... by God's word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.
—2 Peter 3:5
In the beginning, the spirit of god hovered over water.
The water was dark and deep and everywhere, the ancients say, an endless primordial sea.
Then God separated the water, pushing some of it below to make oceans, rivers, dew drops, and springs, and vaulting the rest of the torrents above to be locked behind a glassy firmament, complete with doors that opened for the moon and windows to let out the rain. In ancient Near Eastern cosmology, all of life hung suspended between these waters, vulnerable as a fetus in the womb. With one sigh of the Spirit, the waters could come crashing in and around the earth, drowning its inhabitants in a moment. The story of Noah's flood begins when "the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened" (Genesis 7:11). The God who had separated the waters in the beginning wanted to start over, so God washed the world away.
For people whose survival depended on the inscrutable moods of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile, water represented both life and death. Oceans teemed with monsters, unruly spirits, and giant fish that could swallow a man whole. Rivers brimmed with fickle possibility—of yielding crops, of boosting trade, of drying up. Into this world, God spoke the language of water, turning the rivers of enemies into blood, calling forth springs from desert rocks, playing matchmaker around wells, and promising a future in which justice would roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And the people spoke back, seeking purity of mind and body through ritualistic bathing after birth, death, sex, menstruation, sacrifices, conflicts, and transgressions. "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean," the poet-king David wrote; "wash me, and I will be whiter than snow" (Psalm 51:7).
It is naïve to think all of these ancient visions must be literal to be true. We know, as our ancestors did, both the danger and necessity of water. Water knits us together in our mothers' wombs, our ghostlike tissue inhaling and exhaling the embryonic fluid that grows our lungs and bones and brains. Water courses through our bodies and makes our planet blue. It is water that lifts cars like leaves when a tsunami rages to shore, water that in a moment can swallow a ship and in eons carve a canyon, water we trawl for like chimps for bugs with billion-dollar equipment scavenging Mars, water we drop on the bald heads of babies to name them children of God, water we torture with and cry with, water that carries the invisible diseases that will kill four thousand children today, water that if warmed just a few degrees more will come crashing in and around the earth and wash us all away.
But just as water carried Moses to his destiny down the Nile, so water carried another baby from a woman's body into an expectant world. Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters was plunged beneath them at the hands of a wild-eyed wilderness preacher. When God emerged, he spoke of living water that forever satisfies and of being born again. He went fishing and washed his friends' feet. He touched the ceremonially unclean. He spit in the dirt, cast demons into the ocean, and strolled across an angry sea. He got thirsty and he wept.
After the government washed its hands of him, God hung on a cross where blood and water spewed from his side. Like Jonah, he got swallowed up for three days.
Then God beat death. God rose from the depths and breathed air once again. When he found his friends on the shoreline, he told them not to be afraid but to go out and baptize the whole world.
The Spirit that once hovered over the waters had inhabited them. Now every drop is holy.
All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.
I was baptized by my father. His presence beside me in the waist-high water of the baptistery marked yet another perk to having a dad who was ordained but not a pastor, able to participate in my spiritual life without ruining it. The expectations of the daughter of a Bible college professor are much laxer than those of a preacher's kid, let me tell you, and mainly involved gentle suggestions that I redirect some of the questions I asked in Sunday school to the one person in my life who knew ancient Hebrew and could explain over breakfast exactly how God managed to create light before the sun.
So I mostly believed my father when he assured me I wouldn't go to hell for waiting until I was nearly thirteen to get baptized. Mostly. I knew I was pushing the limits of the "age of accountability," the point at which kids no longer ate for free at O'Charley's or got into heaven based on their parents' faithfulness, and I knew that some Christians believed you had to get baptized to be saved. In a rude introduction to the realities of denominationalism, I'd been informed by a fifth-grade classmate that even though I'd asked Jesus into my heart when I was in kindergarten, I needed to seal the deal and get baptized quick before a car accident or nasty fall off the tall slide took me straight to the devil.
"My pastor says you have to be baptized with water before you can be baptized by the Spirit," the boy explained, a general practitioner recommending me to a specialist from across the monkey bars. "You should probably get that taken care of."
"Well, my dad went to seminary and he says you don't have to be baptized to go to heaven," I shot back.
(I should mention I attended a Christian elementary school where "my dad's hermeneutic can beat up your dad's hermeneutic" served as legit schoolyard banter.)
