I was baptized when I was fourteen. On paper, my church believed in adult baptism… but in practice, we had sort of forgotten to do any for awhile.
Baptism wasn’t a condition for membership in the church, so no one had asked the adults when they joined. And while we’d had a mass of younger children growing up together, we hadn’t had many young adults coming of age who would have been seeking baptism. And we weren’t part of a denomination, so there wasn’t some body of overseers asking for a yearly report, so it just sort of got lost in the yearly tides of Christmas plays and VBS programs and missionary visits and so forth.
Then all of a sudden the pastor’s oldest son was getting ready to head off to college, and he hadn’t been baptized or even been given the opportunity, and something needed to be done. So a date was set, and a place was chosen- a wide spot in a creek at a church camp where most of us kids had been campers.
I know some churches baptize by sprinkling, and others have pools up front, but if outdoors was good enough for Jesus then by golly it was good enough for us.
I couldn’t tell you now exactly who was baptized that day. There were a couple adult converts, I think, but then there was me and my cousin Ben (the aforementioned matriculating freshman) and our friend Lindsey.
We gave our testimonies on the side of the creek, and then there were special words said as we were dipped backward into death and brought back into new life. Being a word person, I promised myself that I was going to remember those words forever, but of course I didn’t.
I remember seeing some yarrow flowers and having deep thoughts about how they could be used to make soap and how that was sort of like baptism, and I remember thinking of everything that I wanted to say in my testimony well after the fact, and I remember that blankets don’t really warm you up if you’re wearing wet clothes to begin with, but I don’t remember much about the actual ceremony at all.
Here, on the other hand, is what my Swiss cheese brain has chosen to recall in perfect detail- after we were done with the baptisms, we drove into the town of Redfield. It’s about the size of Sligo and half as classy. Maybe we went there because it didn’t seem fair that only a few people got dunked on a hot day, but in any case we headed for the reservoir.
One of the rites of passage in northern Oswego County is jumping off the bridge into the reservoir. I was not a huge fan of this idea, but you know that usually apocryphal question that’s asked of teens: if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off too? Well, turned out for me that the answer to that question was a literal yes.
I remember vividly how we were standing on the west side of the bridge, that afternoon, and my wise cousin Ben offered me some life advice. He said, “You want to jump feet first, not dive head first. That way, if there’s a submerged log, you’ll break your legs rather than your neck.” Then he jumped; and with no better option on the horizon, I jumped too.
I have only vague memories of being baptized, but I can pull up on demand that feeling of terror and beauty and joy as I launched myself off the bridge and fell towards the water.
What’s a baptism about, anyhow? Do you need running water, like I had, or is a swimming pool fine… or to get more into the details, does the fact that your swimming pool has a filtration and circulation system mean that it’s technically running water to begin with? Or what if it’s just a sprinkle of water, as opposed to a flood?
And what about fourteen? Is that too young to decide to be baptized? Or, maybe it’s too old, and if my parents had been more properly devout they would have had me baptized as an infant.
You know Quakers, along with members of the Salvation Army, form an irritating pebble in the shoe of ecumenicism when it comes to things like baptism. Because as much as the other Christian traditions might disagree about what kind of water to use and when to offer baptism and so on, they can at least agree that water ought to be involved. That seems simple enough, right?
And yet here our own tradition pokes an occasionally welcome head in, insisting that perhaps water is not really the point.
Our word baptize comes directly from the Greek word baptizo. Baptizo had a range of meanings, from immerse to submerge to bathe to overwhelm. The home canners here might be interested to know that one of our sources on what baptizo meant comes from a pickle recipe written down by the Greek poet and physician Nicander.
He says that “in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be ‘dipped’ (bapto) into boiling water and then ‘baptised‘ (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptising the vegetable, produces a permanent change.”
On the surface, this suggests to me that my full immersion baptism is Biblically preferable to people who were merely sprinkled. I was totally covered by the water, just as the pickles were, right?
But then it occurs to me that in the pickle recipe, the pickles stay in the vinegar. They’re completely covered by the solution, just as I was by the water, but they weren’t brought back up to go frolic on a bridge somewhere. The lid was screwed on and they were left in the pickling solution.
That’s not a baptism. That’s a drowning, a dill-scented crime scene.
So, perhaps the water is not really the point. I think that baptism is vitally important, but listen: when we’re talking about baptism, we’re talking about the whole story of Jesus and how we’re united with that story. God, in the person of Jesus, was laid low by death and raised up into new life as only the creator of this whole world could be.
And in baptism, we too are laid down in death and raised up in newly resurrected life.
I think it’s frustrating and endearingly human that we respond to that offer by nitpicking about whether or not a swimming pool truly counts as running water, or whether baptisms can be performed by a priest or a deacon or a layperson, or whether a failure to fully immerse a body will leave us with some spiritual version of Achilles’ heel.
The water isn’t the point, when it comes to baptism. The point is that we can be submerged in and transformed by grace. We can be completely covered in the presence of Christ. Water can’t give this new life, and neither can it wash it away.
Here’s a story that I’ve told some of you before, but I’m going to tell it again: one of our ad hoc baptismal procedures, when I was fourteen, was that you had to talk to the pastor before signing up. I wasn’t terribly worried, since the pastor was an uncle of mine and someone I’d always felt comfortable with, but I did have one concern: I thought the idea of the Trinity was sort of silly.
