up for air. It almost felt like too much, but it wasn’t. The weight of my promises to God was borne by the strength given in the community’s support of my call to ministry. As my parents named me into the family of Christ, as the Baptist minister lifted me into new life, so the hands of my colleagues pressed me into God’s service.