Baptism stories are always fun to tell because if you think about it, what is stranger, funnier, or more awkward than dressing up someone in white clothes, sprinkling water on his/her head and rubbing it into his/her hair while people stare? Or, if you come from another tradition, what is odder than dunking the person in a religious bathtub, a pond, or some body of water while people stare? Wearing white in this case is also awkward because that means whatever is underneath is of great importance.
Hmmm….do I go with the Steelers jersey underneath the white, see-through robe, or the Led Zeppelin t-shirt?
Whether someone is baptized as an infant or a child, as a teenager or as an adult…we have to admit that this ceremony is a bit weird.
So last Sunday I was asked to lead such a ceremony at a friend’s house. Mom and dad, two honest people, were just not sure what it was…a baptism, a dedication, a christening…what do these things mean and what we were actually going to do?
Really good questions, actually.
What are these things and what are we going to do?
50+ people were staring intently at this baby boy all dressed in white and screaming his eyelids out. He was red in the face; would he ever stop crying? Mom and dad tried to soothe him and so did the two godparents looking on. But he just wailed louder. I finally put the water on his head.
First time [Creator]: kid is still screaming.
Second time [Jesus]: tears rolling down like a waterfall.
Third time will be the charm, right? Spirit: he didn’t like it one bit.
Even his dad was like…geez, this kid is not content right now. So I said the blessing and a benediction—as fast as I could. Poor kid—he probably just wanted to eat; or sleep; or get the diaper changed. And here I was talking about him to all those people and asking his parents questions and then putting water on his head and oh, that white outfit just wasn’t a good look for him. I don’t blame him for crying. Man, these baptism/dedication/christening things are so weird.
I still think that the parent’s questions were right on.
What is this and what are we going to do?
What is this Christian rite of baptism [just another way of saying tradition]? What is this so-called sacrament? There are a hundred different answers and it depends on your tradition. For the sake of time, let’s just say that a sacrament in general terms is a ceremony or ritual that has some sort of religious or spiritual significance. But some people take that much more seriously than others. I would argue, though, that most people take it just about as seriously as my two friends who had their kid screaming through the whole thing. They both wanted to do something to mark the occasion of the birth of their child. They wanted family and friends to be there and experience it. They wanted to celebrate and eat and drink.
But it was less about religious tradition and more about all that other stuff.
For the house was filled with Catholics, all kinds of Protestants, and plenty of agnostics/atheists and non-religious folks.
What is this?
What are we going to do?
The water ceremony—at least for me—is more about identity and community than anything else. I said this to the whole group gathered: it takes a whole village to raise a child. I asked them to agree to be part of that village. I asked mom and dad to agree to give freedom to their kid to explore spirituality and to ask questions. I asked the godparents be honest and to be mentors.
And I reminded everybody that this crying baby was….a baby. All of this won’t be remembered. He will have no recollection of the so-called sacrament. Even one day when he’s older and people show him pictures, he will still not directly connect to that experience.
So what was this?
It was, in all honesty, a moment for the adults—the friends and family—to embrace each other and their commitment to be the village that raises the kid.
And what will they do?
That question is yet to be answered. The kid, as he grows up, will answer with his own life. His family and friends will answer by how they accept and love him, mentor him, and teach him.
Fortunately for him, it’s quite possible that he will never again have some strange guy rub water on his head or say strange words while he’s crying.
You know, Jesus was baptized, too, but it was a lot different. It’s a story told by all 4 Gospels. Jesus wasn’t a baby, but an adult. And there was no ordained clergy to put water on his head in the name of the Trinity or whatever. Jesus’ baptism story must have been strange, because all 4 Gospels tell a very different version of the same event.
Kind of makes we wonder if this cartoon about Jesus’ famous sermon on the mount is right:
Yep. The Gospels of the NT often tell very different versions of the same story. Why? In storytelling, the audience matters. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s Gospels were all written for and to different people. So each Gospel tells its own story so as to make sense to the hearers.
