One of our Ethiopian friends took us to a baptismal service. Eighty Muslim-background believers met to be baptized on the public shore of a nearby lake. They were not just ‘changing their religion,’ as the curious tourist had commented when I told her what was going on. ‘Changing their allegiance’ is how I wish I had described it.
To keep their baptism a secret, the lake was far away from where they lived. No family members were around. They could be persecuted for this public alliance with Jesus Christ and the Church. This was serious, and we foreigners were duly reverent; I was quite unprepared for what happened.
The people walked several kilometers to the lake and donned lab coats from a huge bundle the church leaders had dropped on the rocky beach. They then lined up along the lakeshore. A distinguished older pastor was dressed in a canary-yellow shift with a scarlet cross on the front; he tried to organize the group.
Yellow-clad Pastor A and his helper waded 20 feet out in the shallow water, the long line of white-coated people following. The first young man stood between the pastor and his helper. The pastor said three or four words—I assume it was something about ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’—and then PLOP! he quickly pushed him down into the shallow water. Flailing to get up, the newly-baptized one and the pastors laughed out loud. One by one, each new believer walked into the water between the pastors and was pushed under. Each one came up with various gyrations and hilarious facial expressions. I felt badly for them. The lake water was cold, and Ethiopians generally do not swim. Many believe you will die if you go underwater, so this was a brave thing they were doing on several counts. Perhaps their communal laughter was a response to embarrassment, but I like to think it was a reaction of joy. It was a contagious joy—everyone began to smile and chuckle, and I had to laugh right along with them. The picture of those shining-wet, happy faces is stuck in the memory of my heart.
From now on when I watch a baptism, I will think about these brave and joyful souls. I will smile and take in the spontaneous joy like we all did that day, and, in fact, like Philip and the Ethiopian man did years ago. His baptism story is in the Book of Acts, chapter 8. Perhaps Philip pushed his head under the water. Maybe they laughed together before Philip disappeared, who knows? We do know that the eunuch went on his way rejoicing, just like these new Ethiopian believers did.