A lot of the kids at Parkway Christian Academy went to the Pentecostal church across the street and during prayer-request time delivered numinous accounts of demons sneaking into their bedrooms at night and flashing the lights or flushing the toilets. They took spiritual warfare super-seriously and considered my family liberals for trick-or-treating on Satan's holiday. My father said demons were in the temptation business, not the toilet-flushing business, but his assurances didn't stop me from trembling beneath my covers some nights, afraid to open my eyes and face the thick presence I knew to be a fallen angel looming over my bed, waiting to seize the easy prey of a girl who went trick-or-treating and hadn't bothered to get baptized. By the time I reached the age of accountability, I'd seen enough doctrinal diversity within the church to want to cover my bases, so I began working more questions about baptism into our regular theological conversations around the dinner table, hoping my parents would make an appointment with our pastor. When I learned that some kids got baptized before they even teethed, I bristled with envy.
Our church believed the Bible, so we practiced immersion. Believer's baptism, we called it. Had we lived in sixteenth-century Switzerland, we might have been killed for such a conviction, symbolically drowned or possibly burned by fellow Protestants who considered the "second baptisms" of the radical reformers heretical. (Fun fact: more Christians were martyred by one another in the decades after the Reformation than were martyred by the Roman Empire.) If I'd been born into an Orthodox family, I'd have been submerged as an infant three times over—first in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son, and then again in the name of the Holy Spirit—before being placed, stunned and sputtering, into the arms of a godparent. If my family had been Catholic, I'd have worn a soft white baptism gown and a priest would have poured holy water over my bald baby head to remit the stain of original sin. If we'd been Mormon, two witnesses would have stood on either side of the font to ensure my entire body was totally submerged in the water. If we'd been Presbyterian, a few sprinkles symbolizing my place in the covenant family of God would do. Fortunately, while disagreements regarding the method of baptism abound, these days Christians prefer giving one another the stink eye over the stake.
I don't think it matters much. Believer's baptism strikes me as something of a misnomer anyway, suggesting far more volition in this circumstance than most of us have. Whether you meet the water as a baby squirming in the arms of a nervous priest, or as an adult plunged into a river by a revivalist preacher, you do it at the hands of those who first welcome you to faith, the people who have—or will—introduce you to Jesus. "In baptism," writes Will Willimon, "the recipient of baptism is just that—recipient. You cannot very well do your own baptism. It is done to you, for you." It's an adoption, not an interview.
The church that adopted me was Southern and evangelical and, consequently, obsessed with college football. Under the leadership of Gene Stallings, the Alabama Crimson Tide was rolling toward its twelfth national championship, so on Sunday mornings after game day, the traditional pews of Bible Chapel in Birmingham were mottled with red and white hair bows, neckties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accoutrements of Alabama's second religion (or first, depending on who you ask).8 There were a few Auburn fans in attendance, but they were nearly as elusive as Democrats. A single Italian family, the Marinos, comprised our ethnic diversity. We gathered together beneath a vaulted ceiling of Alabama pine and, like good Protestants, faced a heavy, unadorned pulpit. It was the '80s, so all my earliest memories of Jesus smell like hair spray.
At the time, I had no concept of evangelicalism as a unique, relatively recent expression of Christianity with roots in eighteenth-century Pietism and the American Great Awakenings. Instead I understood evangelical to be an adjective synonymous with "real" or "authentic." There were Christians, and then there were evangelical Christians like us. Only evangelicals were assured salvation. Everyone else was lukewarm and in danger of being spewed out of God's mouth. Our Catholic neighbors were doomed. Nine-hundred miles away, in Princeton, New Jersey, my future husband was winning trophies in the pinewood derby at Montgomery Evangelical Free Church, which for many years he took to mean was a church free of evangelicals, like sugar-free gum. "But aren't evangelicals the good guys?" he remembers asking his mother. How early we learn to identify our tribes.
Our pastor at Bible Chapel—Pastor George—hailed from New Orleans and let you know it with his booming bayou drawl and purple-and-gold striped ties. Stout, playful, and a true raconteur, his favorite sermon illustrations involved drawn-out stories about fish that got away and gators that nearly ate him alive. My mother would sometimes tease him after the service by saying he was as bad as the Gideons, a group of Bible distributors whose tales of miraculous Bible encounters (there was one about a dog who delivered a tattered Gideon Bible to his homeless owner before dying in his arms) she never really believed.
