Baptism at the River Is a Holy Moment

Baptism at the river is a holy moment in people’s lives. That’s why each year our church hosts a church-wide picnic and outdoor baptism. And it’s why a huge crowd always turns out. This year’s event was more special than usual because we couldn’t do it last year during COVID.

Our men grill hamburgers and hotdogs on site. Food trucks bring desert (this year’s hit was raw cookie dough). Kids run around looking for minnows and frogs, screaming when they find a particularly slimy one. And adults bring their folding chairs and gather in small groups. Everyone just spends a couple of hours hanging out, talking, eating, playing in the splash pad and spending un-hurried time connecting with the people they go to church with. And in the complicated and frantic world we live in, this kind of day is a gift.

Baptism at the river feels more authentic

But the highlight of the afternoon is the baptism, something that as a Baptist preacher is 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 don’t actually get into the water with the people being baptized. When we have our normal baptisms on Sunday morning, I simply reach over the dividing wall and dip the person under the water without getting wet. That’s OK but sometimes I have to confess that I feel a little, well, cheated.

But I love baptizing at the river. I wear shorts instead of the white robe I wear at church, a tee-shirt and a baseball hat. And get into the water right along with the people. There’s nothing in the world like holding the hand of someone as they fall beneath the water then pulling them back up as a sign of their new life in Jesus. I could do that all day. Baptism at the river is a holy moment as much for me as for those being baptized.

Alison Kraus’ classic song (we all know it from the movie, “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) captures the simplicity and joy of baptism at the river with memorable lyrics:
O sinners, let’s go down
Let’s go down, come on down
O sinners, let’s go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way

The people baptized at the river

But while I didn’t do it all day Sunday, it went on for a long time. People of all ages came to be baptized. Hundreds of people stood along the shore, cheering and clapping as each person came up from the water.

And who were they? Children, high-school and college students, young married couples, singles, a dad and his son. One couple even found the event online and came from another city to be baptized. A young adult woman and a fifth-grade boy from our church’s mission across town. All came to the river because they love Jesus and want to follow him. I blogged previously about the key role baptism plays in the faith of young men here

How is baptism in the river a holy moment?

The New Testament is clear that baptism at the river is a holy moment (Jesus was himself baptized that way) as well as an important step in the life of a believer. Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, for instance, 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 his command.

Well known writer Max Lucado explains the biblical heart of baptism in a special way:

Don’t prevent baptism from being what God intended. This is no optional command. This is no trivial issue. It is a willing plunge into the power and promise of Christ. Baptism is the first step of a believer. If it was important enough for Jesus to command, isn’t it important enough for you to obey? And if it was important enough for Jesus to do, isn’t it important enough for you to follow? In baptism God signs and seals our conversion to him. For all we may not understand about baptism, we can be sure of one thing—baptism is a holy moment.

Each year at Baptism at the river, 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 river.

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.

Baptism at the river really is a holy moment.

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