I invite you to come on a trip with me. I am invited by an independent church to fly from Cali, Colombia to a small port city on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. The church’s pastor, a former English student of mine, is not ordained and needs me to baptize thirteen new converts. I arrive in the city and am surprised to learn that the people wish to be immersed in the ocean. This becomes a spiritual struggle for me because our denomination’s preferred mode of baptism is sprinkling and I have never immersed anyone. Of course, I have learned that baptism is done in one of three ways. For readers uncomfortable with church terminology, let me use a common fishing “bobber” as an analogy to illustrate the methodology for the three forms of baptism.
First, you can hold a bobber in your palm and with the other hand sprinkle water on it. This is called sprinkling or aspersion. The quantity of water isn’t really that important. Just a few drops will confirm the sanctity of the event. But, I always like for the bobber to get wet enough to know something happened, otherwise the immersionist might say, “Well, the bobber didn’t even get wet!” Actually it is a very efficient way to baptize a lot of bobbers at one time with very little effort. These bobber baptisms are popular when fishing in Presbyterian, Lutheran and Methodist waters.
Second, you can get a cup, dip it into the ocean or lake, and then pour it on the bobber three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is called pouring or affusion. It became the standard practice in the western church around the 10th century, but was in use much earlier. The earliest explicit reference to such baptism occurs in the Didache (a Christian document from approximately 100 A. D.).
Many Mennonites and Amish still prefer this mode of baptism.
Third, the most difficult way to baptize a bobber is by immersion or dunking. The bobber is pushed totally under the water. This bobber baptism is practiced by smaller groups of fisherman called Baptists, Pentecostals, and Church of Christ.
Now, let’s go back to my visit to Equador. The pastor explains to me that on the coast, people just don’t feel like they have been baptized unless they have been fully immersed. So, I have a dilemma. I can refuse to do these baptisms or I can put my tradition aside and meet the wishes of these sweet people. I decide to move ahead with the immersions. The pastor informs me—“It is crucial that these people be put fully under the water. Be very careful that one hand or a foot doesn’t fail to be under the water. Or, you will have to do it again. When they request TOTAL immersion, they mean it.”
I think, “Well, they can’t be too hard.”
I meet with the candidates on Saturday evening to confirm they have affirmed their faith in Jesus and understand the meaning of baptism. Everything goes along heavenly. I am surprised all thirteen candidates are women.
The service is scheduled for Sunday following worship on the beach. I wake up excited about my first immersions—little do I realize what the Lord is about to teach me about the consequences of breaking from my tradition.
We form a single line and I lead the procession of women in white gowns until we are waist deep. But during the higher waves, the water is nearly slapping them in the face. So I ask them to move back toward the shore.
Suddenly, I realize I have no idea how to actually hold a person to get them fully under the water. My mind is literally chasing an answer and I am not even catching up with the question. This is bad! So, I take the hand of the first candidate, Mrs. Johnson. I tell her, “With your left hand squeeze your nose and cross your right arm over your body close to your beltline. Then, when I push you back with my right hand, you lean back onto my left hand and you will go under the water. Then I will raise you up with my left hand.” That plan sounded so perfect. What I didn’t realize was that I was about to try to push a five foot-six inch horizontal bobber under seawater while trying to not get knocked down by the next wave intent on drowning both of us. Well, I get her head under water, but her feet pop fully out of the water. And when I let go of her arm over her waist to push her feet under, her head explodes out of the sea like a whale expelling water from its blowhole. In an instant this bobber is totally out of control so I abort any concern about lifting her out of the water and resort to using both hands to getting her fully under, but she panics and starts to flay around. I am not about to fail in this task so I start to fight back and realize I am pushing down where I have no business placing my hands. The sanctity of this experience is quickly slipping away. Finally, I realize a total immersion is not going to happen. So, I help her get to her feet and apologize as she tries to get her breath and struggles to get away from me and toward the shore.
The whole line of women has now broken ranks and headed for the shore while the observers are in a state of disbelief—some laughing and others in total shock. I am stunned. The pastor intervenes and finally calms the crowd. Eventually, we decide the pastor will assist me with the remaining baptisms…but poor Mrs. Johnson insists that she was indeed fully under the water and certainly didn’t need a re-baptism.
These days, “sprinkling” is my preferred mode of baptism.