Wednesday, July 26, 2006

These Well-Worn Waters

I have no missionary death-wish.

I do not consider it romantic to die at the end of a spear, nor at the hands of an angry mob, though I confess having harbored a fantasy about dying while in the act of serving Communion (the scene in Romero whence this happens is especially dramatic!).

But twice in the last three weeks, I have stood in muddy, shallow, stagnant waters and baptized people. A total of nine, in fact. And I can’t help but thinking about all the reasons why this may not be good for my health.

The truth is that people in Africa don’t like being baptized in church. They want the full-immersion experience! Most of the time, I indulge them, because after all, as we good Methodists (and John Wesley himself!) believe, it simply doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as you get wet!

Unfortunately, however, neither in Elig M’fomo nor south Yaounde is there good access to a fresh, swiftly-running river. I have baptized in Elig M’fomo before, and thus trust the small pool which is normally used by the village women to wash clothes. The water flows from underneath a small bridge, and is mostly clean … after all, there are still a few soap bubbles on the surface by the time I waded in.

On this particular morning, there were only two candidates for baptism. Pastor Atanase told me that he thought there would be a few more, but nobody showed up. So I baptized the two young people who were present. Before I could get out of the water, the Pastor saw someone coming from a distance and said, “Oh, there he is!”

We waited as a young man stripped off his shirt and rolled up his pants, then joined us in the water. I baptized him, just like I had the rest. I didn’t think much about it – I just assumed the young man was late, or had trouble getting a ride.

But on the ride home, the Pastor explained that the young man had found work on a farm thirty kilometers away to help pay for his school expenses. That very morning, he had walked the entire way from the farm, beginning at four a.m. to arrive in Elig M’fomo for his baptism!
I was dumbfounded. Who in the world walks for six and a half hours just to get baptized? Who, indeed, but someone who really wants to be marked as a follower of Christ, and to be enveloped by the waters of grace? And muddy waters, at that!

Amazing. But then two weeks later, I found myself arriving at Peniel UMC in Yaounde, where I was expecting to baptize in the church with my bowl and pitcher. Pastor Monique told me that there would be a church fight if we did that. So we took another good long walk through a squalid urban neighborhood, through people’s back yards and front gardens, to a small pool of stagnant red water. I looked at it and visibly blanched. But so did Pastor Monique, fortunately. She said, “We were here a few hours ago, and it didn’t look like that!” After some investigation, we discovered that some women upstream only 25 yards had dammed the river so they could catch some fish.

We had to go upstream another hundred yards until we came to a place where the water was no wider than five feet across, but less muddy and red. Again, I balked, but this time Alexis (my translator) assured me that it would be fine. I worried that it wouldn’t be deep enough to dip a grown person, but the church’s lay leader waded in and confirmed it was deep enough.

Not far from the place where I entered the trickling stream, there was a red, brackish pool of dead water, a cloud of mosquitoes swirling overhead. For a moment, I could see the headlines in my hometown newspaper – “Missionary Dies of Bizarre African Disease After Conducting Unwise Baptisms; Family Consoled by New Converts.”

I prayed that God would give me special grace for this act, and I pushed forward. My first step into these well-worn waters was almost a disaster, because my foot sank almost an entire twelve inches down into the muddy, slimy creek bottom. Even now, I shudder to think what was in that ooze. The mud sucked down my sandals, and I had to pry one foot up after another to make my way to the deepest part of the stream.

This time, there were six women to be baptized, each one of them eager and ready. Except for one woman, who seemed on the verge of fainting. “She almost didn’t come,” I was told, “because she has malaria.”

And what do you know? After the baptisms were over, and I was standing on dry ground again, she came to me and said she felt amazingly better – she was healed, in fact! And she stayed healed throughout the rest of the service that morning.

She thanked me again after the service, but it made me kinda wonder all over again … What was in that water?