Word and Water

May 29th, 2012

Once upon a time I went out to a small rural church to baptize a twelve-year-old boy whom a pastor had been instructing in the faith. I was happy to oblige until the pastor said, “Jeremy very much wants to be immersed. Can you do that?”

“Er, uh, sure. I can do that,” I said, unwilling to admit that I had rarely baptized anyone by immersion.

I arrived at the church that Sunday morning, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the front steps of the little church with a small boy.

“Jeremy, this is the bishop,” the pastor said proudly. “It’s an honor for you to be baptized by the bishop.”

Young Jeremy looked me over and said only, “They tell me you don’t do many of these. I’d feel better if we had a run-through beforehand.”

“That was just what I was going to suggest,” I said.

We went into the church’s fellowship hall where the pastor showed me their newly purchased font, dressed up by a carpenter in the congregation, surrounded by pots of flowers. Jeremy said, “After you say the words, then you take my hand and lead me up these steps, and do you want me to take off my socks?”

“Er, uh, you can leave them on if you want,” I said.

Well, we had a wonderful service that Sunday. I preached on baptism, the choir sang a baptismal anthem then the whole congregation recessed into the fellowship hall and gathered around the font. I went through the baptismal ritual. Then I asked Jeremy if he had anything to say to the congregation before his baptism.

“Yes, I do. I just want to say to all of you that I’m here today because of you. When my parents got divorced, I thought my world was over. But you stood by me. You told me the stories about Jesus. And I just want to say to you today thanks for what you did for me. I intend to make you proud as I’m going to try to live my life the way Jesus wants.”

Though I’m now weeping profusely (Jeremy asked, as I led him up the steps into the pool, “Are you going to be OK?”), I baptized Jeremy and the church sang a great “Hallelujah!”

Baptism is God’s word in water that saves. Not that the church necessarily says that we are saved by this ritual, but rather baptism gathers up all the meanings of Christian salvation and demonstrates those in word and water. The dying-rising dynamic that is signified in baptism is at the heart of salvation in Christ. The church promises that this has happened to you, is happening, will happen to you in your salvation.

This is an excerpt from The Best of Will Willimon: Acting Up in Jesus Name. Copyright © 2012 by Abingdon Press.

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