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Baptismal Promises

Baptismal Promisesby Karen G. Bockelman

For as long as I can remember, I have known that I was baptized. I don’t remember the event itself—I was only six weeks old—but I knew the story from an early age. My father, a parish pastor at the time, baptized me. My two grandmothers were my godmothers. I wore a bap­tismal gown my mother made from her mother’s wed­ding dress. And I screamed bloody murder the entire time! I have old black-and-white photos, a baptismal certificate, and that now-fragile baptismal dress.

I don’t really remember seeing a lot of baptisms as a child, but I certainly knew the Lutheran routine. I was six or seven years old when a neighborhood friend and I debated the validity of baptism by immersion (my friend was a Baptist) versus the Lutheran pattern of sprinkling. We both knew baptism required water, the question was how much?

“Is water up to your ankles enough?” I asked.

“No,” said my friend Carol, “that’s not enough.”

“How about if the water is up to your knees?”

“Not enough.”

“Your waist?”

“Still not enough.”

I took the next logical step. “What about up to your neck?”

“That’s still not enough.” insisted Carol, “The water has to touch the top of your head.”

“Well,” said I triumphantly, “that’s where Lutherans start!” (back to top)


It’s no wonder Carol and I focused our attention on the water. What child wouldn’t be drawn to the play of light and the splash of whatever amount? In church, no less! These days baptismal fonts have gotten larger and often are more promi­nently located (or relocated) in the worship space. Lutherans are encouraged to use gener­ous amounts of water as a sign of God’s gra­cious generosity and have even been known to baptize both adults and infants by immersion. (Carol would be proud!)

Of course, God can use whatever water we have in whatever amount—lakes and rivers, pools and bowls, even eyedroppers. For Martin Luther and his followers, infant baptism was the norm and so was baptism by immersion, a practice that clearly communicates dying and rising with Christ. The old sinful person in us is drowned by the grace of God and a new person comes forth. Early baptismal pools were often carved out of tomb-like rock, many times in the shape of a cross, with steps leading down into the water and other steps lead­ing out again. Such baptismal practices make it hard to escape the sense of death and resurrection.

Pouring water, with a hand or shell, on the head of the baptized echoes the Old Testament practice of wash­ing for cleansing and purification. In times and places where daily bathing is not possible or common, this kind of washing can be a powerful symbol of conversion to a new way of life. For those who do bathe daily, washing with water is a reminder of daily dying and rising. By God’s grace we are given a fresh start each day. (back to top)


I live on the shore of Lake Superior. For a number of years several local congregations gathered for a baptis­mal celebration at a park on the edge of the lake. The service included a procession to the lakeshore and sev­eral stations for baptism or baptismal remembrance. At least one pastor waded into the water, alb and all, for the immersion baptism of an adult. Most of us stood in the cold water (and Lake Superior is cold) pouring or splashing handfuls of water on all who wish to remember their baptism. Standing there, I was well aware this great lake has known storm and calm, powerful waves and thick ice, death and delight. I had a sense of God’s power as well as the breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy.

I have also experienced God’s gentleness in baptis­mal waters. As a parish pastor, I was called to the neo-natal intensive care unit to baptize a fragile baby girl, soon to undergo surgery. Her parents and gathered family members knew all too well the risk she faced. For all my commitment to a generous use of water, that day I dipped a soft cotton ball into a bowl of water and lightly touched it to her forehead three times. In that small bit of water we were all reminded of a tender God, one who holds children gently and lovingly leads them into life eternal.

Baptism is serious business, but it is also a delight, and even fun. In the congregation where I am a mem­ber, the children’s message often concludes with a prayer as the children gather around the font. You can see the delight in their faces as they crowd around, the older ones making sure the littlest ones can reach the font. Many of them joyfully dip their hands into the water, sometimes with a little splash. To be sprayed with water in a thanksgiving for baptism can be even better than running through a garden hose sprinkler on a hot day. In my first parish I baptized one baby at the Thursday evening worship service. It had been a hot summer day and the church was unbearably stuffy—despite open windows and blowing fans. I still remember the expression of relief on the baby’s face as I poured cool water on her forehead. I could almost hear her say, “Thank God. That’s just what I needed.” (back to top)


Lutherans, along with other Christian bodies, under­stand baptism as a sacrament, a holy act instituted by Christ in which the gospel, God’s promise of forgive­ness, life, and salvation comes to us through the visible means of water. But, Luther is quick to say, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water used accord­ing to God’s command and connected with God’s word.” (Small Catechism) Water is how we know God intends this promise for us.

