For the second year in a row, conditions were not ideal for our annual river baptism. Last year a late afternoon thunderstorm rolled in about halfway through, bringing showers of rain, flashes of lightning, and claps of thunder. We had already decided that if that happened again Lynn Turner would blow a lifeguard’s whistle and order everybody out of the pool. But on Sunday morning a gentle rain was falling and I asked the congregation, “Are we going to let a little rain keep us from baptizing?”
Of course not.
So we went to the river, and by four o’clock in the afternoon that gentle rain had turned to a light drizzle, barely more than a mist. The photographer from the Washington Post who had called to ask if he could take pictures was there, looking things over, when I arrived. “You should get some good pictures today,” I said. “Very atmospheric.” He nodded hopefully. Photographers have to work with what they’ve got.
And so do churches.
On Sunday we had to work with water levels that were still a little high, a slippery footpath going down to the river, the late arrival of several participants who had been held up for one reason or another, and just enough drizzle to keep people under their umbrellas, looking at their watches, wondering how much longer until we got started.
At about 4:15 I took the microphone and welcomed a crowd that was as diverse as any I’ve ever seen. There were people of different colors, different nations, and different religions on the riverbank. What brought us together was our connection to those who were being baptized, and for some a curiosity about baptism itself.
I took some time to explain why we do it, how we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who was, himself, baptized in a river, and who later told his followers to go and make disciples in this way. I talked about baptism as a beautiful symbol of purification, rebirth, and resurrection. I was thinking about those people who had never been to a baptism before, people like that Washington Post photographer, perhaps, or the Muslim student who had come because of his friendship with one of the candidates.
Baptism is a powerful witness.
Eventually I said a prayer and stepped aside so Fred and Julie James could come to the microphone. They sang a beautiful folk duet about baptism with guitar accompaniment and a harmonica solo that was just right for the occasion. And then Lynn Turner read the story of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3. And then our auditioned chorus—One Accord—sang “Down to the River to Pray” in prayerful, soul-stirring harmony.
And then we went down to the river to baptize.
One by one the candidates came, beginning with Tammy Benjamin, who is blind, and had to be helped down the slippery path to the water. But once she got in she was completely at home, and completely at peace. When I asked her to profess her faith she said, “Jesus is Lord!” in a clear, strong voice that echoed across the water. And then Steve Blanchard and I dipped her down beneath the surface, brought her up again, and she took the first breath of her new life in Christ.
It was a holy moment.
And for each of the nineteen who followed her there was that same holy moment of going down into the water to be “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” as Paul says, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” There was Carter Bickford, who was cheerful as a cricket when he came skipping down the path; Rob and Katie Courain, who were baptized simultaneously as husband and wife; Ian James, who often struggles to keep his focus but who said “Jesus is Lord” at just the right time, with absolute conviction; Mike Jesensky, who was baptized as an infant, but who wanted to be immersed as a personal expression of his faith; the entire Jones family, who decided that they wanted to be baptized together; and finally Chequita Swopes, who gasped so loudly when she stepped into the chilly water that I laughed and hugged her close just to warm her up a bit.
There were others, of course—too many to mention to mention by name and each of their baptisms special in its own way—but I wanted to give you just a taste of the experience, just enough to whet your appetite, so that next year, when the weather is perfect, you will join us at the river. It’s an unforgettable experience, and one of those times when heaven comes to earth most obviously. On Sunday it was so obvious that if you turned your face to the sky you could almost feel heaven coming down,
Like a fine, gentle mist.