The winter of 1961 was unusually frigid in northwest Texas. But this was a happy Sunday at Sardis Baptist Church, located not far from Abilene, Texas. Driving cautiously and walking carefully, we all shuffled to church through the ice deposit that preceded the six inches of snow covering that slippery surface. Few absences were counted that morning since we were going to celebrate our first baptism in a triad of years. Arriving at the church in the middle of a field for growing cotton, I was met by my kingpin deacon.
“Preacher, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but the heater in the baptistry broke. The pool is full, but I almost had to break the ice in there.” I responded that I would have to inquire about another day for the baptism. The forty-year-old woman who was to be immersed was coming gingerly up the walkway at that moment.
“I am a ranch woman, and I am tough. My family has come from everywhere to see the baptism, and we are going to do it! Preacher, can you handle it?” She might be a tough ranch woman, but I figured that I was a “city-boy” preacher with a penchant for warm winter baptisms. But I also had enough masculine pride to prevent my making that admission.
“Sure, let’s get on with it,” I stammered.
Now there were two problems. First, I did not realize that when I stepped waist deep into that water, that the cold would take my breath away and make speaking impossible for a minute or so. Second, the icy water froze this tall lady into a statue when she hit the water. How could I get her under water? About the fourth try I finally began, “In obedience to the co…co…command…” Overcoming her resistance, I immersed her to the happy “Amens” of her family and friends. Coming up she shouted and whistled so loudly that I am pretty sure they heard her in Fort Worth, 100 miles away. One thing I know. Neither one of us will ever forget her baptism!
Some of my German friends who were born in Siberia sent me pictures of a recent baptism in that severe country. The pastor had to prepare the outdoor baptistry, which he did with a sledgehammer. He broke up the ice, which was an iceberg-thick slab. It took about twenty minutes. Then off come the coats and into the crisp mush the candidate walked with the pastor. It hurt all the way to America, but I promise you – that man will never forget his baptism. You can Google pictures of baptisms in Siberia.
Come to think of it, that is what baptism ought to be. Baptism is a picture never to be erased. It reminds us of the coldness of the death of Christ and of his resurrection on the third day. It shouts the story of our own death to the old way of life and our rising in the power of the Spirit to walk in a new way with Christ – not because the water was frigidly cold but because of what the immersion itself pictured.
Years ago, I was given the opportunity to see that underscored rather decidedly. The community to which I ministered was a vigorously religious community but not evangelical at all. As long as people made a decision to receive Christ at home, there was no objection raised. Strangely, even a public confession of faith in our church seemed unprovocative. What brought a storm of protest was baptism. If a man wished to follow Jesus in believer’s baptism (often having been sprinkled as an infant), threats sometimes came to the entire family. As I attempted to field all of these happenings in a pastoral manner, I came to comprehend why John’s baptism, and then that of Jesus, was the cause of such an uproar.
Baptism does not save anyone. But as a classic picture of the spiritual reality that underscores baptism, it is a glorious snapshot. Make much of baptism. Get photographs. Assist to establish the memory of that baptism event, for this act of obedience by the new believer is the actual public confession of faith for everyone looking on.