In the story called "the River," Southern novelist Flannery O'Connor tells of the day that Bevel, a child of alcoholic and abusive parents, is taken to a baptizing by his sitter, Mrs. Connin.
"Have you ever been baptized?" the preacher asked. "What's that?" he murmured. "If I baptize you," the preacher said, "you'll be able to go to the kingdom of Christ. You'll be washed in the river of suffering, son. You'll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?" "Yes," the child said, and thought, "I won't have to go back to the apartment then. I'll go on to the river." "You won't be the same again," the preacher said. "You'll count. . . ." And without more warning he tightened his hold and swung him upside down, and plunged his head into the water. He held him under while he said the words of baptism. Then he jerked him up again and looked sternly at the gasping child. Bevel's eyes were dark and dilated. "You count now," the preacher said. "You didn't even count before." The little boy was too shocked to cry. He spit out the muddy water and rubbed his wet sleeve into his eyes and over his face. "Don't forget his mama," Mrs. Connin called. "She's sick." "Lord," said the preacher, "we pray for somebody in affliction who isn't here to testify." "Is your mother sick in the hospital?" he asked. "Is she in pain?" The child stared at him. "She hasn't got up yet," he said, in a high dazed voice. "She has a hangover." The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking on the water.[i]
There is a river, full of little children and babysitters, holiness preachers and hung-over parents, where sinners become saints and where the no-account people count after all. Christian baptism began at the river. John, the Baptizer, storms out of the wilderness demanding repentance of everyone, warning of the wrath that is to come. So Jesus shows up at the river, seeking baptism. John hesitates, but Jesus insists, and into, under, muddy Jordan he goes, taking all God's people with him.
These days I think often about baptism, trying to decide what it means to belong to a group that uses the adjective "Baptist" to describe its Christianity. Baptism by immersion is a powerful characteristic of the people called Baptists. In 1646, Anglican critic Daniel Featley observed of the "Dippers" rampant in England: "They preach, and print and practice their Heretical impieties openly.... They flock in great multitudes to their Jordans and both sexes enter into the River, and are dipt after their manner with a kind of spell...containing their erroneous tenets.... And as they defile our rivers with their impure washings, so the presses sweat and groan under the load of their blasphemies."[ii]
Four centuries later, Christian baptism remains a radical, sometimes controversial, event. It is not merely a command we fulfill or a membership requirement we must endure to enter the Christian church. It is an act we experience that transforms the experience itself. Baptism is an act of faith, a celebration of grace, and an enactment of the Word of God.
In the 21st century, the real question, however, may be, "Does Baptism mean anything at all?" For many, baptism is neither powerful nor significant; rather, it seems an anachronistic initiation ritual of a bygone era or an antiseptic event tacked onto worship, streamlined for the sake of convenience. Such sacramental confusion may be a sign of a larger disengagement from religious identity fast overtaking faith communities across the theological spectrum.
Amid such confusion, we return to the strength that had been there from the beginning of the church: faith in Jesus Christ and baptism into his body, the church. When the old institutions won't hold, and the new ones are a long time coming, we go back where we belong. . . to the river, remembering our past to find hope for the future.
Truth is, most churches do not gather at the river anymore. We have taken it inside and toned it down considerably. Some baptisms use minimal amounts of water. We Baptists dip the entire body in heated, fiberglass baptisteries full of fresh water, no muss, no fuss. Perhaps on occasion, we should return to the river, with the congregation gathered all around receiving new Christian brothers and sisters with open arms, drying them off and welcoming them home. I know there are problems of time, space and pollution. In most places, if we baptized folks in the river, we would have to give them a tetanus shot immediately or send them on to heaven that afternoon. Even indoor baptism, particularly by immersion, is an event fraught with dignity and danger and the possibility of unlimited logistical complications. We all have stories.
Once when I was interim pastor of a Kentucky church, a young man named Bob confessed faith in Christ and requested baptism. We talked beforehand of life and faith, death and hope. But not until he entered the water with me on a bright Sunday morning did I realize that Bob was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds--considerably larger than my 5 foot 6 self. I looked out in the congregation and saw my wife put her hand in her hands, and I knew I was in big trouble. Yet down he went, with the name of God spoken over him. And down I went, too, staggering under the weight. Somehow we got back up, both grateful for grace and unexpected adrenalin, all to a congregation that broke into spontaneous applause in celebration, relief, and good humor.
Perhaps we should always applaud at baptism or shout like our frontier forbearers or do something a little frivolous. The angels do, Jesus said, rejoice over one measly sinner who once lost is found again, at the river.
The early Christians certainly made the most of baptism. Tertullian describes the event as practiced in the 2nd-century church: "When we are going to enter the water," he says, "we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then, when we are taken up, we taste first a mixture of milk and honey. And from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week." Those early Christians, no doubt, had the odor of sanctity about them, yet they wanted to hold on to that high moment as long as possible.