Now I’d done my research on this, by which I mean that I had read through everything Microsoft Encarta could tell me and I had checked the appropriate books out of the library to read, and I was pretty sure that believing in the Trinity was important for Christians but I still wasn’t convinced. So I showed up to this meeting with the pastor with sticky notes in my Bible, ready to make my case that all the traditional proofs for the Trinitarian nature of God were silly.
And then my uncle asked me a question that I hadn’t prepared for at all: where do you see the fruit of the Spirit in your life?
And in that moment, sitting on a bench in the coatroom, grace enveloped me in a way that I’ve never been able to shake. I came ready for an argument, when the real question at hand was love. And later I was tipped over backwards in a creek, and later I jumped off a bridge, but neither of those experiences baptized me like that question did.
Quakers don’t baptize people in water, but I don’t want you to think that means that we don’t take baptism seriously. I think we take it just as seriously as any other Christians do. But we’re paying attention, at the beginning of Acts, when Jesus says that “John baptized with water, you see; but in a few days from now you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being baptized in water. Choosing to be baptized was an important part of my spiritual journey, and if water baptism has played a similarly important role on your journey then I think you should celebrate that grace and that mercy.
It seems to me, though, in my reading of the Bible, that being baptized in the Spirit isn’t quite the same thing. It might be connected to an experience of water baptism, or it might not. The wind blows where it pleases, right?
You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
You can schedule a water baptism. You can’t schedule being dunked down in the Spirit.
An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, we read.
Get up and go south, the angel said. Go to the desert road that runs down from Jerusalem to Gaza.
You’ll notice, I’m sure, that the angel didn’t stop to ask Philip what was on his calendar for that day. This isn’t an oh, if you have time kind of request. The angel arrives, and Philip’s schedule goes out the window.
So he got up and went. Lo and behold, there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her whole treasury.
This man had come to Jerusalem to worship, maybe over Passover weekend, and was now heading back home. He was sitting in his chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.
Imagine this scene, Friends: the Spirit instructs Philip to go up and join his chariot. So, imagine running alongside a chariot, trying to start a theological discussion. Philip is running along, and he hears that the Ethiopian is reading from the book of Isaiah.
So, Philip poses a question as he’s running along: Do you understand what you’re reading?
You or I might be turned off by what seems like the ancient equivalent of door-to-door sales or cold calling, but the Ethiopian is receptive and invites Philip into his chariot. And so the Ethiopian (who we never get a name for) asks Philip about the passage that he’s reading, and Philip uses the opportunity to tell him the good news about Jesus.
As they were going along the road, they came to some water. “Look!” said the eunuch. “Here is some water! What’s to stop me being baptized?”
What’s to stop him? Well. Nigel Hanscamp put it like this, “You are a foreigner, a eunuch, don’t have a church community, we don’t have agreement from the church council (or at least an apostle), Philip is just a deacon, and you are in the desert. What’s more you haven’t given a confession of faith or an acknowledgement of your sins. There’s 8 reasons right there.”
Which is to say: there are an awful lot of good reasons why Philip could have said no.
But he doesn’t. Philip says yes, and both of them went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch together, and he baptized him.
This story, traditionally, is referred to as the story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian. That’s a succinct description of the storyline.
But Friends, I want to suggest to you this morning that Philip was also being baptized. Not with water, although he certainly got wet while introducing the Ethiopian to the waters of grace. But think about this from Philip’s perspective: there are so many reasons why he could say no to this request, but the Spirit has clearly put him on this road so that he can say yes.
The Ethiopian was baptized in water, that day, but I want to explore the possibility that Philip found his baptism of the spirit at the same time. We don’t know much about Philip, beyond this one story, but here we see him making an in-the-moment decision, quite apart from the fights and arguments and councils to come, that this resurrection joy will not be limited.
The Ethiopian was covered in water, and I hope that was a grace and a mercy for him. But this is a story about Philip, in which he starts with obedience to the Spirit, faithfully tells the good news about Jesus, and then finds himself participating in an act of mercy and grace. Isn’t that a baptism?
Quakers don’t typically baptize with water, but I hold nothing against my own water baptism. I’m glad that when I was ready to commit to my faith as my own choice, rather than just being a child brought along by my parents, that there was a meaningful ritual for me to engage to make that transition.
And likewise, if you were baptized in water and that experience holds meaning for you, then I encourage you to celebrate it as part of your faith story.
But I hope that all of us, when we think about baptism, can begin to think of ourselves as pickles. Because to be baptized in the Spirit is to be taken down into death and up into resurrected life, but at the same time it’s also to stay submerged in the Spirit- like a pickle stays in the vinegar.
And if we live this dead-and-resurrected baptized life, we’ll seem a bit odd to the world around us. If we live with grace rather than judgment, and mercy rather than condemnation, if we live as though death has been defeated and love reigns over all, we’ll stand out, won’t we?
That’s the job of a pickle, though: providing contrast. This soft sandwich has the sweet and the spicy and the savory, and what it needs to set all of that off perfectly is a crunchy pickle.
That cucumber became a pickle because it was submerged in spicy brine, and likewise, we become the contrast that the world needs to taste when we’re submerged in worship.
So, as we go into our time of waiting worship, waiting on the real presence of God to be known among us:
May we be covered in glory, just as a creek covers a rock thrown in. May we be a congregation of people submerged in mercy and confounded by grace. May we be baptized in the Spirit, that we may recognize the threads of mercy in our own lives, and that we may respond with grace toward all the people on our path.