When I was eleven years old, I invited my friend Bobby to attend church with me. Upon seeing the baptistery for the first time, Bobby asked, “Is that the fish tank where your preacher dunks people?”
” Fish tanks” were brought into churches years ago because heated water sounded better than rural creek water. And while the move was probably practical, a recent conversation with a 92-year-old
woman suggested to me that we’ve probably lost a beautiful tradition forged in the creeks and rivers of rural America.
Sophie, a participant at our Senior Care Center, shared a wonderful memory with me one day, which took us both back to a church service in the late ’30s.
It was a hot spring day in rural Louisiana and most of the church windows were propped open with broken broom handles as a pesky draft was sending the pages of Preacher Jonas’ bible jumping between Proverbs and Revelation.
But more than the breeze, it was each chorus of “uh-huh’s” and” amen’s” that really fanned his fire. Half yelling and half singing, the preacher had gone into overtime in hopes of persuading a few more folks to join Sophie in a cold dip in Rickshaw Creek.
The marathon sermon was taking its toll. Babies were sleeping on nursing breasts, and children slept on their grandmother’s laps as their grandfathers slept in the curved corner of their hardened pews.
However, in the front left pew, anticipation was keeping Sophie wide awake. Leaning on the preacher’s wife, she was holding a pile of white sheets that would be used to protect the modesty of the afternoon’s baptismal candidates.
Finally, a poke from the preacher’s wife prompted Sophie into singing Amazing Grace and gave Brother Jonas his cue to bring the sermon to an end. But it was not really an ending, but a beginning – for as she
sang, the preacher raised his tattered Bible, thrust it in the direction of the creek, and the congregation began its half-mile pilgrimage to the baptismal pool.
Once there, the preacher removed his suit jacket and walked into Rickshaw Creek exclaiming “Oh Lord, Oh Jesus” as a sort of half prayer and half protest to the cold temperature. As the water ran through
the preacher’s clothing, it tugged against the suspenders holding up his baggy pants and rinsed the salty streaks of sweat from his white shirt.
Over their Sunday dresses, the preacher’s wife had already wrapped the women in bed sheets and secured the sheets around their hips with a cord to prevent the current from sweeping away all modesty.
Their braided hair was concealed by the biblical coverings of white scarves, but their young faces shone in the afternoon sun.
Lifting his face toward heaven, Preacher Jonas prayed briefly and invited the first candidate into the water – Sophie. As a deacon stepped forward to escort her over the slippery stones, she was so ecstatic that she wasn’t sure she’d walk into the water – or on top of the water.
” Sister Sophie,” the preacher began, “The faith which first dwelled in your family, now dwells in you!”
” What is your witness to God’s people?” Preacher Jonas asked, begging the traditional response.
” Jesus Christ is my Lord!” she exclaimed.
” Sophie, because of your profession of faith,” he said pinching her nostrils shut, “I baptize you my little sister in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost!
“Buried with Him in baptism…” she heard the preacher say from under the water as she watched bubbles float free from the pockets in her clothing.
Lifting her up to the sound of rushing water draining from her hair and clothes, the preacher completed his formula – “…risen to walk in newness of life!”
But walking wasn’t what Sophie had in mind as she pranced and splashed her way toward her mother crying, “Thank you, Jesus!” Overcome with emotion, Sophie’s mom – still in her high heels and stockings – waded out and hugged Sophie so tight that mamma got a soaking too.
“One day, soon” Sophie said, exuding the pride of her tradition,” we’ll hug again that way. One day soon.”
I suspect she’s probably right about that because I think that hers is the kind of soulful love that comes from these wonderful religious traditions that can give us such a soaking with spirit that it soaks everyone we contact.
So I think that perhaps the next time I see Sophie, I might just take a moment to imagine myself falling back into the creek water of this wonderful tradition – soaking from head to toe in God’s love – and then I’m going to give her a hug.