I confess I was a little dubious. Ambivalent. Okay, actually kind of filled with trepidation.
I mean, I know it is part of my job and everything, but I’m not much of a river rat myself. I can handle baptisms in the calm, warm waters of our church baptistery, but Zach really, really wanted to be baptized at our church camp that sits on the banks of the Potomac River.
Do you know what sorts of germs are in the water of the Potomac River? If you don’t, believe me, you definitely do not want to know. Forget the germs . . . there are also strange life forms in the Potomac, animals that I would prefer to view from behind glass walls in an aquarium, if you know what I mean. (Ever heard of the northern snakehead fish? Yeah, I wish I hadn’t either.)
But Zach loves the outdoors, and for him, taking this step of faith in the river was really important. So, last Saturday about 50 of us trudged down the hill from camp to the banks of the Potomac River. We slogged through some mud and climbed over branches to get down there, about a 30 minute hike each way.
When we got to the river I confess one of my main concerns was finding a place to change. I wore my bathing suit but sincerely hoped for a large tree behind which I could don the white robe I carried down to the river. Alas, there were no trees. (I am currently considering opening discussions of hardship pay with the trustees, as appearing in my bathing suit in front of a large part of the congregation seems an excessive professional requirement.)
Once we got in our robes and hiked down the hill to the river banks, that’s when I remembered (again) the utter joy of doing this job. Voices swelled as we sang Shall We Gather at the River, we crowded around for a prayer, and then we heard Zach’s story of faith.
He told about an urgency deep within his heart to find God. He talked about pain that pushed him to reevaluate his life, and then he talked about the community of Christ at Calvary, mentioning the names of the many who had taken him by the hand and helped him find life-giving relationship with God.
I started to think it was all worth it when I heard him talk, but the best was still ahead.
Zach and I both took deep breaths and waded into the water. Funny, it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be. It wasn’t crystal clear, but neither was it dirty. I didn’t see any snakes, spiders or northern snakeheads at all! In fact, what I felt most deeply was the caress of the sun, surely there to remind us of the presence of God, the steady pressure of Zach’s hand as we walked out together and the energy of the group on the riverbank . . . joy, expectation and gladness floating out over the water like a blessing.
The current was rushing pretty fast and it was hard to stay upright, but we managed to say the words of institution and get Zach all the way under.
And when he came up dripping we waded into shore to the sounds of Amens, sung over and over. Then there were prayers, and pictures, hugs and words of blessing . . . even a few tears.
I’ve reflected since that experience that, if it were left up to me, I’d probably have voted to stay out of the river altogether. Thank goodness that God comes to us all in different ways and invites us each to express our faith individually, thank goodness that Zach felt so compelled to share his baptism with us in the Potomac River . . . because it was in wading out into the river that I remembered once again what holy honor it is to do my job; that I have the incredible opportunity to stand on the sidelines at all of these incredibly amazing moments, to say the words of faith and to hold the hands of those wading into the water of relationship with God.
I never thought I’d be saying this, but I can’t wait to get back in the river to baptize the next new believer who wants to boldly proclaim her faith in Jesus Christ. Northern snakeheads or no, I’ve been converted. Take me to the water!