Matthew’s version includes a unique dialogue between John and Jesus. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “No, Jesus, I should be baptized by you—not the other way around.” It’s almost like a “you first, no you first” kind of kid’s game. Well, that happens until Jesus reassures John that it’s okay for John to be the baptizer. Jesus literally tells John: Release it. Let it go. All the ideas of hierarchical relationships—who should baptize, who should be baptized, religious rites, etc.—let it go. This is a clear attempt by Matthew to address some controversy in the early church. You see, some people were uncomfortable with Jesus being baptized by someone else. That would imply John in the role of priest and Jesus as underneath John. At least, that was their worldview.
But that’s not all. Many wondered: isn’t baptism supposed to be reserved for sinners? So how in the world could Jesus be baptized? Some people believed that Jesus was without sin. So to them, this makes no sense!
Matthew’s Gospel is of course making a point—or at least trying to. Unfortunately, many so-called religious people limit the waters of baptism to a chosen few—people they choose. But Jesus, in Matthew’s story, contradicts that. Water [and baptism] is for everyone. It’s for all who are not perfect.
And that’s everyone.
Jesus is on the same level as us; he is immersed in water just like anybody else; he identifies as real person. The heavens open, but not to prove some sort of religious doctrine or to fit into church hierarchy.
The heavens open to mark the occasion as important, for sure. Pay attention, world. God doesn’t show favoritism. God is pleased because God desires for humans to understand identity. God is not some cold, non-empathetic deity equipped with rotating, exploding judgment lightning bolts, although that might be a cool anime movie.
Instead, God understands suffering, and crying, and doubt, and fear, and love, and curiosity, and confusion, and humanity…as it is.
People have tried for so long [and still try] to say that God only loves some people and only cares about my people and not them; and people still say this person who is gay or lesbian or Arab or from another land or speaking a different language or someone who is just plain different is outside of grace and mercy.
What is this?
What are we going to do?
Here’s the thing—if someone is never baptized formally in a church or even in a house—this is not really important.
Now some people will NOT like this on FB or repost this, for sure. But questions are much more important than the ceremony.
And how we treat people is way more important than baptism.
So what is this water?
Water itself is a flowing, renewing, refreshing source of life for all living things—including us. When babies are well, babies—they are almost ALL water [75-78%]. That’s why they are so squishy. Water is part of our physical makeup. The rest of us are 50-60% water. We need it in order to survive. When the heavens open, so to speak, water comes down in the form of rain or snow.
So if you need to, forget the word baptism. Forget the word sacrament.
But remember to notice water.
Water is a sign of life. And water is provided for the whole planet.
Water should be available to everybody in the world.
The fact that some people in our world do not have access to water is a sign of our degrading humanity and our need to change. Water itself is essential—not to be a symbol for religions to argue about—but as a physical source of life.
And focus on identity. Because the second question of what will we do is one we must ask every day of our lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re an infant, a kid, a youth, or an adult. I think that God still speaks to anyone and everyone. Yes, we all talk about that differently and that’s fine. But I do think that God is still communicating with us. And I do think that God is pleased with people as they are. There is no hierarchy in humanity. We have created this lie ourselves. No one is more important than another, no one loved more or blessed more. We don’t have to wear white outfits or jump through religious hoops for God to love and accept us.
God is pleased with how you are you.
If you have ever been made to feel or have ever been told that the waters of healing, compassion, and purpose aren’t meant for you, then let the water wash over you. Put those harmful words aside. Let them go. Anyone who excludes certain people is just trying to control the water.
But the water is strong and free to flow and move as it will.
Just as God’s love is free to flow and move as it will.
I was at a Bat Mitzvah yesterday, and the girl chose this poem to be read in her rite of passage ceremony. It is a beautiful way to finish this.
Lucille Clifton’s poem, blessing the boats:
May the tide that is entering
Even now the lip of our understanding
Carry you out beyond the face of fear
May you kiss the wind then turn from it certain
That it will love your back
May you open your eyes to water
Water waving forever
And may you in your innocence sail through this to that
Water you can notice every day. It pours from the sky and comes up from the ground. It is not limited to a sacrament or a building or a church. Water is the still speaking, still flowing creator at work. And so be baptized, sprinkled, immersed, washed, refreshed and renewed by it every day. And be inspired to love, to show compassion to others…and be inspired to forgive. Because we are all filled with and surrounded by water….all of us. May the rivers carry us on our journey and lead us to live with love. May the still speaking and flowing water move through us and be shared with all creation.