It began with a seven-year-old with a huge heart for justice, worshipping out of town with his family, hearing the “altar call,” and going forward to give his life to Christ.
It began with a 13-year-old with a penchant for jokes and riddles, telling his parents in all seriousness: I want to get baptized.
It began with the recent cancer diagnosis for a young man’s wife, the nudging of the cherished memory of his Pentecostal grandma, and a neighbor’s invitation to our church.
Each Sunday during Lent, on the heels of the confession of sin and assurance of God’s grace, I lifted a pitcher of water, pouring it into our tiny bowl of a font, declaring: “In baptism we are sealed by the promised Holy Spirit, and claimed as Christ’s forever. Remember your baptism and be thankful!” I think that had something to do with it, too – for these three had no baptism yet to be thankful for.
Within a matter of days, each of the three declared: “I want to be baptized.” Then the follow-up question: “Can I get dunked?”
Presbyterians do dunk — but in 27 years of ordained ministry I had sprinkled and poured up a storm, but never done a full immersion.
I figured we had a few options: Head down to the stunningly beautiful and frigid waters of the nearby Puget Sound; or, we could use a member’s backyard hot tub.
What bothered me most with both options was the necessity of gathering after Sunday morning worship at either of these locations, and the likelihood of losing a good bit of the congregation in the process, thereby perpetuating the reductionism of baptism as marking an individual’s personal decision to follow Jesus.
Still, the prospect of pouring even the whole pitcher of water on each of these three during worship didn’t quite do justice to the Romans 6:4 image of baptism as burial.
Well, then, what about a kiddie pool on site? Or, better yet, a big galvanized tub? I had a line on one that was 5’6” in diameter, just under 2’ high. We could fill it in the sanctuary — except the closest hose bib was several leaky hose lengths away. And how would we empty it?
Besides, my husband did the math: “Honey, that would be about 3,600 pounds of water up there on the nearly 100-year-old chancel, poised directly over the basement with the cracked plaster ceiling.” Oh.
Recalling the practice of the early church to welcome new members on Pentecost Sunday, on a cloudy, breezy day in late May, we segued from the sermon (the wind of the Spirit is blowing … “Surf’s Up!”) to the offering, and then marched as one out of the sanctuary singing a rousing rendition of O Brother’s “As I Went Down In the River to Pray,” down the front steps to the sidewalk, where we gathered ’round that galvanized trough, or what someone dubbed the “redneck hot tub,” filled to the brim a few short hours before with the garden hose.
The water was ice-cold, but mercifully an assisting elder and I had only to get in up to our knees. It was the exquisite symbolism and palpable presence of God that took my breath away.
“Who will welcome these new disciples into this community of faith, and help them know what Christ commands?” “We will!” the congregation roared, beaming.
“You are buried with Christ … and in Jesus Christ you are raised to new life!”
There we were, the whole church – spilling out from the sanctuary into the world, giving witness to God in front of everybody, the smell of pizza and gyros wafting from the Greek fast-food restaurant just across the street.
They wanted to be dunked, but they couldn’t get out of that water fast enough – to live for Christ, to follow him.
I’m pretty sure they’ll remember their baptism now.
I know I will.
HEIDI HUSTED ARMSTRONG is interim pastor of Trinity Church, Tacoma, Wash.