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Remembering Baptism: Living Wet

More congregations are seeing baptism as a sacrament that begins a lifelong pilgrimage. This shift leads them to pay more attention to baptismal living in worship and daily life. A feature story exploring the practices of the sacrament of baptism.

Pastors are often advised not to change anything in a church till they’ve ministered there for at least a year. Chip Andrus, however, plunged right in at First Presbyterian Church in Harrison, Arkansas.

“The interim pastor had removed the baptism font lid but had never explained why or led from the font. Someone else had put the font lid back on, and the communion table was pushed to the side. So on that first Sunday, I pulled out the communion table, opened the font, and filled it with water. I spent five minutes talking about the importance of baptismal life, just enough to open a teachable moment,” says Andrus, who became pastor at First Presbyterian in November 2006.

Since then, he’s led worship from the baptism font, talked about baptism in countless settings, and used visuals and experiences to help worshipers remember their baptisms during daily life. Andrus says that baptism marks Christians as members of one family, united by “baptismal vows we have made before God to love, care for, and nurture one another.”

Lead from the font

Before moving to Harrison, Andrus worked in the Presbyterian (PCUSA) Office of Theology and Worship and served in the sacramental study group that produced “Invitation to Christ.” This report recommends five sacramental practices for baptism and the Lord’s Supper, including—every Sunday—setting the font in full view of the congregation, opening it, and filling it with water.

“Every Sunday I lead one or more parts of the service from the font. We do the rite of confession at the font. We remember that in baptism we promise to live a certain way. We fail to live that way, but God pours out grace and is always calling us back to the way Christ has showed us.

“I usually say the confession in liturgical language but also remind them, ‘Every time you see water—like when it rains or you go to the river—remember God’s beauty and sustaining love all around us, and remember that you’re a baptized child of God.’ We also talk about the ethical imperative of baptism to care for creation,” he says.

He often stands by the font to offer the sending or mark faith milestones such as confirmation, prayers for graduates, and blessings before mission trips. Doing these things from the font reminds worshipers that they can give themselves in ministry, mission, ethics, and stewardship because they’ve been washed in grace.
As the worship description on First Presbyterian’s website explains, “What we believe about God, ourselves, our faith, our mission and the way we live in the world is all formed in worship.”

Drip by drip

In classes, pastoral visits, and casual conversations, Andrus helps people remember their baptisms. “We talk about how the rite of initiation has two parts—bathing, which is unrepeatable, and feeding, which is repeated,” he says.

He often recounts the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and “barbecue by the beach” (John 21) stories. Each includes feeding and sending. At Emmaus, two disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread and “returned at once to Jerusalem” to tell others. By the Galilean Sea, Jesus revealed where fish were biting, broke bread with his friends, and asked, “Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”

Before every baptism, anyone who wants to meets with Andrus and a Sunday school class. They go over baptism steps, including the prayer of thanksgiving over the water, priesthood of all believers, and oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit confirming a baptism. “At confirmation we do the same anointing. We’ve also reclaimed the practice of weekly communion,” Andrus says.

When the congregation moved into a new building, they commissioned local artisans to make a walnut stand and glass bowl for the font.

Andrus attached a little ceramic bowl to the wall near his office. “I fill it with water to help me remember Psalm 121:8, ‘The Lord will keep watch over your going out and your coming in.’ Many parishioners now feel comfortable to dip a finger and make the sign of the cross, an invisible tattoo. It’s a way of bodily acknowledging that God has put God’s mark on them. Sometimes kids are playful and splash each other,” he says.

“Talking about and reflecting on these themes constantly has really moved people. We’ve baptized not only six babies but also older children and adults. Youth soak this up,” he adds.

Associate baptism with life

Harrison, Arkansas is in the Ozark Mountains, a region rich in water, hiking, and fishing. First Presbyterian projects images of local water any time worship happens near the font.

“As people come in and during the greeting, we often juxtapose a slide of a local water feature. Sometimes we use a video loop, such as dawn rising off the Buffalo National River. We add local images to the great prayer of thanksgiving during communion. We don’t use any stock photos or purchased video, just what we shoot ourselves,” Andrus says.

He and each new confirmation class hike the Lost Valley trail up to Eden Falls Cave, where, 200 feet inside, a 35-foot waterfall thunders. “We mark it ritually as a time for change, growth, and accepting the responsibility of baptism. The cave is in total darkness, like in a womb or as the ‘people who walk in darkness.’ We hear the waterfall and think of new birth. We talk about being on a journey that will end at next year’s Easter vigil. We begin to see not only the church but the world around us as sacred space,” he says.

Every Sunday, worshipers remember their baptism, are nourished in communion, and sent out to live as the baptized body of Christ. They reflect on what Andrus calls “the holiness and earthiness of bread, wine, and water.” They expand their experience of the Lord’s Table to other tables, sharing their gardens and feeding the hungry.

