Today at Bethany we will baptize one child and bless another. This evening we will share a Jazz Vespers services that will focus on water, in particular the blessing of water in baptism. Baptism is a powerful Sacrament of the church, yet so often churches sentimentalize it as a photo-op for the family and a chance for a bump in attendance for the congregation. In fact most churches I have served kept the Baptism Font almost hidden until it was necessary for the occasion. It all combines to make the experience somewhat underwhelming.
But Baptism reminds us of what a change in focus can mean. For parents to commit to these vows and this life can have long reaching effect. Sometimes they themselves are not even aware. My favorite Baptism story comes from preacher, writer and former Methodist Bishop William Willimon. As you read this account think about what Baptism means to you and the hidden power it holds.
William Willimon tells a story about receiving a telephone call from an angry father while he was serving as Dean of the chapel at Duke University. His secretary buzzed him and said that there was a man calling who was terribly upset. Willimon said, “I figured as much.” He asked if it were one of his many, thought-provoking sermons that upset the man, perhaps the one where he “compared Shirley MacLaine to the Witch of Endor?” “No,” his secretary said, “we haven’t had any response to your sermons...This man is mad over something you have done to his daughter.”
Willimon was puzzled and told his secretary to put him through. The father began by saying, “I hold you personally responsible.” “For what?” Willimon asked. The father replied, “My daughter. We sent her to Duke to get a good education. She is supposed to go to medical school and become a third generation [doctor]. Now she’s got some fool idea in her head about Haiti, and I hold you responsible.”
Turns out, his daughter was involved in the chapel, various campus causes, and was one of the organizers of a spring Mission trip to Haiti. The father said, “She has good grades and a chance to go to medical school...now this.” “Now what?” Willimon said. The father shouted into the phone, “Don’t act so dumb. Even if you are a preacher, you know very well what. Now she has some fool idea about going to Haiti for three years teaching kids there. None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for you. She likes your sermons and you’ve taken advantage of her at an impressionable age. Now she’s got this fool idea about going to Haiti!”
At this point, Willimon says he was getting a bit energized himself. So he responded, “Now just a minute. Didn’t you have her baptized?” The father replied, “Well, yes, but...” “– And,” Willimon continued, “didn’t you take her to Sunday School?” The father stammered in reply, “Well, uh, sure we did. But we never intended for it to do any damage.”
“Well, there you have it,” Willimon said. “She was messed up before she came to us. Baptized, Sundayschooled, called. Don’t blame this on me. You’re the one who started it. You should have thought about what you were doing when you had her baptized.” “But,” the father pleaded, “We’re only Presbyterians. We just wanted her to be a good person. We never wanted anything like this.” “Sorry,” Willimon said, “You’re talking to the wrong person. If you want to complain, take it to her third grade Sunday School teacher or your church leader. Take it up with your wife. You’re the ones who got her into this when you had her baptized. Thanks. Have a nice day.”