On the first Saturday of Fall, I drove from Somerville down to Sandy Neck Beach on Cape Cod. Sandy Neck Beach is miles long and, besides the beach and the sea, it contains thousands of acres of marshes, dunes, and tidal pools. On this bright, brisk, breezy afternoon, there were a few other scattered souls walking along the beach and looking out on the surprisingly rough surf. But I wasn’t here just to watch. I was here to get into the water. And not for your typical dip either. I was here to baptize a newbie in the faith - Adam.
I had never done an ocean baptism before, and I arrived early to get my bearings and get good with the Spirit. Standing there at the edge of the ocean felt wonderfully holy. I had done outdoor, public baptisms before - in quaint, calm, iconic New England ponds. But this was something else entirely. The truth is, the waves didn’t look particularly inviting. They looked wild! A little dangerous even. They were rolling in fast and hard, one on top of another, as if to say, “Are you really foolish enough to tangle with me? I’m relentless and vast, deep and cold, crushing and stinging - I will wear you out, drag you down, and spit you up.” And, yes, standing at the edge of that resisting power with the intention of fighting the very sea and calling down the blessing that God has promised felt deeply holy.
In the past, when we’ve done baptisms at Walden Pond, I’ve always thought that Jesus would’ve fit right in with us and the thronging crowds by the edge of that gentle lake. But I’ve also felt that John the Baptist would have been pretty disappointed. I know the Jordan River is hardly a whitewater, although there was a time when it was wild and unpredictable and flowing - in the time before dams and heavy water diversions. But certainly, just in terms of personality, the wildman of the desert, the camel-fur-wearing prophet who was the wilderness itself, the rebel priest who baptized with water but longed for fire, the bug-eating survivalist who screamed for your repentance and held your head underwater, that guy would’ve approved of the rough seas, of my feelings of nervousness, and of the sense that a deep spiritual struggle would be accomplished in what we were about to do.
I didn’t really want to get in that water. You know the feeling. There are times when you need a swim. And there are times that the thought of jumping in makes you feel all cold and nervous. After all, this wasn’t going to be one of them newfangled sprinklings. This was going to be a full-on, old-fashioned dunking. Have you ever been unsure about whether you wanted to swim or not? But you go ahead and dip your toes in... slowly you’re up to your thighs and your bathing suit starts to soak up the cold water faster than you’re ready for it... eventually you get chest deep... but when you’re not quite feeling it, if you’re not 100% sure, the last thing you want to do is to go all the way under. The last thing you want to do is dunk your head. But that’s what we were here for - for that uncomfortable experience in these unwelcoming waters. And that felt holy.
I was sprinkle-baptized as an infant, as were many of the lifelong Christians at my church. We have a few people who come from Baptist traditions and got dunked as teenagers. There are some who came to Christ later in life and were baptized as adults. But most of us were sprinkled without having to make any decision for ourselves and without any ability to recall memories of the event. Sure, there’s confirmation to cover that - a time when we can affirm our baptism and become adult members of the church. I was confirmed in middle school. So I guess I affirmed my baptism, but it must not have made that much of an impression on me because I don’t remember that either. I remember watching confirmation videos in the church basement - the content of which I don’t recall.
Narragansett Bay was a stone’s throw from the church. Sometimes during coffee hour I would sneak down to the beach. It was pretty polluted and when the light hit the water just right you could see all sorts of things down in the bay - old cars, appliances, you name it. They were all rusted out and monstrous, covered in barnacles and brown seaweed - strange shapes, disintegrating in one direction and growing in another. What if they had taken the confirmation class down there and asked us to look under the water for those frightening shapes? And asked us to begin to really REMEMBER our baptisms. How can we claim our baptisms, and the blessings of our baptisms, if we are afraid or unwilling to go down under the surface of the water and confront what lurks there?
What lurks there? Well, perhaps the Apostle Paul put the finest point on it in the letter to the Romans, chapter 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” A baby doesn’t need to worry about this. Babies don’t have much of a past to die to. But for the newbie adults discerning whether or not they are called to baptism, I think this is always a concern. Yes, they want to walk in newness of life, and they understand that there’s more to it than that. They understand, often before ever reading Romans, that baptism will be a spiritual change in their lives, a real change in their lives, that there will be things that have to be left behind, mourned. Even if leaving those things behind is a good and healthy thing, it’s still a change. It’s freedom, but it’s hard.
For those of us who were baptized as infants, claiming our baptism means much more than just saying, “Yeah, I was baptized as a baby.” Ok. Great. How has your baptism changed and disrupted your life? How do you try to live into your baptismal promises on your faith journey? What does it really mean to be baptized? It’s fine if the beginning of the answer is, “Well, it means I’m a Christian, and I’m saved, and I’m a member of this church.” That’s a good start. But eventually, you’re going to need to make the trip down beneath the waves, where you’ll finally open your eyes and really look around and struggle. Sadly, John the Baptist is not here in the flesh to throw us in and hold us down. But we have the next best thing. We have people in our churches who are struggling right now with whether or not they should be baptized. Do you understand what their struggles are? If you understood a little more of their struggles, it would help you peak beneath the surface of the meaning of your own baptism. We have, in our churches, adults who have made the decision for themselves to be baptized. Why did they choose it? If you could name one reason that one person got themselves baptized, you could begin to imagine and remember your own baptism.
A few moments before the ceremony of Adam’s baptism was to begin, we stood in a small group on the beach looking down at the waves. Adam turned to me and asked, “Do you know how to swim?”
“Ha!” Adam has a good sense of humor. “Of course!” Another series of waves rolled in frothing and crashing and we watched in a moment of growing silence-- “Do you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I’ll be fine.”
Sometimes I have heard from people, baptized as infants, that they just don’t understand what the big deal is about baptism for those adults trying to navigate its contours. Just get baptized! We’ve all done it! For me, this attitude of ours comes from a desire to be gatekeepers, not baptizers. But this is what the big deal is. Adam chose his baptism very carefully. Baptism is a moment of change in your life that can feel like being dunked in a rough ocean when you don’t even know how to swim. But you walk out into the waves anyway because you know that this is your way forward into God. Baptism is not just a symbol or a ritual. It is real - as real as not knowing how to swim and being dunked into rough seas. It is a sacrament - an action in which we assert by faith that God ACTS.
When Adam and I walked out into the ocean hand-in-hand for his baptism, the nervousness I had felt was fast flowing away into openness. And the feeling of holiness was growing into an experience of holiness. The waves did their worst to throw Adam back to shore, but he pushed forward until we were in up to our chests. “This is it,” he said. And he went down beneath the surface and came back up. There was nothing at all but the waves slapping against us, the submerging and the rising, and God everywhere around us.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations