The first time I heard the phrase “the waters that divide” as a way of describing baptism, I didn’t get the joke. It had never occurred to me to think that way. Admittedly, I was christened as a baby and then baptized at age 14, so in some ways, my own life embodies this “division.” Yet for all our disagreements on baptism, and for all the draconian ways in which our ancestors sometimes dealt with them (drowning, for instance), the most striking feature of the baptismal waters is not the way they divide but the way they unite.
Baptismal liturgies vary widely, and each makes its own contribution to our understanding of what baptism means. In my church, we baptize people by immersion in a tank. It draws attention to all sorts of things that baptism enacts: our plunging into and identification with Christ, the washing away of our sins, our drenching in the Spirit, our burial with Jesus in his death, and our rising again to new life in his resurrection.
At the same time, there is much we miss. We don’t pour or sprinkle, so we lose the imagery of anointing with the Spirit, of having him poured over us, of being sprinkled with the blood of the covenant. We don’t baptize in rivers, largely because rivers in London are very cold, so we lose the symbolism of what some church fathers called “living waters”—not to mention the image of our sins disappearing downstream, never to be seen again. We don’t have a font at the back of the church, so the weekly ritual of walking past baptismal water on your way to worship, with all that it says about identity and new creation, is absent. Reflecting on different methods of baptism can help us grasp different dimensions of its meaning. ...1