I’ve known this story for so long I have forgotten the source. I suspect it was Don Armentrout, a Lutheran who taught Church History at the Episcopal seminary in Suwanee Tennessee. The story is that a seminary student went out to supply preach at a little mountain church one Sunday. He had the time wrong and was an hour early and so he sat in the vesting room, thumbing through the Parish Register. He happened upon a strange entry from many years ago – “Ebenezer Smith, partially baptized.” The entry was signed by a retired priest/professor who, though aged, was still living near the seminary. The next week the student went to visit him to resolve the mystery of how someone could be “partially baptized.”
The Priest remembered the incident vividly. Ebenezer had been raised in conservative, holiness tradition that believed that, among other things, a believer must have a sudden, dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit in order to be saved, and that afterward, one must be baptized by immersion in “living water,” i.e. a stream or pond, not a tank inside a church. Ebenezer fell in love with and married an Episcopalian, and he faithfully attended church with her for over fifty years, never once taking communion, because he had not been baptized, because he had not been “saved,” in an overwhelming manner by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, fifty years of Episcopal preaching, or perhaps fifty years of gentle persuasion by his wife, convinced Ebenezer that he could be a Christian without a “Damascus Road” experience and he asked the Seminary professor who regularly supplied for the church if he could be baptized; “But,” he stipulated,” I still want to be immersed in living water, not sprinkled out of that little bowl.” So it was arranged that on Easter Sunday after service, the entire church would go down the road a bit to where there was easy access to a mountain stream and a swimming hole and the baptism would be held.
The Priest waded into the water first. It took his breath away; everyone had forgotten how cold a mountain stream is in the early spring. He turned and motioned for 80-year-old Ebenezer to follow him. Ebenezer got a foot in the water and said, “Oh my word, that’s cold.” He came as far as his knees and said, “It’s too cold, I can’t do it.” The priest splashed water on Ebenezer while shouting, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Then, back at the church, he entered the baptism: “Ebenezer Smith, partially baptized.”
Though most of us don’t have the particular theological problem Ebenezer had, I wonder – how many of look at the dramatic conversion of Saint Paul and then think back on our own baptism and church-joining decision and think of ourselves as “partially baptized?” Over the years I have met many people who were baptized as infants, raised in the church, went faithfully to confirmation classes, were active in the youth group, predictably fell away from the church a bit when they were in their late teens and early twenties, but came back and had been regularly involved ever since. And not a few of them felt there was something missing. And if they were willing to dig a little deeper into that feeling of something missing, it was this business of a special experience of God’s grace like Paul received on the road to Damascus. Somehow, what even in the Bible is an unusual and extraordinary experience has become, for many, an unspoken norm.
This is unfortunate because most of us don’t really need such an encounter to meet God. It’s somewhat analogous to measuring your romantic life against what you see in the movies. It’s just not fair – either to you or your life partner. Nobody’s life measures up to that – not even the actors who star in those movies. Real life isn’t like that – not in romance and not in spirituality. Real love is messy and unpredictable and doesn’t follow a script. Real religious life is the same way – it too is messy and unpredictable and doesn’t follow a script and is usually much less and dramatic and much more ordinary than any of the stories we read in Acts.
The story of the conversion of Saint Paul was necessarily dramatic and over the top because Paul was a dramatic and over the top enemy of the church, the Way. He had helped to stone Stephen, he had arrested other believers, he was on a mission to ferret out and detain other believers in Damascus. A bolt of light that knocked him to the ground was the only way God was going to get his attention. Frankly, most of us don’t need that sort of conversion.
What many of us do need is a better understanding of what life after conversion looks like. Hidden away in the dialogue between the Lord and Ananias is a little line that often gets overlooked. Verse 16 – “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” More dangerous than a feeling of having been “partially baptized,” of having a less than full encounter with the holy in becoming a faithful Christian; is the feeling that being a Christian somehow means my life will be much better than otherwise, that I will be happier and healthier and more fulfilled and receive many more material blessings, etc. etc.
This just isn’t true. It wasn’t true for Jesus, it wasn’t true for Paul, who was executed, it wasn’t true for the twelve apostles, most of whom died a violent martyr’s death. It’s not true for most Christians. Jesus meant it when he said, “Any who would like to become my followers must deny self, take up a cross and follow.”
That cross isn’t a pretty piece of jewelry hanging around your neck – it is a life spent in giving of oneself for others, of suffering for the sake of the name of Jesus, of taking risks for the poor, the unjustly treated, the hungry, the imprisoned. Now as much as ever, to follow Christ is to step out on the Way, to follow the road less traveled, to step out into the deep, cold water because Jesus calls you to follow and serve.
Amen and amen.