On the Sunday of our recent camping trip, we decided to go to church at Bethlehem United Methodist Church near Clarksville, Tennessee. I served that church as pastor for two years and it was a joy to worship there once more and to see the people again. It was also heartwarming to watch Sam and Ben remember the place and the people. (Ruth was only two-years-old when we were there before.)
After the service, Jimmy and Miriam invited us to their home for lunch where we ate bbq and fixin’s left over from their son’s graduation party. They set before us enough food to feed twenty people and did their best to catch us up on several years-worth of Bethlehem news. At some point, they introduced us to Muddy Water by Trace Adkins.
The video for Muddy Water was filmed at Bethlehem. As Jimmy talked about what it was like to have a video crew, a well-known actor (Stephen Baldwin), and a country music star (Trace Adkins) descend upon this small country church, I got a sense of the excitement it caused. Eventually, Miriam brought out a laptop, pulled up the video, and we crowded around their dining-room table to watch.
I didn’t listen very closely to the words of the song, but the images of the church, the creek, and the baptism deeply moved me. Adult baptisms don’t happen very often in small, rural congregations. However, I could remember having officiated for at least one baptism while I was at Bethlehem.
As I remember it, after the sermon on the Sunday of the baptism the congregation walked down the road past the cemetery and stood on the bridge overlooking the creek, hymnals in hand. The person being baptized and I walked through the brush to stand on the rocky bank of the creek. I looked up from below and began the ritual:
Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.
We are incorporated into God’s might acts of salvation
and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price. (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 33)
We continued with the liturgy and at the appropriate time we waded into the water. We picked a spot that was deep enough for an immersion. I remember how my feet sank into the mud of that swimming hole. My memory of that baptism was almost identical to the scene in the Muddy Water video. However, memory alone doesn’t explain the emotion I felt as I watched. The feeling went deeper than nostalgia and beyond appreciation for a well-made music video. I knew as I watched the baptism on the screen that the video and my memory of baptism were touching something deep in my spirit. But if someone had noticed the tears in my eyes and asked me then to explain why I was crying, I would have been hard-pressed to translate the feeling into words.
Fast-forward to the following Sunday. After a two-week break, I found myself back in my Sunday school class leading the third session of By Water and the Spirit, a six-week study on baptism. I have been in this class for almost a year now and the study on baptism is my first time teaching. I knew I would mention the Muddy Water video at some point, but I didn’t know how important a role it would play.
During each of the study sessions, someone has shared his or her own story about baptism. While the book we’re using clearly states the theology and practice of baptism in the United Methodist Church, the stories that class members have shared have revealed a different reality. These personal accounts of baptism have described botched, fumbled, and muddled occurances of baptism. However, they have been the best part of the class. Even though these stories have lacked descriptions of right doctrine, practice, and theology, they have witnessed to the power of grace at work through baptism.
The stories people have shared are muddy stories. The stories have helped me realize that we are all baptized in muddy water. God does not require crystal-clear streams for the amazing grace at work in baptism to wash us clean. We don’t have to have right understanding or practice or doctrine for God to reach out to us in love and claim us as children of God. The very act of stepping into the stream stirs up the silt and mud so that when we lie back into it we immerse ourselves in muddy water of our own making. But when we come up out of the water, grace miraculously washes us clean. It isn’t the water that makes us clean; it’s God’s grace. Please understand that I am not discounting right practice, doctrine, or theology regarding baptism. I am saying that despite our attempts at explaining the mystery of God’s love for us, God loves us!
Baptize me in that muddy water
Wash me clean in amazing grace
Monty Criswell and Rick Huckaby wrote the lyrics to “Muddy Water”. I’d like to meet them and shake their hands. I want to thank them for the imagery they made possible through the lyrics of their song. I work about a block away from Music Row in Nashville so I think it could happen. I’ll keep you posted.