Today we’re talking about baptism. And having grown up in Florida, I know something a thing or two about water.
There were many summer days when we lived in our bathing suits. For many daylight hours we were actually in the water, jumping off the dock or swimming laps in the pool to earn a piece of Grandma’s candy. But sometimes we were inside, towels wrapped around our waists like skirts while we ate lunch in the cold air conditioning. The line between “swimming” and “not swimming” was a blurry one, because whatever we were doing we might dive back in at any given moment.
Other times, that line was crystal clear: the shocking change of status from “not swimming” to “swimming” when we accidentally fell in.
When I was 7 we moved into a house on a little branch of Tampa Bay that looked like a slow-moving river. It was a great little neighborhood with lots of kids and no through traffic.
One winter day a bunch of us were playing together behind our houses, avoiding fences by tiptoeing along the seawall. There was one boy on our street known to be rougher than the others (isn’t there always?). Without warning he pushed me into the “freezing cold” 64-degree Bay. It takes about a second and a half to make a fall like that, and yet I remember having time to think so many things that it was like I frozen mid-air between “not swimming” and “swimming”: “This can’t be happening!” “Why did he push me off the dock?” “Am I going to freeze to death?” “My mom is going to be so mad at me!”
In my teenage years my family moved to a house actually on the open water of the Bay. That seawall had the unique feature of a little “splash wall” at the top, a shin-high stretch of concrete. It seemed to do little to prevent overflow splashed from the Bay, and much to encourage tripping into the water.
One day – I was home from college, I think, so maybe 18 or 19 years old – my brothers and I were out back throwing the football. All three of us are competitive so each pass tended to go faster or longer or both. Eventually we’d pushed back to the limits of the yard, me standing close to the edge of the grass with my back toward the bay. The older of my younger brothers throws the ball just over my head. I am determined to catch it. I run back, keeping my eyes on the ball just like dad taught us. I stretch my body out to its full extension and my fingers just barely touch it and –
– and I feel my ankles hit the splash wall.
I begin a somersault entrance into the Bay, but before I hit the water there’s that same sense of being suspended between two states. I had been “not swimming.” In another second I will be “swimming.” As I rotate mid-air, I think: “This can’t be happening!” “How deep is the water right now?” “Am I going to hit my head on the dock?” “My mom is going to be so mad at me!”
It’s strange to be in that in-between state. It’s not a lazy summer day, sliding in and out of the water. It’s the shock of stark transition, the knowledge that I am about to be changed completely. I was dry; I am about to be soaked. I was warm; I’m about to be cold. I was playing happily; I am about to be embarrassed.
This suspended state of transition is shocking, but sometimes kind of helpful. It gives us a clear perspective between one state and another. What we feel in the middle can help us understand the difference between one place and another.
I want to invite you into that place – not in terms of swimming, but baptism.
Many of us in Methodist churches live in a kind of lazy summer day in this department, where there’s a blurry line between “baptized” and “not baptized.” This is partly our own fault, I suppose; the way we do baptism in our Methodist tradition has some side effects. We baptize babies, and I’m glad we do – it’s a way to acknowledge that baptism is God’s work, work that was done on a cross 2,000 years ago. This means, though, that many of us don’t remember being baptized. We certainly don’t remember what it was like to not be baptized. The line is blurred.
Adding to the problem, we Methodists don’t re-baptize. Again, there’s a good reason – believing that this is God’s work, we believe that baptism “sticks.” It doesn’t get broken or undone, because God’s work is permanent. But because we don’t revisit the event as adults we can forget what the difference is.
So let’s enter that space in-between. Let’s try to suspend ourselves between “not baptized” and “baptized.”
If we can accurately imagine ourselves in that space, we’ll see that the difference is just as stark as “not swimming” vs. “swimming.” Paul says that it’s a dying and rising again – that’s a pretty shocking change. If we imagine ourselves suspended in the middle, we see a difference on either side:
Doomed on one side; saved on the other.
Lost on one side; claimed by God on the other.
Defined by our sin on one side; defined by God’s grace on the other.
Put yourself in that in-between. Freeze yourself as a baby with a cupful of water on your head, or an adult being dunked under water. Allow yourself to feel everything that comes with that moment: Joy! Relief! Redemption! Liberation!
See the stark difference that baptism has made – or could make – in your life. Remember that, and be thankful.