Throwing the Baby Out With the Baptism Water

April 22nd, 2014

A few weeks ago I baptized my first baby in my new church. I wanted everything to be perfect for the parents. They will never forget the moment when their first child gets baptized.

But, for me, baptizing babies is not just a nice sentimental experience. There is a deep theology that surrounds it. There’s something beautiful about parents committing their children to the grace of God and reliance on the church community. There is something wonderful about parents who realize that both they and their child need the church community to progress in the journey of faith.

So for both sentimental and theological reasons, I wanted this moment to be etched in these parent’s minds. I wanted this moment to indelibly mark this child with the Spirit and grace.

To this end, I worked all week to ensure everything was in order. I had the correct baptism liturgy. I had my United Methodist Book of Worship: Pastor’s Pocket Edition. I had it marked for page 11 so I didn’t have to fumble for the questions. I even put little asterisks next to the sections I wanted read word-for-word. Further, for the sake of efficiency and perfection, I informed the parents at exactly what point in the service they’d be invited to come forward. And I told them how everything would shake down.

When the service started, and the ritual began, my hard work was paying off.

I went through the first two liturgical questions for the parents and they flawlessly answered them.

Next came my favorite part of the service.

I turned to the congregation and I remind them that these parents cannot, in fact, keep these promises on their own. They must be part of a larger community that helps model the Christian faith and affirm its truths.

So after asking the congregation to affirm their own rejection of sin, I asked, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life; including THESE PERSONS now before you in your care, and surround THEM with a community of love and forgiveness?”

Again, the theology here matters. None of us can be a Christian on our own. Our own will is not enough. Our own choice is not enough. Our faith always exists within the context of a community. This is how God has always intended things.

So, about the time I completed asking the congregation to commit themselves to this family, I looked down and realized, for all my efforts to make sure everything was in place, I’D FORGOTTEN THE FREAKING WATER FOR THE BAPTISM!

How could I be so stupid?

How could I have worked so hard to make sure everything was perfect only to forget the single most important part of the ritual?

Now, at this point, I’ve only got so many options.

I could wing it, pretend like there’s water up there, and baptize the child with air. But that wouldn’t work for me because I hadn’t even brought a cup up there. Besides, that seems like it’d somehow dilute the ritual. I could give a spit-baptism. We don’t dunk babies, so I could have just licked my thumb and put the sign of the cross on the baby’s head, in a similar, but much more holy, way that my dad used to lick his thumb and wipe crusty ketchup off my face. Or I could own up to my mistake and ask someone to get me some water. I opted for this humiliating solution, as it A) actually allowed me to finish performing the ritual, and B) didn’t require me to hock a loogie on a helpless infant. I turned to the congregation and in my genuinely awkward way, I said, “Well, it looks like I don’t have any water with me. I’m going to need some help.”

Initially, it looked like someone had saved me. They pointed to a baptismal font in the back of the stage (which I’d forgotten was there). I invited the baptizing parents to come up there, I removed the cap from the fount, and lo and behold….

…no water. Dry as a bone.


I say to the congregation, “Nope. There’s no water. I’m going to need someone to go get me some water for this baby.”

Without missing a beat, a good friend jumps up from his seat and brings me a Styrofoam cup full of water. He’d been saving it for his wife (who was singing in the worship band), and figured this would be a much better use.

As he brought it up, the father of the infant made a brilliant statement to the congregation, “Well, Tom did say all of this was a community effort!”

Everyone had a good, holy laugh.

I took the Styrofoam cup, poured it in the baptismal font, and finished the ritual with my usual flair of absolutely dousing the child in holy water.

And as I did it, I knew this little girl would be surrounded by a community of people looking out for her.

Sometimes we pastors don’t think people are listening. Sometimes we don’t think other people are quite “getting” what we’re saying and why what we’re saying matters. But when its crunch time, people’s theology comes out.

It was refreshing to know that even in this moment when everything seemed to go south, the beauty of the church’s theology stood strong — not only embodied, but celebrated.

These parents will never forget their child’s baptism. But of all the baptisms I will ever do, I will never forget this one either.

This post originally appeared on Tom's blog, Tom1st.comSubscribe to his blog to receive new posts via email.

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