I took this picture with my phone on my walk through the streets of Galdstone this morning. about the only thing this river has in common with the one in what follows is that they're both wet.
When I was Vicar of Sumner in Christchurch, with a very large congregation of young people, we held baptisms at least five or six times a year on Sumner beach. I and the people professing their faith would wade out into the waves or stand in a small perfectly sized pool which formed under Cave Rock if the tides were right. Dates were set in advance and we went ahead regardless of weather, so that the first one of these I ever performed was in August with snow covering the Port Hills. Others were on fine clear days with an audience of the curious licking their icecreams and puzzling. Some of those baptised were new converts and some were people who were reaffirming their faith, which meant that often enough the ones walking bravely into the sea with me had been baptised as babies; but not everyone knew for sure whether or not this was true in their case. Of course I knew that baptism wasn't repeatable, but the people concerned had recently found a new dimension in their faith and wanted to mark it somehow, and wanted that marking to involve water and lots of it. So we dunked them all, realising that even if I didn't know whether the person involved had already been baptised, God did. Some of the acts of immersion on Sumner Beach were, in other words, baptisms and some were something else: a reaffirmation of what had gone before, marked with the application of water - similar in many respects (apart from the amount of water involved) to the sprinkling of people on the Easter Eve vigil or to signing oneself with water at the doorway of the church. This is what I told myself, and I was comfortable with that, and it seems the church was comfortable also as several years later we approved of a practice called 'reaffirmation of baptismal vows by immersion'.
Last week I performed another of these. I was in Fiordland for various reasons and the Te Anau congregation asked if, while I was there, I would help Helen to reaffirm her vows. She had recently grown to a new level of commitment to Christ and wanted to mark the dramatic shift in herself by following Jesus's example of baptism. She had chosen the spot. She runs a horse trekking business and knew of a particularly lovely piece or riverbank where the river is wide and clear and still and the native bush cases the hills. Of course I agreed.
Thursday, the appointed day, was not brilliant. In fact it was raining so hard we needn't have bothered going down to the Waiau as planned - standing outside for 30 seconds would have done the trick. Several of the invited congregtion looked out of their windows, assumed it would be off, settled back down into their comfy chairs and made a cup of tea. But a dozen of us were there, including Helen with a string of daisies in her hair, a bouquet of paeonies in her hand and a knee length Dri-Z-Bone over her wetsuit. I had tramping pants and a t shirt. Under umbrellas we shared a suitably adapted version of the baptismal service and waded into the swollen and fast flowing Waiau. My legs immediately went numb, so I didn't in fact feel the cold and we only stayed long enough for me to immerse her in the name of the Holy Trinity and pray for her future walk with Christ. Then we were out and walking the half kilometre back to the cars and back to the beautiful house Helen shares with her husband and small sons for coffee and treats and lots of standing around in front of the log burner.
I've presided at a lot of baptisms and reaffirmations, but I think I'll remember this one for a long time. Partly I suppose it's the weather that makes this one stand out, but more it is the faith of a young woman whose commitment meant more to her than either her own comfort or the frustration of an ideal of what it might have been like if only the sky had been blue and the Southerly not howling in off the mountains. My position brings many privileges and standing with Helen in the wind and the rain, waist deep in the icy Waiau was definitely one of them.