Wade in the Water
*Note: names have been changed in this essay.
I’m 11, shaking beneath the pastel sky and shy June sun, wading in cold water up to my belly button, wearing a neon orange swimsuit and goosebumps. The smell of chlorine, cut grass, and dewy earth fills my nostrils. I bite my lip and look at the small crowd gathered around the reflective water. Their eyes are on me as I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear.
The 20 people surrounding me are all members of our “Amen”-saying, tongues-speaking, holy-rolling, driving-out-the-devil church from the hills of West Virginia. We’re here, around Pastor’s backyard pool, for a baptism ceremony. Pastor, a balding, glasses-wearing man with kind eyes, leads our 40-person non-denominational church however he sees fit. Today, that means I’m to be baptized in his pool, surrounded by my family, fellow saints, and a red-and-white privacy fence.
Mom stands at the edge of the pool, smiling and holding my turquoise towel. Pastor’s wife, Cheryl, stands next to her. Daddy and Pastor wade in the clear blue water, place their large hands upon my head, along the small of my back, guiding me deeper into the water.
In the pivotal moments of my life, Pastor and Cheryl were there. At my wedding, my high school graduation party, my childhood birthday parties. Pastor dedicated me to the Lord as an infant (our alternative to infant baptism), placing his large hand upon my head and speaking scriptures over me. Me with round cheeks, round eyes, and a frilly white dress, him in his button-up shirt and khakis, the overhead lights reflecting off of his glasses and balding head.
Cheryl was in the room when my mother gave birth to me on the very same bed where I was conceived. Afterwards, she visited my parents’ small rental house, held me for hours, sniffing my baby scent and rocking me in a wooden rocking chair. “It was a tough time in the church, and you were her therapy,” Mom told me. In the photo album, the photo of Cheryl holding me is right next to the one of my grandmas holding me.
They were in my parents’ wedding—Pastor in a black suit, Cheryl in her peach-colored bridesmaid gown. They’re in my parents’ vacation photos from their young adult years—making thumbs up at the camera or sunbathing on the beach. My dad even lived in their basement for a year before he married my mom.
I was a teenager when mom called me and my sister into the living room. “Girls, come sit down, I have something to tell you.” Her tone indicated something was wrong. Were we in trouble? Had someone died?
“There’s no easy way to tell you this, but since you’ll probably hear about it sooner or later—Pastor had an affair with Katrina.” Mom made eye contact with both of us, her forehead wrinkled.
Katrina and her husband Steve were church elders. The affair occurred more than a decade prior, and they had been keeping their secret all these years—going to barbecues with their spouses at each other’s homes, counting the offering, planning church picnics together.
All those sermons that I had digested for all those years were all tainted with lead. Unlike other pastors that I’d heard, Pastor never shared any personal stories, never gave any examples from his own life. I wondered if this was why—he was hiding his true self.
When I saw Pastor again, I stared down at my sandals and pink toenails, heart galloping like it was me who was guilty. All I could do was cling to the opposite wall, hoping he wouldn’t speak to me.
I take a deep breath, close my eyes, focus on the water engulfing the lower half of me and on what my baptism means to me. I feel God. Feel his hand on my soul, as real as my father’s on my back.
Pastor says a quick prayer, something like: “Lord, thank you for sending your son to die on the cross. Jesus paid the price for our sins, so that we could have a relationship with you and share in eternal life. Bless those who have made the decision to be baptized today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
“Amen” from the crowd. The twenty of our flock who have gathered hold my gaze, feel the electricity of my moment. My beliefs wait to be wrapped around me with my favorite towel.
“We baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
With one dip, one muscular extension—my immersion. I emerge above the surface, grinning and punching my fist upward toward the sky, dripping with chlorinated water and adolescent faith.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. –John 8:32 NIV
Sometimes I wish I didn’t know. Didn’t know that Pastor had an affair. Didn’t know that my father, who led me to Christ as a child, believes in political conspiracy theories, Biblical numerology, and “prophets” he follows on the internet. Didn’t know that the evangelist I adored as a teen promotes hateful, racist propaganda.
If I strip away all of the disappointment, the confusion, the imperfect people, if I wash them off and leave them behind in the chlorinated water—what’s left when I resurface? Is it a child-like faith in Jesus, who never fails me, or a drowning-in-it doubt? For now I’ll just wade in it all, up to my belly button.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines and been nominated for Best of the Net and Best Spiritual Literature. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. Bethany enjoys chai lattes, nature walks, and memoirs. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Connect with her at bethanyjarmul.com or on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.
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Photo Credit: “Eowyn: in the name of the Holy Spirit” by Dave King, via Flickr.com. Modified by Veronica McDonald.