Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.
I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.
I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.
So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.
Not so for me.
The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt. My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels.
(The waders are only one of the tools of the trade through which I feel the weight of years of male pastors bearing down on me. Another big one is my lapel mike: I finally started wearing my robe at our informal service because there was nowhere to clip the battery pack when I wore a dress, and I refused to rig it up with duct tape, reality-TV style.)
So the waders don’t work for me. The water is too deep, or the drawstring isn’t tight enough, or they just plain don’t fit. When I lean over with the young woman being baptized, my arm braced on her back to help her back up, the water rushes right over those suspenders and down into the toes of those too-big boots, soaking my top, my skirt, and well, everything else.
And now I need to be back in the sanctuary in a matter of minutes to sing the closing hymn and offer the benediction. I strip off my damp pantyhose and put my robe back on, over my wet clothes. When I sit down, I can feel the dampness of my skirt soaking through the lining and into the outer fabric my robe. I think a few words that are not particularly appropriate for a clergy person on Easter morning.
“Can you tell I’m all wet?” I whisper to our worship team leader, who has been helping mop up drips on the floor. She stands behind me and tilts her head. I walk a few steps and turn, as if I’m modeling a new dress. “No, I think it’s okay,” she says, and I’m pretty sure she’s lying. “Can you just hold your hymnal behind you?”
I can’t quite see how that will be less conspicuous than a damp spot on the back of my robe, but I nod, because it’s time to go. I make it through the last hymn and muster up some enthusiasm for a few last alleluias, praying that the choir, standing behind me, is thinking more about the resurrection than my derriere.
As I process out in front of one of our (male) elders, and then stand strategically with my back to the wall and greet the Easter crowd, I decide, for good, that I’m done with the waders.
Baptism is ineffable, mysterious. A sacrament, a means of grace, a holy moment, an entry into the body of Christ, the family of God. It’s hard to describe what happens there, so it’s no surprise that when I talk to kids about baptism, they are mostly interested in the water. It’s symbolic, I tell them, it represents dying and rising with Christ. Yes, they say, but will the water be cold? They want to know how the water gets in there (a faithful deacon), and how deep it will be (just deep enough) and whether they’ll have time to blow dry their hair afterwards (no).
We need water to live, to drink, cook, clean. The waters of baptism reminds us of the first breath of creation, when the wind from God swept over the face of the deep. The water reminds us of John standing in the Jordan, of Jesus rising from the waters with the dove descending overhead.
Of course, the over-sized bathtub at the front of our sanctuary is a far cry from the waters of the Jordan River. Some traditions make a point of going outside, to a lake, a river, the ocean, to do their dunking. I happen to like standing in the water in the middle of the congregation, in that space where the community gathers for worship and is sent out to work in the world, with the church family looking on and offering up their love and prayers.
Most people only step into those waters once in a lifetime. It occurs to me, in my wet clothes on Easter morning, that it is a gift, an honor, to accompany people in that moment. In a way, the waders set up a barrier between me and the water, implying that I can slip in and out, unaffected by this holy moment, unmoved by the Spirit that hovers over those waters, untouched by the challenge of the congregation to the newly baptized: Walk in the newness of life. When they come up out of the water, a little bit awed and just slightly out of breath, maybe I ought to be breathless, too. Maybe I ought to be wet.
A few weeks after Easter, I step into the baptistery again, barefoot this time, with a change of clothes waiting for me in the hall. I reach out to take the hand of a fourth-grader who has decided that she’s ready to enter, fully and completely, the body of Christ. She steps down, and the water embraces both of us. It is pure grace.