Baptism and the Big Boat
By Audrey Stallsmith
The baptisms performed in our church recently were probably among the most unceremonious in history. Our elderly pastor had forgotten his intention to baptize my father and one other man that morning. However, the other man’s health is so poor that he is seldom able to make it out to church anymore, so the pastor decided to go forward with the rite anyway.
He sent me, the “youngster” of the group, to the restroom to fetch a cup of water and a paper towel. Because our pastor leans on a cane most of the time these days, I expected him to have me hold the cup for him while he sprinkled the men. Instead, he sloshed water over both their heads.
Since they were seated on one of the padded pews at the front of the sanctuary, it was probably just as well that I’d brought the water in a Dixie cup, which limited the amount available. I obviously should have fetched more than one paper towel as well!
Still, despite its impromptu nature, I’m sure the ceremony had the significance for which it is intended. As Frederick Buechner puts it in his blog, “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.”
As the humorous song, “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor”--with its “Pray for the fish” admonition--indicates, the dunking also can symbolize the washing away of one’s sins. (In Jesse’s case, lots of them!)
We watched the new Noah movie recently, and I was struck by the idea that the flood was a much grimmer baptism—a cleansing—of sorts too. There were problems with the movie. To me “the Watchers” seemed laughable and scripture clearly indicates that Noah’s sons all had wives before entering the ark.
However, I was impressed with the fact that the film did stumble around the theme of the depravity of man. Some people accused it of being too much an environmental picture and Noah himself mistakenly seemed to believe that his mission centered on saving the animals rather than the people.
However, it would have been a natural mistake for a man to make in a world where humanity seemed to have become almost entirely depraved. Like the rest of us, Noah could never have been entirely clear about what God wanted from him. We often think of Old Testament characters as people who received much more explicit divine guidance than we do. I doubt that was the case, however, as dreams and visions are open to many interpretations!
Although Hollywood may have intended Noah to be about the animals, the film rarely even pictured them after their first appearance, and actually focused on the characters. And Crowe did a good job of portraying a very conflicted man, one aware enough of the sin remaining in himself and his family to question rather they were really any better than the people who drowned.
Like many heroes, while saving the world, Noah was alienating his own family. And when Ham contemptuously turned his back on his father, Noah must have gotten a taste of how God feels, watching His own created sons turn their backs on him.
So, if the movie’s producers had lost the Watchers and made Noah scrounge for wood on his own, they might actually have had a good film. It wouldn’t have taken much faith, after all, for a man who was already surrounded with supernatural beings to believe God was speaking to him. It would have taken a lot more guts to believe that in the kind of world I suspect Noah really occupied, one where God and good seemed to be entirely absent.
The movie did at least make the point that an outside washing does nothing for the inside of a man. Baptism can’t save you unless you allow your heart to be changed as well, unless you turn away as Noah did from your old world to a new one.
Changed enough to allow you to endure such a humbling experience, since hardly anybody preserves much dignity when soaking wet. I seem to recall my own immersion baptism years ago leaving me sputtering like a half-drowned muskrat. It represents a kind of death to self. "We are baptized into the death of Christ,” C. S. Lewis writes in Miracles, “and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call 'ambivalent.' It is Satan's great weapon and also God's great weapon."
Baptism also serves as a public profession of one’s faith. In some cultures, such a public commitment to Christianity can be a literal death sentence as well as a figurative one. So we American Christians are fortunate to get away with a little embarrassment—and a chance at a whole new beginning.