Each year our church hosts a church-wide picnic and outdoor baptism. We have it at a local park on the first Sunday in June and a huge crowd of our people always turns out.
Our men grill hamburgers and hotdogs on site. The ladies bring desserts. Kids run around looking for minnows and frogs, screaming when they find one particularly slimy. Adults bring their folding chairs and gather in small groups. Everyone just spends a couple of hours hanging out, talking, eating, canoeing, fishing and spending un-hurried time connecting with the people they go to church with.
You can hear the happy buzz of people visiting with one another throughout the park. In the frantic and impersonal world we live in, this kind of summer day is a gift.
The highlight of the afternoon is the baptism. Now, as a Baptist preacher, outdoor baptisms are in my blood. The baptistery in our church (“baptistery” is Baptist-ese for the hot-tub sort of appliance in the front of our sanctuary where we usually baptize people) is split down the middle, so that I actually don’t get into the water with the people being baptized. When we have our regular baptisms on Sunday morning, I simply reach over the dividing wall and dip the person under the water. I never get wet. That’s ok but it feels, well, a little artificial to me. I feel cheated.
Which is why I love the pond. I put on shorts, a tee-shirt and a baseball hat and get right in the water with the people. That’s not only a lot more fun, it’s more authentic, more visceral.
There’s nothing in the world like holding someone as they fall beneath the water, demonstrating by their action that they’re dying to their old way of life, then hauling them back up into the air as a sign of their new life in Jesus. I sometimes even get pulled down with them. I could do that all day.
I didn’t do it all day Sunday, but it went on for a long time. Dozens of people came to be baptized. All witnessed by the hundreds of people standing along the shore, cheering and clapping as each person came up from the water.
Who were they? A cross-section of the community: children, high-school and college students, young married couples, singles, senior adults, a dad and his son… on and on. They came into the water because they love Jesus and want to follow him.
The New Testament is clear that baptism is an important step in the life of a believer. Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 links baptism to the church’s mandate to carry the gospel throughout the world: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is a matter of obedience to Jesus.
I confess that each year when we do this, I’m surprised by the number and diversity of people who come forward to be baptized. After all, they couldn’t choose a more public forum for such an intimate, spiritual act. They undergo a certain amount of discomfort. They don’t even know what might be lurking at the bottom of that pond.
But still they come. And I think, in the end, their willingness to be baptized can only be explained by the power of the gospel. Jesus really does offer the chance for life to begin again, and whenever we as a church make the gospel clear, people will step out to follow him.