In the journey of the exodus, Moses and the Israelites were witness to (and recipients of) a number of miracles. In one episode of their saga, they arrived at the Red Sea (or the Reed Sea), closely pursued by Pharaoh’s army. It was a miracle to have the waters part, leaving them a dry pathway to walk to the other side without getting a drop of water on them anywhere. For Paul (and probably for others), that constituted a “baptism.”
The Christian way of baptism is to be either bent over or held over a basin and have water poured on the head or else to be fully immersed, but how can Paul call walking between two reservoirs of water held apart by miraculous means be called a baptism, and how they be considered “baptized” without getting wet? I’ve heard the expression “baptism of fire,” a severe ordeal a soldier or civilian experiences for the first time when facing a traumatic experience like the first taste of combat. There’s also a “baptism by desire” where someone who repents of their sins, tries to make amends but who dies before the water of baptism can touch them and who are seen as receiving the heavenly benefit of true baptism. I guess there can be baptism (of sorts) without getting wet, but I believe there is more to be learned from digging into this passage.
As I was thinking about this “baptism without getting wet” I asked my priest about it. Her response was that it was a transition between two states. For the Israelites it was the walk between the waters of the Red Sea that symbolized the transition from an old life of slavery and death to a new life of freedom. It was that time of transition that signified their baptism and their commitment to a new life following Moses to a land promised to them by God.
The journey through the Red Sea reminded me of stepping stones, a pattern of flat places with something between them like sand, loose gravel or even running water. We walk from stepping stone to stepping stone, trying to stay on the path without losing our balance. The time between when we take one foot off one stone and onto another and then follow it with the second foot is like a miniature version of the journey through the Red Sea where they had to step off the dry land to a place where a moment before had been water. When we move from one stone to another, we are recreating that same moment in microcosm. When we rest on the next stone before going on further, we aren’t exactly the same person we were when we crossed that tiny midline between the two stones and neither were they. Some cells have died, maybe some new thoughts or inspirations have happened, some new cells have been created, but even on the microscopic level, we are changed, even if an ever so tiny a change.
In the reading, Paul was reminding the Corinthians that they had undergone a baptism in Christ, a transfer of allegiance from the world to Christ and that it should call them to a more righteous life. They should not let things in the world lure them into sin. The writings of Paul generally incorporated his belief that the end of the age, the period before the second coming, was imminent and therefore people should be prepared for it. For Paul, that meant avoiding sin including everything from complaining to sexual immorality. It was their duty as Christians to live into the promise of their baptism.
Baptism is a one-shot deal; once done it is forever. It isn’t like one of those immunization shots from the doctor’s office for specific diseases because baptism does not offer immunity for the duration of one’s life or even a specific amount of time. It isn’t a magic potion or spell that makes a person sin free or even really more able to resist sin, although that might happen. Baptism is a starting point but it is periodic injections of prayer, community, worship and self-control that keep us going. How successfully we keep going is a variable and each of us has to answer for our own spiritual health, including asking for help when we need it. The church in its wisdom, though, has given us opportunities several times a year to repeat and renew our baptismal covenant, a sort of booster shot in a way.
As with all promises, it’s good to remember them on my own without having to put them in writing on the calendar on the refrigerator or have a computer program remind me at specific times. With the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, those statements of faith made person by the use of “I believe”, I know that I also need that periodic injection of “Will you…?” and “With God’s help” from time to time. It also helps me put a contemporary context to the ancient words through reminding me of the importance of my duty and commitment to God, to myself, to my community and the world.
It’s like a little baptism all over again – but without getting wet.