A couple weeks ago, our church had a Baptism Sunday, and I had the chance to watch four people publicly dedicate their lives to Jesus, including my elementary-aged cousin. While her parents stood beside her in the water and told her how proud they were of her, I found myself getting a little teary, which surprised me. I’m not a crier, and baptism never used to make me feel this way, but maybe things have changed.
Last summer, I was leading a group of Kindergarteners in VBS, and one of them asked what baptism was. “It’s a way to tell everyone that you love Jesus,” I explained to the group. “You hold your breath” – here, I plugged my nose to show them how it worked – “and the pastor dunks you under the water.”
Their eyes grew big.
“But it’s just for a second,” I added quickly. “Then you come right back up.”
Explaining baptism aloud made it sound so strange. Getting half-drowned in a pool of water in front of a big group of people to prove to them that you love Jesus…what?
That may have been part of my difficulty when I finally decided to get baptized in high school. I had attended church every Sunday with my family since I was two weeks old, so I’d seen plenty of people be baptized – in pools, in lakes, in baptismals…you name the body of water, I’d seen someone dunked under it.
Our church wasn’t particularly charismatic, but the congregation was always quite vocal in its celebration of a newly baptized member. As soon as the baptizee’s head broke the surface, a clamor of cheers, claps, and whoops would erupt from the crowd. To a painfully shy 12-year-old, the prospect of getting baptized was terrifying.
Every so often, the church would announce an upcoming baptism day, and I would feel a knot growing in my stomach. I should do it. God says I should. But I can’t…
Sometimes, my mom would lean over to me after the announcement and ask, “Do you think you want to get baptized this time?”
I would shake my head and shrink back in my seat, waiting for the sermon to start so I could forget about my guilty reluctance.
Finally, I reached my senior year of high school and I knew: this time I had to do it. I would be leaving for college in the fall, and hard as it sounded to be baptized in front of my church, I knew it would be ten times harder in front of a group of strangers. A baptism was announced for the spring, and I signed up for the baptism class.
I still vividly remember the night before my baptism, pacing around my bedroom and thinking, God, why is this something you care about? What is it about this whole get up in front of people and go for a swim that is so important? But hard as I tried, I didn’t feel any release from the need to do this strange thing.
Most of the actual baptism is a blur in my memory. I remember standing beside my pastor, saying “Yes” I’d given my life to Jesus, feeling the cold water rush over me, and then walking back to get my towel, relieved that it was over. I knew it had been something I was supposed to do, and I had done it. That was enough for me.
The following January, I took a month-long trip to Israel, and during that trip, four of my team members had the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River. The river was at flood stage, so they only went a few feet out and took their turns kneeling in the muddy rushing water to be plunged beneath it. Without fail, every face broke into a smile as it rose from the water – faces that had grown familiar to me over past weeks, faces I would call friends.
And in that place of so much history, where every blade of grass seemed full of importance, in that muddy, murky water, in the smiles of friends, I started to see baptism’s significance for the first time.
In the David Crowder song “How He Loves Us,” there is a pair of lines that say:
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes,
If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.
A friend once told me she really disliked that last line because it sounded so much like we were drowning, dying, in God’s grace – not a very pleasant sentiment. At the time, I had to agree, but now I wonder…
Maybe surrender is a little like drowning.
Maybe baptism is a little like dying.
And if I’m going to be drowning, dying even, by all means, please let me drown in grace. God knows I need it.
The idea of baptism is still strange to me, still incomprehensible. But in its foreignness, I’ve started to see something life-giving.
Something oddly beautiful.