Recently I was reminded of the powerful connec­tion of water and word when I watched The Miracle Worker, a 1962 movie about Helen Keller and her teach­er Anne Sullivan. Helen was 19 months old when she contracted an illness that left her both deaf and blind. Although she had started to talk before the illness, her new situation left her locked in a lonely world of silence and darkness. She became wild and unmanageable, her behavior tolerated by her family out of pity. When no school would accept her, the family hired 20-year-old Anne Sullivan from Boston to teach her at home. She began by spelling words into the child’s hands, but it soon became clear Helen wasn’t making a connection between objects and spelled words.

Both student and teacher became increasingly frustrated, shown in physical and even violent ways, as Helen resisted the discipline Anne was trying to impose. As the movie depicts, the breakthrough came when, in one of her tantrums, Helen emptied a water pitcher over her teacher’s head. Anne then dragged the girl to the water pump in the yard, determined to make her refill the pitcher. As she pumped the water over the child’s hand, she spelled W-A-T-E-R over and over into her other hand.

In a scene of almost unbearable poignancy, Helen struggles to form one word she had heard and even spoken before her illness, “Wah Wah.” Then she fin­ger spelled the word in Anne’s hand. That connection between word and water opened the door to a new life. In a flurry of excitement Helen rushed from object to object and by nightfall had learned 30 words!

Although baptism may appear to be fairly simple, requiring only water and God’s Word, it is our break­through moment, opening the door to a new life in Christ and in the body of Christ, the church. Other signs proclaim the meanings of baptism. In prayer and the laying on of hands we receive the Holy Spirit and are empowered for mission. In anointing with oil and the signing with the cross we are united with Jesus Christ, the anointed one of God and promised wholeness and healing. In a baptismal garment we are clothed with Christ. In receiving a lighted candle we received the light of life and are called to let that light shine in good works.

Thanks in part to the Lutheran Book of Worship, The Use of the Means of Grace (the ELCA’s statement on the practice of Word and Sacrament,) and Evangelical Lutheran Worship there is a greater emphasis on baptism and related rites. Baptismal candidates are of all ages and more attention is paid to teach candidates, parents, sponsors, and the entire congregation, giving rise to richer educational materials and more visible participation in the sacrament. Baptisms have become part of the primary worship service of the congregation and are often scheduled for festivals such as All Saints Sunday or the Vigil of Easter. Individuals, families, and congregations are encouraged to remember and give thanks for baptism, to observe baptismal anniversaries, and to affirm baptism at significant times in life. (back to top)


When my friend Carol and I had our discussion about how much water is necessary for baptism, we were oblivious to another issue that has divided Christian denominations—the age of baptism. For many, the practice of infant baptism is a sure sign of God’s grace. An infant can do nothing to earn or deserve God’s favor. It is God who claims us. God’s promise is received in faith and God’s Spirit creates in us the very faith that is promised. But how will we learn to make that faith our own? How will our lives be changed?

For others, the practice of believer’s baptism (the baptism of adults or young people able to give testimo­ny to their faith on their own) honors a willingness to live a new life, to be shaped by this new reality. Where then is there place for God’s grace? How are children welcomed into full participation in the community?

In a context where we can no longer assume famil­iarity with the Christian faith, congregations welcome people of all ages—sometimes baptizing whole families. At our Easter Vigil this year, our congregation wel­comed new members, including a family that first came to us in need of our overflow emergency shelter. For many weeks this family of nine lived with us and experienced the body of Christ in very concrete ways. At the vigil service all seven children, ages 11 to almost two, were baptized. The girls each stepped forward to be baptized, signed with the cross, anointed with oil, given a candle. The youngest, Junior, perched in his father’s arms grinned and waved to the gathered congregation.

This baptism was not only an occasion to remember our own baptisms, but to publicly welcome new sisters and brothers, promising our continued support and nur­ture. The tears of joy and spontaneous burst of applause were another kind of foretaste of the reign of God.

In his Large Catechism Martin Luther wrote, “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life.” (Fourth Part: Concerning Baptism, Section 41) Certainly Luther lived these words. Throughout his life he drew strength and comfort in the daily remembrance of his own bap­tism. Baptism, he said in Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism, is “so great, gracious, and full of comfort, we should diligently see to it that we ceaselessly, joyfully, and from the heart thank, praise and honor God for it” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35). It was his hope that all Christians might live each day trusting in God’s baptis­mal promises. That is my prayer as well.

The Rev. Karen G. Bockelman is a retired ELCA pastor living in Duluth, Minn., where the sight of Lake Superior reminds her daily of the gift of baptism. (back to top)

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