But however we administer it, baptism should be a significant moment for participant and observer alike. And every time we do it, we should say again something of what baptism means to the people of God. As St. Paul writes, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Gal. 3:27) We not only believe in Jesus, but we also identify with him and his way of living in the world.
In the early Christian centuries, converts were baptized naked. Did you know that? Now that would perk up a Sunday morning worship service! And they put on white robes when they came up out of the water. It was a sign that they had literally put on Christ like a garment. They wore those robes for a period as a reminder of who they were and what they had done. We, like they, are the Christ-bearers of our world, carrying Christ with us wherever we go.
Thus baptism is not merely a symbol of faith--it is an act of faith. Perhaps we might call it a faithful act. Faith and baptism are linked inseparably. All Christian communions confirm that unity. Faith keeps baptism from becoming a purely magic ritual, while baptism keeps faith from deteriorating into a purely individualistic experience.
And baptism is also the symbol of liberation in Christ. It is the promise of freedom to all who believe. Nowhere is that more evident than in slavery time in the American South. White Christians frequently qualified the Gospel by insisting that baptism changed only the slave's eternal status, not their earthly condition. But try as they might, they could not keep the liberating power of the Gospel from finding its way into the hearts and hopes of the Africans. So in 1807, a Kentucky slave woman named Winnie was disciplined by the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, where she was a member, for saying that "she once thought it her duty to serve her mistress and her master, but since the Lord had converted her [since her baptism] she had never believed that any Christian [could keep] Negroes or slaves." And she got into more trouble with the church for saying that "there were thousands of white people wallowing in hell for their treatment to Negroes--and she did not care if there was many more."[iii] That woman talked free, baptized into the radical faith of the Gospel.
To be baptized, therefore, is to enter the river, the "glad river" Will Campbell calls it, through which all the saints have trod. It is to belong to a people. We are a people of liberation, not bondage, captivated by a gospel which is often too radical for us.
This liberating gospel compels us into the world, confronting issues of race and gender, worship and spirituality, witness and mission, sin and salvation--scary stuff. Instead of distracting ourselves by turning inward on each other ,often ignoring the hurt rampant around us, let us rise up together to carry out Jesus' own mission, wonderfully articulated by the Isaiah text: "to open eyes that are blind; to bring captives out of prison."
Beyond sectarian divisions, we are the community of the baptized; and in that community we return to the river, reaffirming the power of this act of faith.
Our daughter, Stephanie, is a person with special needs, learning and motor skill disabilities. Concepts do not come easily for her. Because of that I supposed that she might never receive baptism since she cannot meet all the conceptual pre-requisites demanded by many Baptists. You see, she does not understand the substitutionary theory of the atonement or the historical critical method of biblical studies the way the rest of us do. But on the third Sunday in December, 1991, on the way home from church, Stephanie, age 16, announced to her mother and me, "I think its time for me to be baptized." We talked about it and she was resolved, so we went to see our pastor, and he was everything a pastor should be for such a moment. He did not speak to her of what she had to KNOW, but what she wished to BE. "If you receive baptism, Stephanie," he said, "you are saying that you want to be a follower of Jesus. Do you want that?" She said yes and we prayed together.
And on Christmas Eve, Stephanie entered the baptistery of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church, Louisville, the same baptistery where her father had taken the spill years before. "Profess your faith," the pastor said. "Jesus is Lord," Stephanie replied. And under she went in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the presence of a congregation that had nurtured her to faith throughout her 16 years.
We are all special needs persons, you and I. In some of us, it is just more public than in others. Not one of us can ever conceptualize enough to make us worthy of God's grace. If pressed, I must admit that I know more about sin and salvation, doctrine and dogma, than my daughter ever will. But I am not certain that such knowledge makes me any closer to grace than she was on that Christmas Eve.
So let us continue to return to the river with others who begin the journey. We are always going back there, rediscovering the implications and complications of God's grace. We need patience and humility together, since we will never establish a baptismal policy on which all of us can readily agree. But like the child in Flannery O'Conner's story, we can know that we count, after all, at the river. Perhaps that will have to be good news enough, until that day when all God's people shall gather at the river "that flows by the throne of God."[iv]
Let us pray. For the gift of grace made known to us in the water and the word, we give you thanks, O God. Strengthen us with the power and the memory of the baptism which carries us even now in your world, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
[i].Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 168.
[ii].Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2003), 51; and William H. Brackney, "'Commonly, (Though Falsely) Called. . .': Reflections on the Search for Baptist Identity" in Perspectives in Churchmanship, edited by David M. Scholer, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1986), 79-80.
[iii].William Warren Sweet, ed., Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists 1783-1830 (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc, 1964), 329.
[iv] Robert Lowery, "Shall We Gather at the River," in Celebrating Grace Hymnal (Macon: Celebrating Grace, Inc., 2010), 561.