Judith Ann is not a young woman. As Rick the minister said, “You’re not a member of a youth group,” which got a laugh from her gathered friends and family. He hadn’t meant to call attention to her age, but just simply that she wasn’t doing this because of the usual peer pressure of a teen group. Judith Ann, late in life, had been “called” by God to be baptized into the Christian faith.
Judith Ann had been “thinking about this for years”. She’d had the Presbyterian “Sprinkles”, but now wanted something more. Or maybe she didn’t “want” it. She was being *called* to it. Is that the same thing?
It’s perhaps not often that an atheist finds himself in attendance at such a baptism. I was privileged to be a small part of it. As a member of a “Fred” group, a social group in our church, Journey Imperfect Faith Community, I had been invited to Judith Ann’s condo where she could use the public pool for the baptism. People brought food and we ate, laughed, talked, loved each other in friendship. There was joking about throwing her into the pool, about her fear that her neighbors, sitting around the pool, would get a sideshow of the rare baptism event, about just the oddity of an emersion baptism. Since being invited a couple of weeks earlier I had looked forward to being present, for reasons I couldn’t quite admit to myself.
The food eaten, it was time to move outside. Over the din of the conversation, Rick yelled, “Okay, let’s go!” The 22 of us meandered out the door and toward the condo pool nearby. Though it had been 100 degrees that day, not unusual in a Texas summer, only a few neighbors were using the pool, and they left when our rambunctious group arrived.
I hadn’t thought anybody but Judith Ann would actually get in the pool, but nearly everybody took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants, and waded into the shallow end. Rick and Judith Ann had dressed for the occasion, in swim trunks and teeshirts, and they waded into the deeper part of the pool. Only a very few of us, including myself, stood outside the water, perhaps protecting our dry clothes or perhaps resisting commitment.
Before performing the ceremony, as the two of them stood chest deep in the water, Rick said a few words. He talked of the history of baptism. He said that originally baptism had been a ceremonial cleansing, that in the desert water is scarce and precious, and that if you have some water you should do something special with it. But even before the time of Jesus, the ceremonial cleansing had, in the hands of the Jewish hierarchy, become “a dull religious experience”, corrupted by the need to pay for it at the Temple. And this was the reason that John The Baptist had borrowed the ceremonial cleansing ritual and taken it out of the Temple back to its origin at the Jordan river, where ordinary people could, without the corruption, engage in a “rebirth”. Rick talked of C.S. Lewis’s belief that baptism causes a literal transformation of the body, changing every cell of the baptized individual.
Rick then told Judith Ann he was going to ask her a few questions. “Do you believe in God?” She said she did. “Do you believe that God is at work in the world today?” She said she did. “Do you believe that God is at work in your life?” She said she did. Then he asked a couple of questions which I don’t remember exactly, but basically whether she freely accepted this calling to her rebirth as a Christian. She said she did.
Then he had her put one of her hands on her chest and use the other to squeeze her nostrils, for he was going to lean her backwards into the water. He said that allowing him to do this to her would be a sign of her submission to her faith. He reassured her that he would hold her and wouldn’t let her be submerged for more than a moment.
Judith Ann nodded, ready. Then Rick held her and leaned her backwards into the water, saying, “I baptize you, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
When he brought her head out of the water, they hugged. I’m not sure, but I thought she was crying, even as the baptismal water of the pool poured off her face.
It would be easy for me, an atheist, to criticize, to joke, to question. But in those moments immediately after the ceremonial cleansing, as Judith Ann dried herself off and received hugs of congratulations from her two dozen friends, I found myself wondering how long it would be before I, too, would be called to the ceremonial cleansing, and to the commitment of Chistian faith.