Back in 2010, on a warm Wednesday evening at a nearby lake, Minnie Sockman’s sins were washed away. She was 67 at the time and couldn’t remember ever being baptized, although she thought maybe she had been. As a kid, she was in church every Sunday, but then she took a 32-year hiatus from regular church attendance.
When she started going again she wanted to make sure she was baptized, so, she invited a bunch of her friends to her baptism and me, the newspaper's religion reporter. She said that even though she was Methodist and they baptize by sprinkling water on people, she wanted to be dunked in the lake just like the baptisms she remembered from her days growing up in West Virginia. It felt more real, more authentic, she said.
I remember the mood as being “casual solemn joyfulness.” The pastor wore shorts and sneakers and there was a pile of rocks on a nearby table just in case an alligator or two wanted to intrude upon the event. As the pastor lowered Minnie into the water, he declared that she had “renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness,” “rejected the evil powers of this world” and “confessed Jesus Christ as her Savior” and “put her whole trust in his grace.”
Afterwards, Minnie said in her favorite scripture, Psalm 23, the part about “He restoreth my soul” was exactly how her baptism made her feel — restored.
Last week at my church we had a baptism for a baby boy, but it wasn’t in a lake. As Presbyterians, we sprinkle adult believers and also their kids and babies before they believe. It’s our understanding that baptism isn’t about us making a promise to follow Jesus, but God making a promise to us — and to our kids. Parents bring their children for baptism, declaring: As parents, we are dirty and desperately need the cleansing power of Jesus — and so do our children.
Our promise to God is that we come dirty and sinful and needy. God’s promise to us is to wash us clean and never leave us, to provide for our needs, correct us when we stray, to be faithful to us even when we’re not faithful to him and to bring us safely home to him.
As we understand it, baptism is a sacrament, a sign and seal that we belong to Jesus forever. We also believe that baptism is not a guarantee that our children will want to follow Jesus — they have to make that decision for themselves. But we believe that God sets our children apart for his special favor throughout their lives and he hears our prayers for them.
I love baptisms — lakes and swimming pools and specially built tubs, dunkings or sprinklings. Life gets terribly grimy, and it’s easy to think the dirt and sin are winning. But whenever I’m at a baptism, I remember my own back when I was 23 years old and how God washed me clean. Not the day I was baptized, but the moment I first believed.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing” and “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.