I missed all but a few of Pastor George's famous sermons because my little sister, Amanda, and I were usually dismissed to children's church after announcements, hymns, and special music. My mother is a third-generation elementary schoolteacher and staunch defender of age-appropriate education with little tolerance for people who leave their kids in the service to doodle on the bulletin while a preacher drones on and on about substitutionary atonement. Having been forced to do just that as a child—often three to four times a week at a strict independent Baptist church—she made it clear to my father and to anyone else who asked that we only attended church twice a week: once on Sunday morning and once on Wednesday nights. We were conservatives, not legalists.
But even as a kid you learn pretty quick that church doesn't start and stop with the hours of service posted on the church sign. No, church dragged on like the last hour of the school day as we waited in the hot car with Dad for Mom to finish socializing in the fellowship hall. Church lingered long into the gold-tinted Sunday afternoons when Amanda and I gamboled around the house, stripped down to our white slips like little brides. Church showed up at the front door with a chicken casserole when the whole family was down with the flu and called after midnight to ask for prayer and to cry. It gossiped in the pickup line at school and babysat us on Friday nights. It teased me and tugged at my pigtails and taught me how to sing. Church threw Dad a big surprise party for his fortieth birthday and let me in on the secret ahead of time. Church came to me far more than I went to it, and I'm glad.
Given the normal Held family schedule, it felt strange to pull into the long, tree-lined gravel driveway of Bible Chapel on an early Sunday evening for our baptism service, Amanda and I quiet and nervous and strapped in to the backseat of our Chevy Caprice. Part of the reason we delayed my baptism was so she and I could be baptized on the same day, which I considered yet another example of Amanda's uncanny capacity for staying ahead of me in maturity, even though I have three years on her age. Precocious and dimpled, with olive skin and deep, mossy eyes that to this day instantly betray whatever joy or heartache is working through her heart, Amanda could pry a smile out of even the crustiest church elder. She was trusting, impressionable, transparent, and good—the last person in the world anyone ever wanted to make cry.
Pastor George called Amanda Miss AWANA because she so excelled at the Bible memorization classes we attended every Wednesday night. AWANA, which stands for Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed, is far less socialist than it sounds and in fact involved earning badges and pins for the successful recitation of the verses printed in our spiral booklets. The whole enterprise smelled deliciously of sugar cookies and the freshly laminated paper in our memorization books, and Amanda carried the scent home with her weekly, along with armfuls of ribbons and trophies. But rather than bragging, she offered to share her spoils with me. Sometimes, upon noticing I'd come home empty-handed, she quietly slipped into my fingers one of the plastic crown-shaped pins she had earned, meant to represent the crowns we would one day receive in heaven for memorizing so many Bible verses. It frightened me how much she looked up to me, how much she trusted me and rooted for me when I didn't deserve it. I was a good big sister to her until I hit puberty and in the ensuing existential crisis grew resentful of how effortlessly she was loved. Once, when I felt she had not been adequately blamed for some mishap we'd found ourselves in at home, I called her a goody-two-shoes and mocked her by singing the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" with derisive jeer. It is the cruelest thing I have ever done to anyone. Ever. Hers was such a tender spirit that I knew instantly I had bruised something precious, just for the sport of it, and that I was capable of greater evil than I'd ever imagined. Not even the waters of baptism could wash that sin away, I was sure of it.
On our baptism day, we followed my mother into the sanctuary's stark bridal room where we pulled thin baptismal robes over T-shirts and jean shorts. I felt anxious about my breasts. My "stumbling blocks" had emerged early and generously, and I felt like the Whore of Babylon every time I caught a Sunday school classmate's eye on them. (I didn't learn to deconstruct modesty culture until after college, and by then it was too late.) Wet clothes would do me no favors, this much I knew. Fortunately, we were supposed to cross our arms in front of us before getting dunked anyway, and Mom had layered me up with a training bra, undershirt, and thick cotton tee. She ran a brush through my limp brown hair that hung like a mop strings beneath a tangle of artificially poofed bangs, and I watched her brown eyes scan the eczema breaking out on my arms, my stooped shoulders, the gap between my teeth. I refused to wear makeup, and it drove her crazy, especially on a day when any trace of color in my pallid face got washed out by a white robe. Amanda, of course, looked angelic with her hair curled and pulled into bouncy, asymmetrical pigtails—a Precious Moments figurine standing next to a frightened, busty ghost.
"Good news," Mom said, her cheeriness pronounced against the nervous tension. "I remembered to bring a hair dryer."
Well, that was a relief.