Andrus says the congregation has grown tremendously in worship, prayer, mission, and community. “It’s a matter of putting local images in front of people, saying the words the church has given us, and making room for God’s Spirit to work.

“This has really engaged the young people and attracted other teens to join. Every time they come to church now, they know they’re going to see water and bread. They won’t be just sitting and listening. Youth are starting to read Scripture and hold, pour, and carry physical objects for baptism and reaffirmation of baptism. I hope confirmation class members will eventually help lead prayers of the people.

“People used to describe death as ‘Well, they passed on.’ Now people say their grandmother has ‘completed her baptism.’ That they’re willing to say this, unprompted, lets us know that deep down, they are starting to understand baptism as more than an event,” Andrus says.

Improving and Completing Baptism

It’s a simple story. But if you’ve heard theologian and teacher Marva J. Dawn retell it, you’ve probably seen people wipe away sudden tears.

She recalls worship that began with four people entering the sanctuary from the back. One carried in a large pitcher, emptied it “with a great gurgling” into the baptismal font, and said, “The waters of our identity.” The second brought in a chalice and paten (cup and plate), set them on the communion table, and announced, “The feast of our future.” The third lay a large Bible on the pulpit and proclaimed, “The book of our story.” Finally the fourth person in the procession, the liturgist, warmly invited, “People of God, welcome home!”

That basic reenactment charges ordinary water, bread, wine, and words with God’s grandeur. It kindles memories of parents and pastors who have urged baptized loved ones, “Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.”

Baptism happens once, yet takes a lifetime to complete. That’s why more congregations are talking about renewing, reaffirming, or improving baptism. They’re discovering ways to reintegrate baptism with weekly worship, rites of passage, and the life of their faith community.

Weekly worship

Baptism is no guarantee against sinning again. However, when weekly worship models baptism as a lifelong pilgrimage, worshipers gradually live into the pattern of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.

When Martin Luther felt discouraged or afraid, he’d often splash water on himself and declare, “But I am baptized!” John Calvin advised readers depressed by evil to “reflect that they are still on the way” to the “complete victory” that God promises in baptism.

Arlo D. Duba, a retired worship professor and hymnwriter, describes baptism as “the ‘root sacrament,’ ” basic to worship and life. “This means baptism, in all its power, must again become visible in all our worship services—not only when the sacrament of baptism is administered, but every Sunday,” he writes in Reformed Worship.

Weekly worship may reference baptism during the gathering, hymns and psalms, confession, sermon, communion, and the sending. Visuals and ritual actions (pouring water into the font or splashing water toward worshipers during the benediction) draw attention to the community’s baptismal identity.

Reciting the Apostles’ Creed together while the worship leader is at the font helps worshipers experience how baptism joins them into “the communion of saints.” A brief sentence before the offering (“We promise in baptism to let Christ’s love flows through us to bless others”) or Scripture reading (“Psalm 133 pictures what God does for us in baptism—heals, anoints, and refreshes us”) can illuminate baptismal images.

Worship leaders often focus on one baptism meaning per liturgical season. During Pentecost, they might stress how the Holy Spirit empowers believers to baptize and disciple all nations. Advent can flesh out baptism’s full eschatological promise: God will make all things new.

On Good Friday at Third Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Zeeland, Michigan, Marc Nelesen “always referred to Christ’s death as undergoing a baptism into death. Usually I’d lower the Christ light candle into the base of the baptismal font during the Christ’s death part of the liturgy. That light would be lifted out at the end of the service.

“We had an Easter vigil at the local cemetery and then processed to the sanctuary, walked past the font (moved to the sanctuary entrance), remembered baptism, and then redecorated the sanctuary in Easter white,” says Nelesen, now ministering elsewhere.

Rites of passage

Nelesen also refers to baptism and the Lord’s Supper at weddings. At funerals he gives the baptism date of the person who died. Sometimes he points to the font, table, and pulpit and says, “Right here, all the highlights of your formation in faith and community have happened.”

First Presbyterian Church in Harrison, Arkansas, does visitation and funerals at church. “On the visitation night before the funeral, we move the communion table up on the chancel and put the body where the table usually is. When visitation ends, we pray with the family and anyone else still there. We put a pall over the coffin and light a paschal candle, which stays lit all night long.

“The body lies in state all night. The candle reflection glows on the water of the font. It’s a powerful reminder of dying and rising with Christ. The next day, we end the funeral by singing the ‘Canticle of Simeon.’ The casket is rolled out during that song, and the pall is removed outside,” says pastor Chip Andrus.

At baptism a community vows to make disciples and nurture each other in faith. Leading from the font or mentioning baptism makes sense when congregations commission church school teachers or council members.

Third CRC in Zeeland, Michigan is among congregations that list baptism anniversaries in the church bulletin. Some pastors pray by name for or with listed people.

