The water is fine

One of my favorite movies is the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. One scene always makes me smile and that’s when the escaped convict Delmar tries to convince the other two-thirds of his group to jump in the waters of baptism by exclaiming, “C’mon in, boys, the water is fine!”. I grew up in the South but I never witnessed a crowd of people going into a river for baptism. I only saw pictures of days gone by.

Since August of 2012 I have baptized nine youth or adults by immersing them completely in water, one of them in a portable baptismal and the rest in the flowing waters of the surrounding country. I am a cradle Methodist and an elder in the United Methodist Church. I had never seen an immersion baptism done by a Methodist until I was 27 years old and almost one year into my first appointment as a pastor. In the last five years of my current appointment, I have baptized 15 people by immersion. It thrills me to see people respond to Jesus’ call to “follow me” and ask, “what shall we do?” like the people who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. I tell them the same thing Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” So, that’s what they’ve done.

As I baptize more and more people by immersion, people ask me “Why are you immersing them? We are Methodists and I thought it was the Baptists who immerse people.” It’s a fair question. Given our demographics and decline as a denomination in the last forty-five years, I suspect that many United Methodists have never seen one of their own baptized by immersion. Many United Methodist Churches do not see even one baptism a year and as paedobaptists (infant baptizers), it is even more rare to see a person baptized by immersion[1]. So, I want to answer the question that has been raised in my church and for all of us who call ourselves United Methodist.

On page 81 of the United Methodist Book of Worship, we read:

United Methodists may baptize by any of the modes used by Christians. Candidates or their parents have the choice of sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; and pastors and congregations should be prepared to honor requests for baptism in any of these modes. (Emphasis mine)

A Methodist might think immersion is what the Baptists do (as if what our Baptist brothers and sisters do is repulsive to us - it’s not - but that’s a topic for another post), but as our Book of Worship notes, we can and do practice baptism by immersion. Those who think immersion “isn’t Methodist” are wrong and one doesn’t have to look too hard to find instances in which John Wesley or Francis Asbury supported this practice[2]. As far as I’m concerned, if they did it, that’s as Methodist as it gets and I’m proud to stand as one of their spiritual and ministerial heirs.

This is a cut and dried case as far as our worship practices go as a denomination, but that’s not the answer I typically give when I’ve been asked this question. When asked, “Why are you immersing people?” I usually respond by saying, “Because the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the people of our church.” That’s a much better answer because that’s exactly what is happening. The love of God is poured into hearts (“shed abroad” in Wesley’s King James Bible) “by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).The Spirit calls men and women, making alive those who are dead in their trespasses, and makes them new creations. Since they’ve never been baptized before, we baptize them because through baptism they are initiated into Christ’s holy church. That is an amazing thing and I rejoice in it.

The confusion as to why Methodists are immersing people points to something else altogether. The reason adult baptism by immersion is so alien to our congregations is because we do not see dead people come to life through the grace of God given to us by the atoning work of Christ on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We assume that everyone around us is a Christian or that they go to church so we shouldn’t bother them. Our assumptions are wrong and when we share the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbors and even those in our worship services there is no predicting how God might work and move in our hearts.

I want to perform more baptisms by immersion because I want to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ and follow him for the rest of their lives. This is what we’ve been called to do and we must be faithful.

  1. Adult baptisms by immersion are not only rare because we baptize infants, but also because we do not re-baptize anyone. Re-baptism is a chargeable offense in our Book of Discipline.  ↩

  2. From memory, there are a couple of accounts concerning immersion in the southern Methodist churches in Wigger’s biography of Asbury, but since it’s at my house you’ll just have to get a copy for yourself and look it up.  ↩