I have been baptized three times. The churches I was in taught that baptism came after one had already believed in Jesus, as a public profession of faith, rather than it being the sacrament that marked your entrance into the church and your life as a Christian. I now believe that my first baptism marked my entrance into Christianity but it would be almost twenty years after I was first baptized before I would find that out.
In the beginning, when God created the universe, the earth was formless and desolate. The raging ocean that covered everything was engulfed in total darkness and the power of God was moving over the water. Then God commanded, “Let there be light” – and light appeared. Genesis 1:1-3 TEV.
In the very beginning of the earth, water covered the earth. And then God moved over the water and things began to happen. Darkness and light were separated. In the very beginning of life, there was water. At the beginning of human life is water. The beginning of the Christian life begins with water; the waters of baptism. Water, the blessed water of the baptismal font, gives new life into the kingdom of God. Just as in creation, God moves upon the waters, except these waters grant salvation.
When we enter the waters of baptism, whether we are fully immersed in water or it’s poured over our heads, our new life in Christ starts. When we exit our mother’s womb wrapped in water, our new life in the world began. There is life in water. Our bodies need water to survive. That’s why we call it being born-again, because it mimics the first time we were born into the world, but through baptism we are born into a new world.
The waters of baptism are powerful. They are the same waters of creation over which God breathed and called forth life. They are the same waters of freedom through which God lead the Hebrews out of a life of slavery in Egypt and the waters of promise through which they walked into new life. They are the same waters in which Jesus was baptized and the same living water that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman at the well. In these powerful and living waters you were born. By those waters you share in the waters of creation, liberation, promise, and new life in Christ. In the waters of baptism you were bathed in the living water where you will never thirst again. Gamber and Lewellis, 2009, p. 16.
I remember a little bit from my entrance into the kingdom of God, it was a freezing cold creek in the middle of winter and I was fully immersed into a well-flowing creek. It was done on a Sunday afternoon after church when the whole church drove to the creek to witness the baptisms. I was barefoot and my feet got dirty in the creek bank. I was wearing a denim skirt and a cream colored top with little red flowers on it. These are the details I still remember twenty years later. I remember being immersed because I was scared. I’m thankful that I remember the details of this first baptism. I’m thankful now that I was old enough to remember being baptized.
When I first came to the Episcopal Church I felt like my baptism was illegitimate for several reasons, but one of those was because I had been immersed rather than have water poured on my head. Part of me wanted to be baptized again to get it done “right” but I was also embarrassed about my three baptisms and didn’t want to do that again. My priest wisely told me that it was legitimate and not to worry about it. But I am now at peace with my baptism, and now look back on it as a beautiful event and I’m sorry I ever regretted it or got baptized more than once, because the first one did the job. I was born again into the kingdom of God on a sunny winter’s day when I was ten years old. I don’t need to get re-baptized in the “proper way” because I was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, buried with Christ into his death, raised up in his resurrection.
Most of my Sunday school class was baptized that day, it was the trendy thing to do when you reached our age and we didn’t want to be outdone by each other, so in the act of ultimate one-upmanship, we all got baptized. We had all said a pretty little prayer asking Jesus into our hearts so that was all we needed to do to get baptized. Even as the pastor baptized me I had my doubts as to if I were truly saved or not. This would be a recurring theme with all of my baptisms.
My whole fundamentalist life I was told that baptism was for people who had already prayed a magic prayer “ask Jesus into their heart” so that they could be saved from the lake of fire that tortures its occupants for eternity. Thus the point of asking Jesus into our hearts was to make sure we had our “get out of hell free” card in God’s cosmic game of Monopoly. The Bible verses that seemed to indicate that baptism was a part of our salvation were either ignored or explained away, and we were taught that baptism was only for those who had already believed, and thus it was called “believer’s baptism”.
I prayed the magic prayer more times than I can remember, and I never felt like I had done it well enough. I ended up being baptized three times because I felt like I “wasn’t truly saved” the last two times and had to get baptized again. The grace tattoo on my wrist even bears a date of 03-03-08, the day that I thought I had become a Christian. What I never realized until I was thirty was that was my baptism, the very first one, at the age of ten in that freezing cold creek in the middle of winter, was when I truly became a Christian, although I had no idea what that meant and sometimes I still wonder.
Like Rachel Held Evans says in her new book, “Searching for Sunday”, baptism is the very beginning of our faith journey (p. 35). Baptism…a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The waters of baptism are the beginning of the journey of faith, our birth into the kingdom of God. The point isn’t to avoid hell (although I don’t believe in a literal eternal fire pit in the sky), the point is to be resurrected. As the pastor who performed my first baptism said, we are raised to walk in newness of life.
We come into this world via water in our physical birth, and we come into the kingdom of God via water, our spiritual birth. Birth involves water whether physical or spiritual. Until now I’d never realized the significance of my baptism, and now when I walk into the church, dip my hand in the baptismal font, and make the sign of the cross, I can remember my baptism, and be thankful for its significance.
I used to wonder if my baptisms were legit because they happened in a fundamentalist church and I was immersed in the water, and they didn’t believe that it brought me salvation. I wondered if the intent mattered but my priest told me I’d received a sacrament whether I’d recognized it at the time or not. I’ve been baptized three times so obviously I didn’t need baptizing again but I felt that it needed to be done again for a while, and some others have struggled with that too. I guess I’ve been a Christian from the very first time I was baptized, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Rachel Held Evans writes:
I’ve wrestled with the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, often ungracefully. At times I’ve tried to wring the waters of my first baptism out of my clothes, shake them out of my hair, and ask for a do-over in some other community where they ordain women, vote for Democrats, and believe in evolution. But Jesus has this odd habit of allowing ordinary, screwed-up people to introduce him, and so it was ordinary, screwed-up people who first told me I was a beloved child of God, who first called me a Christian. Evans, 2015, p. 15.
I was immersed in the water, just like I was when I was born, which means it’s just as special and symbolic and life-giving as my children’s baptisms which were done in the “proper” way, in church at a baptismal font with blessed water being poured over their heads three times, once each for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At their baptism there were promises made. I have come to realize that both mine and my children’s baptisms were both done in the proper way in the end, because it got the job done and it brought us to new life. It made us Christians and granted us entrance into the kingdom of God.
Evans, RH 2015, Searching for Sunday: loving, leaving and finding the church, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Gamber, J and Lewellis, B 2009, Your faith your life: an invitation to the Episcopal Church, Morehouse Publishing, New York.