Liturgical theologian Martha Moore-Keish has a friend who used to write letters on her children’s baptismal anniversaries. “She reflected on how she’d seen God at work in their lives and what she would pray for them in the year ahead. She gathered the letters to give to her children when they got confirmed, to show the maturing of baptismal promises.

“Now that my older daughter is 12, I’ve taken to reminding her at bedtime that she is a baptized child of God. I do this lightheartedly but am aware of the peer pressures she faces. I want her to claim her identity as one who is already beloved of God, who does not need to follow the latest trend or fashion to be of value in God’s sight. I hope she hears this affirmation. She certainly enjoys repeating it back to me,” Moore-Keish says.

Living wet

Roman Catholic liturgical consultant Lawrence Mick wrote a magazine column called “Living Wet.” The series was republished as a book, Living Baptism Daily, and many Protestants now talk about “living wet.” Moving the font and planning “remember your baptism” services help worshipers live wet.

At Bethany CRC in Muskegon, Michigan, the font, communion table, and lectern are usually up front on a platform. “We occasionally move the furniture for a liturgical dance or visual project,” explains Gail Hall, worship committee chair. They needed more space to celebrate Lent so moved the font to the foyer from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.

A sign on the font read: “You are not your own; you have been marked out as belonging to God. You have been cleansed from your sin. You have been identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus. You belong to the multigenerational, multicultural family of God. Pause at the baptismal font. Feel free to touch it. Dip your fingers into the water, as we remember that baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage toward our heavenly destination."

Hall says that other than an “elderly saint” who criticized the sign as “too Catholic,” few members said much. However, as the pastor returned to baptism in several Lenten sermons, “appreciation began to grow. I was teaching an adult ed class at the same time based on a worship book by Ron Rienstra. Several chapters mention that we all enter the church ‘wet.’ ”

Thanks to the class, sermons, and temporary font location, reactions to using font water to remember baptism “grew over time from lukewarm to overwhelmingly positive,” Hall says.

Many congregations invite members to the font during “remember your baptism” services, often on Baptism of the Lord Sunday in Epiphany. Ron Rienstra’s Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship includes a reaffirmation of baptism liturgy that can be adapted for a baptism service.

Learn More

Chip Andrus, a pastor and singer/songwriter, has four songs in the Presbyterian hymnal supplement, Sing the Faith. His song “Welcome Me” can be used as a congregational response to baptism.

Download a single copy of “Invitation to Christ” or order several for your congregation. Adapt ideas from other Presbyterian (PCUSA) congregations that have adopted these five sacramental practices.

Early Christians preferred baptizing with living water. Even if you don’t baptize in a lake or stream, you might bring in water from a lake, stream, or waterfall with meaningful connections. Here are more worship ideas for using the baptismal font and water.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland suggests many ways to remind worshipers of baptism during regular worship services. So does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If you want to celebrate your baptismal anniversary but don’t know your baptism date, you could choose a baptismal anniversary eight days after your birthday (the day Jewish babies were presented at the temple). Check out baptism images and resources at EnvisonChurch, a website of architecture, liturgy, and spirituality in the Catholic tradition.

Marva J. Dawn sometimes varies the wording but often describes opening worship with a procession of four people.

Retired worship professor Arlo Duba, a founder of Association for Reformed & Liturgical Worship, has revived interest in Reformed liturgical traditions and Easter vigils. He describes a further baptismal insight he received recently while studying the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Martin Copenhaver, senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, discusses how to keep confirmation as much a congregational commitment as infant baptism is.

Water is life not only symbolically in baptism but literally for every human being. As a baptized person, read how you can help the one in six people worldwide have no access to clean water. Ecumenical Water Network provides worship resources related to water.

Use baptism in worship resources from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, such as fresh ideas for baptism liturgies and a service that includes reaffirmation of baptism vows. Use ideas from Reformed Worship baptism articles and liturgies, including a baptismal renewal liturgy and Arlo Duba’s “Take Me to the Water,” which has a section on renewing baptism vows in weddings.

Browse related stories on common patterns of baptism, baptism’s multiple meanings, baptism and adoption, and Christian funerals.

Start a Discussion

Talk about reclaiming baptism in worship and life:

  • What does the shape, placement, use (or absence) of the baptismal font in your worship space say about the importance of baptismal living?
  • What first steps could you take to help worshipers associate baptismal living with the water they see or use in daily life? During which steps in the order of worship could you start mentioning baptism more biblically, creatively, and consistently?
  • Discuss the ethical implications of becoming more like Christ, the Water of Life. How might that make a difference in the way your congregation uses water, cares for creation, or helps people without access to clean water?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about renewing baptism in worship and Christian life?

  • Did you meet with other local churches to share ideas about the relationship of baptism, faith, and faith formation? In what way, if any, did this lead your congregation to reaffirm or renew your baptismal identity?
  • Which Bible stories, worship themes, visuals, music, drama, bodily actions, or other worship elements have worked best to help worshipers connect Old and New Testament stories with baptism and real life practice?