Surface Tension (A Baptism Story)

Phil and I stood beside our daughter as she was baptized last weekend. With grandparents and aunts and one beloved uncle in the pews, it was a momentous occasion.

Once a year the week after Easter, our church offers the option of full immersion baptism. They spread out a large plastic tarp and borrow horse troughs from a farm supply store to serve as baptisteries. Part of me thinks “Horse Trough Sunday” isn’t the most dignified name, but I suppose Baby Jesus’ manger was from the farm supply store. If it was good enough for him, . . .

My husband was baptized by sprinkling as an infant, and I was immersed just after I turned seven years old, so we weren’t too picky about how Caroline would be baptized, only that it would be her decision. Last year, she wanted to be baptized but later chickened out. This year, she overcame her apprehension and took the leap, an outward sign of an inward grace.

Caroline wore butterfly-print capri pants and a t-shirt with a cat wearing glasses. The cat and butterflies corresponded whimsically to Jesus, Lamb of God, and the dove that descended at his baptism in the Jordan. (Truth be told, I’d fallen behind on laundry. There weren’t many clean outfits to choose from.)

She shivered as she stepped over the side into the water, brave and nervous in equal parts. Our pastor kneeled and told her how happy he was to baptize her—that he remembered when she came into the world and was thrilled to know that Jesus lives in her heart.

As instructed, she held her nose as Rev. Shane invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then, with her dad on one side and me at her head, she took the modified Nestea Plunge. I heard my sister’s loud whoop! from the congregation and smiled.

In a split second, water closed over her face, pale gray light reflecting off its smooth surface. Then, as quickly as she’d gone under, she emerged from the water as I clumsily lifted her by the shoulder.

It struck me, this nearly palpable surface tension of the water—temporary, breaking, parting, making way for a little girl’s face. For a moment she stood dripping at the foot of the trough, shocked by the cold water, shocked by the translation.

I held her hand as she stepped out onto dry tarp and wrapped herself in a towel. That’s what it is, I half-realized, this sacrament of baptism: an act of translation.

From what language to what? I’m still not sure.

To translate—derived from a Latin word meaning to carry across—is to bear something from one place to another.

Answered prayers and high-tech medicine had borne this child to life, and I had borne her to the point of birth and lung-breathing. Now this baptism bore her across an invisible chasm into the country of God’s native languages: Spirit and Truth. Perhaps just for a moment, a glance, a glimpse.

It may seem silly—and it’s surely inconvenient—to get soaking wet in front of the church. But signs and symbols are the best we can do when it comes to expressing things beyond words.

I’m not saying the water is salvific. It’s not that there’s something in the water. But there was something on the water’s surface, a mystery I can’t quite make out—like seeing through a glass, darkly.

baptism page

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