I didn’t actually think that the first “living water” themed topic I would write about on this blog would be my own baptism. But, this evening as I sat in stillness with this theme, a vivid image of that Sunday evening was fixed in my mind. At this point, I recognize these spiritual writing prompts when they appear. So, I will set the words of my spirit free.
It was late spring, in the months leading up to my eighth birthday. My third grade friends Kelly and Joy and I were feeling old and bold after our Sunday School class. I am not sure who was first to say it, but one of my friends announced that she was going to get baptized. That was major news, since baptism was a foray into growing up, transitioning from playful kids to adults fully immersed in the life of the church. I had my doubts, but was undaunted and announced that I would be getting baptized, too.
My parents were justifiably skeptical of my readiness, but my mind was clearly made up, and my will was strong. So, with my friends, I announced my desire to be baptized at the upcoming Sunday evening baptismal service at the Assembly of God church my family attended.
That evening, my friends and I gathered in the robing room. We were allowed to wear just white underclothing…no swimsuits…under the long, thin blue robes we put on before the service. There were adults, older teens, and us. Our robes were too long, and we had to hike them up so as not to trip as we walked up the stairs that led to the deep immersion tub, hidden behind the curtains and nestled unseen below the church’s front platform. It reminded me a bit of a scene from the Wizard of Oz, where the curtain was pulled back to reveal the baptismal font below. It seemed grand and dignified, but having snuck back there I knew that for all practicalities it was just an oversized bath-tub.
When I watched from the congregation, I could see those about to be baptized climb the stairs in their robes, then descend into the water where the pastor was waiting. Only their faces could be seen, then there was an exchange of words, then three deep immersions into the water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. They would emerge, soaking wet and a chorus of praise music and sometimes witnessing and speaking in tongues would spring up between each baptism, and the newly baptized was asked to testify as well. They would walk back up the stairs, wet robes clinging to them along with their new immersion into Christian faith and life.
I stood by the stairs that Sunday night watching my friends elated by their experience and reassuring me the water was warm. I was amazed by their ease. I remembered instead my mother asking me if I was sure I was ready. I didn’t feel ready, and I wasn’t at ease. But, I had my robe on, and I had the encouragement of my friends. Maybe I was as ready as I would ever be. I walked the stairs, and descended into the water. My head, I knew, could barely be seen above the baptismal font. I remember, just as I entered, being reminded not to reach for the microphone that sat just an arms length away (the danger of this was heavily impressed upon us for obvious safety reasons!).
What I remember the most, though, is water. Water that was everywhere. Water that seemed to seep into every part of my being, soaking me to my soul. Water was over my head and lifting me to weightless floating. I was swept off my feet and didn’t know where the ground was. I couldn’t help but gasp a little, and my sinuses burned with the water I inadvertently took in. Tears were forming in my eyes, mixing with the waters of baptism. I surfaced to praise music and exclamations of exuberant spirit. I was stunned and muttered something I don’t remember when asked how I felt. I climbed the stairs with robes clinging, finding comfort in a warm towel that greeted me back in the side room.
My baptism was a very ordinary moment in many ways. I didn’t feel emotional or spiritual. I was aware during most of it that my mother was right, and I really was just following the lead of my friends. In retrospect, I don’t feel badly about this, though. In a very real way, my baptism feels exactly like I believe the ritual was meant to be. It was no different for me, being dunked at age 8, than the tiny baby that is held in the arms of her parents, handed to the priest for a ritual blessing of holy water. My understanding of Holy Baptism as an Episcopalian is not different than how I understood as I descended into the waters of my own immersion. Baptism is a beginning, a ritual marking our foray into a larger body: generations and diverse expressions of faith all coming together in this historic act of faith. We are beckoned to this place by community, as a public act. Baptism signifies a starting point, an outpouring of divine grace that is not earned, but simply given. We really are as ready as we will ever be.
To the small, robed child descending into unknown waters, uncertain if she is ready: don’t be afraid. God will meet you exactly where you are, as exactly who you are.
That was the message imparted to my young, questioning spirit by the Living Waters of my baptism. It is as true today as it was that day.
These living waters remain, after all these years and so many twists and turns of my journey, a small point of light.
Thanks for your continued testimony Sarah! Beautifully told. I appreciate the starting point language.
Thanks, Tom. It’s beautiful and holy work to find common language and experiences emerging, even across different chapters of the faith journey. It renews my faith that God is always in the midst.