November 1, 2015

Baptism in once-troubled waters

Photo by Nancy Sollenberger Heishman

Persistent rains threatened our baptismal plans. Rivers laden with mud were roiling near flood levels. Deacons filled the church baptistry as a backup plan.

But Bryseydi Diaz was holding firm. Never mind what the weather may bring, she would settle for nothing less than a river baptism. Her prayers were establishing a bulwark against all our contingency plans. Her mother, an immigrant from Guatemala, had been baptized in flowing water, and the 12-year-old daughter was determined to follow in the pattern of her mother’s strong faith.

We fretted over outdoor plans for baptism, worship, and picnic that were off, then on, then fragmented, unaware that God had already been stirred to action in this situation.

More rain was in the forecast for the weekend. Our Brethren congregation would have to be informed of Sunday’s plans at the last minute.

On Friday, still confounded, we happened to find ourselves amid the chaos underway at a vacation Bible school at nearby Brandt United Methodist Church. Wired kids were running every which way. We were partly to blame—this was the pandemonium we had organized with three other local churches in hope that something of Jesus would take root in this new generation of restless souls.

Some German Baptist friends involved in the event happened to be seated in the pew behind us. Making conversation, we mentioned our baptismal dilemma. After a thoughtful pause, they said, “You would be welcome to use the spring behind the Old German Baptist Brethren Meetinghouse.”

This generous invitation was far more significant than we first realized. In the distant past, our two groups had fought in court over water rights to that spring. Yes, to our shame it’s true. With our meetinghouse on the north side of the spring, we were one congregation before the split of 1881. On the south side, following the division, construction of a new Old German Baptist Brethren meetinghouse began. It was being built right on top of the spring!

The mistrust, hostility, and emotional distress of the division drove pastor Henry Gump, his deacons, and trustees to obtain a court injunction halting the building of that new meetinghouse. Thus we Brethren took our fellow Brethren to court to settle the matter of who had rights to the water. The handwritten judgment regarding Case #8117 is preserved in aged, papers located in the Miami County Courthouse in Troy, Ohio. It shows that Henry Hawver et al, plaintiffs representing the deacons, pastor, and trustees of what is now known as the West Charleston Church of the Brethren, filed suit against John Filbrun et al, defendants of the Old German Baptist Brethren. The judge specified in exacting detail, including pipe size measurements and easements, just how the divided Brethren were to share the water.

God, ever working through all things for good, seized a glorious opportunity in response to Bryseydi’s prayers to make all things new. We were graciously invited to have this baptism in water we had once sued for.

Still, it rained all day Saturday. But under the power of grace, Sunday broke forth with stunning glory—the rain had abated. (For the record, the rain resumed on Monday.) The sunlight made the freshly watered green of trees and grass radiant in that peaceful setting. We didn’t dare complain about the chilly air. Some 60 people gathered on the bank of the once-contested spring. It was a diverse congregation of Guatemalan, Anglo, African-American, Mexican, and German Baptist Brethren.

The cold spring water bit into our skin—penance, perhaps, for our having once gone to court with the German Baptists. With chattering teeth, Alex Adduci, the first to enter the spring for baptism, whispered to me, “Do it quickly.” I did.

The shock of the cold knocked the breath out of him as I dunked him in the name of the Father. Compassion for the young man, who was still gasping for breath, dictated that the remainder of his baptism would follow traditional Mennonite practice. He was splashed in the name of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Then Bryseydi stepped forward, and soon the others embraced the cold and were baptized en el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). The congregation responded in song: “He decidido seguir a Jesús,” and then in English, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” German Baptist friends joined us for worship, a woman preached, and a potluck meal followed.

Old divisions died and an unlikely community of joy was birthed in the amazing grace of those healing waters. It’s true, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).

Glorious, Spirit-filled moments can break forth when we Brethren find the grace to let the old pass away. Christ can birth new creation again and again in the midst of our contested waters. Hold firm in prayer that it be so.

Irvin R. Heishman is co-pastor of the West Charleston Church of the Brethren, in the Southern Ohio District.