Shop talk among seasoned pastors often brings up tales of memorable weddings, funerals and other church traditions. It did that last Sunday over lunch with friends. Only this time, the stories centered on baptism.
Some churches dunk baptismal candidates; others sprinkle and some pour. Some do all three. Some baptize at an altar or in a baptism tank, or even wade into a river in the pattern of Christ himself. For many, a lake, a cattle trough or a swimming pool serve equally well.
But I’d never heard of a baptism like the one Pastor Darrell told us about the other day. His most recent baptism.
Former parishioners, he told us, had recently contacted him with a request that he baptize an adult family member. Though Darrell now lived in another province they still considered him their pastor. They’d been praying that somehow it would be possible for him to help the baptismal candidate, a young man, take the next step in his faith journey. So when Darrell knocked at their door very early one recent morning, on his way home after visiting family, they expected a baptism.
“There was no other place,” Darrell said, “so we trooped into the tiny washroom and filled the tub.”
The young man got in and sat with his knees pulled up. “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…” Darrell said. The tub was barely big enough to lower the man backwards under the water, but under he went.
After he clambered out, the mother looked closely at her tall, dripping son. And shook her head. “His knees are dry. It’s not good enough.”
Ain’t Mama happy, ain’t nobody happy, even in matters of sacraments. “So back he went into the tub,” Darrell said. “We did a lot of splashing, and laughing, but when he came out, both knees were soaked. So was the washroom.”
He thought a lot about that baptism on his drive home, Darrell told us. “I realized how important those knees were. For years, that mother had prayed, on her knees, that her son would give his entire life to Jesus Christ to manage. Leaving any part of his symbolic old self out of the water just wouldn’t do.
Wherever or however it takes place, adult Christian baptism is a public witness to a private decision already made and a transaction already finished. A decision to engage with God in a destiny-altering way. To bow in total surrender at the cross and ask Jesus Christ to give our sorry, soiled and rebellious spirits a bath. To allow every sin to slither down the irreversible drain of God’s deliberate forgetfulness and accept his forgiving embrace. To put on our new spiritual duds, something scripture calls a “robe of righteousness” – and walk on, burden-free. But never alone, for Christ himself is that robe.
Come to think of it – perhaps a bathtub is the perfect place for a baptism.