It was Easter Sunday at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, NY. The tiny urban neighborhood church was crowded with saints singing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” at the top of their lungs, their song rising to the roof as incense. New LCMS Lutheran converts Janine Bolling and Gerard Bolling, brother and sister by blood, with their entire Brooklyn family watching, were to become brother and sister in Christ, with the entire family of God both gazing down from heaven and gazing forward from the hot wooden pews in the not-yet-air-conditioned sanctuary.
More than a Pastor: A Mentor
Pastor Christoph Schulze stands from his tall wooden throne (at least, it looks like that to 10- and 12-year-old kids from Brooklyn), and he allows his body to be a vehicle for the work of Christ. His hands are the same hands that shook mine as he opened up the Scripture to me, not on the road to Emmaus but on the road to the local community center where he taught me to play basketball (he did his best, but I was a lost cause). He had brought along his then-young son and twin daughters on the walk, ushering them forward with his hands.
I see those same hands make a strange sign before he pronounces forgiveness to God’s people on Sunday morning. Up-down, side-to-side. I can imagine those same hands coming down when he muffed my lousy shot on the basketball court but then shrieked, “It’s okay, making the shot isn’t the point—working as a team is.” Those same hands scoop into a bowl of water, ready to cover my freshly cut hair and my sister’s freshly done wash-’n’-set hairstyle. This water, by the hands of this faithful pastor, by the hand of God—will free me.
A Song on the Road to Freedom
As I relive his hands diving into the water, with the Easter hymns freshly sung in the sanctuary, another song fills my head—
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water
It is a song created by the great Harriet Tubman, slavery abolitionist, who led hundreds—if not thousands—of slaves to safety through the Underground Railroad. Her gentle hands guide them and lead them, teaching them the Scripture to strengthen them, not on the road to Emmaus, but on the road to freedom. And as she ushers them forward, she sings this gospel style call-and-response spiritual to warn the slaves that dogs from the slave masters have caught their scent, and the dogs are coming to kill them.
The chorus bellows in the moonlight as these slaves jump into the water to hide their scent from the masters and the dogs that seek to destroy them. They bob their heads up to breathe in and then push their heads down again as they survive on mere moments of oxygen, constantly washing off the old scent that the dogs pick up and simply amalgamating into the new scent of the water. The purity of the water cleanses them, making them new. After bobbing, sometimes for hours, in strange water—they emerge free; the dogs are not able to catch the old scent of who they have been, as they have nearly become one with the water they wade in. A promise of freedom is made to them because of the water’s cleansing power.
Freedom through Baptism
As the waters of Holy Baptism are placed on my head, I remember the same promise of freedom—freedom in Christ that comes when His name is put on me—Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This water marks me with a promise that makes me new. I can wade in this water whenever I feel as if the slave master of sin is running after me, catching my scent, even ensnaring me once again. God has caused me to remember that I can wade in the water—His waters of Baptism. I can marinate in the promises of God through the waters of Baptism. I can daily drown the old Adam and watch the new Adam arise, forgiven, and with the same promise of freedom. My freedom rider is Christ, and he draws me to Himself.
As the water flows on my head and on my sister’s head—we emerge new. We emerge free. My little snips of freshly cut hair floating in the baptismal bowl and my sister’s hair fixtures are marks of our old scent. We are made new in Baptism. We are made clean in Baptism. We can wade in those promises.
God’s gonna trouble the water.
To understand what Baptism is and the blessings that Christians receive from it, consider reading Lutheranism 101: Holy Baptism.