Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, healthy and well. At 19 months of age she experienced an unidentified illness—possibly scarlet fever, maybe meningitis—that left her both deaf and blind, plunging her overnight into a world of silence and darkness. She described it later as living “at sea in a dense fog.”
When Helen was seven, she experienced a remarkable transformation that instantly began to clear the fog of her deaf blindness, opening a path into the wider world. Her parents secured a live-in teacher for her, a 20-year old woman named Anne Sullivan who was herself visually impaired and had struggled through her own childhood. Anne arrived at the Keller home in March of 1887 and immediately set about trying to lift Helen out of her dark, silent existence.
Helen was not altogether receptive or cooperative. Struggles ensued between Anne and this deeply frustrated child. There was belligerence, resistance, refusal; there were tussles, tantrums, broken objects. One day, about a month into her stay, Anne brought Helen outdoors, thinking somehow that water might provide an opening.
She led Helen to the water pump in the yard, primed it until the water began to flow, and then placed Helen’s hand beneath the stream. She took Helen’s other hand, and tapped the sign language W into her palm.
Then she did it again. Primed that pump, placed Helen’s little hand there under the stream, tapped the letter, primed the pump, water here, a letter, and eventually a word into her palm. Again and again she repeated that.
Suddenly Helen’s face brightened. In that instant she made for the very first time a connection between what she felt running over one hand and what she felt being imprinted in the other, between water and the word that symbolized it. This means that. And the skies opened in Helen Keller’s life.
Years later, recalling that extraordinary moment, she wrote: “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of my teacher’s fingers . . . the mystery of language was being revealed to me, and I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light and hope, set it free!”
That moment at the water pump unleashed a curiosity and feverish pursuit of other objects. She took her teacher by the hand and then with the other felt for anything within her grasp. And when she found something, insisted that her teacher interpret it and sign for her. And then off to the next thing and the next. Helen’s narrow, constricted world of deaf blindness had opened wide. No wonder she later described Anne Sullivan’s arrival in her life as “my soul’s birthday.”
To remember our baptism is to go into the yard, placing our hand beneath the stream of water as someone else graciously, generously draws it on our behalf; placing one hand beneath that stream and then opening the other as if opening our hearts to receive the water’s meaning for our lives. This means that.
What is the meaning when we draw near the font and remember a baptism? It’s one of many things, a million things. But always it seems some opening, perhaps by the nature of grace in which every narrowing also affords another opening. It is the opening of our hearts, our imaginations. Maybe it’s the opening of a wound that has been festering or the tears that belong to a swelling sorrow inside of us.
To remember our baptism may be to remember forgiveness—our own and that of others’; washing our sins away and washing away any bitterness or resentment or vindictiveness in our souls that have become the chains around our own heart.
Remembering our baptism may be drawing upon once more the assurance of a love from God that surrounds us through life, that never lets us go. Echoes of a voice from heaven in a text we heard Steve share with us earlier: you are my beloved.
Remembering our baptism may be renewing or discovering a calling, a deepened sense of hope and holy purpose in our lives for this season of our lives. Maybe a call that is deepened, sharpened, heightened, in such a troubling moment in our history. To draw near the water is to–what was it Helen said? Experience the living word awakening our souls, giving light and hope, setting us free! Helen Keller grew up to become one of the 20th century’s most articulate and eloquent interpreters of life.
Beyond his baptism, Jesus set off immediately, yes, into wilderness and then from there into further ministry. Remembering our baptism can be opening the ear to a new summons, a new call, a new purpose for our lives. Maybe drawing near the font is drawing strength for continuing on this arduous journey through a pandemic that has been so deeply burdensome to so many, in ways the rest of us must share. So deeply grievous to so many more, in a way the rest of us must bear. To continue to love, we need strength beyond our own. To continue to serve, to lead, to give, to share, to hope, to trust, we need a grace that we find represented in these baptismal waters. Walk together, children; don’t you get weary. Here we find the refreshment of God’s grace to carry on.
One more thing, particularly in this moment in our nation’s history. Today, following a week of such turbulence and turmoil in our country, there’s surely another gift we all seek collectively: that remembering our baptism may help to cool the fevered brow, to calm and comfort the weary soul. And that somehow that small, simple gesture on our part, like a ripple in a pond, will reach beyond us to help to heal the soul of a nation. “In the desert of the heart let the healing fountain start.”
Forgiveness, assurance of God’s love and presence, a new or renewed sense of calling and direction. Fresh energies to continue on this journey through a difficult time; healing for our own broken, bewildered hearts this week and for our nation. I don’t know what you might need as you draw near the font today, here or wherever you are. Maybe you don’t altogether know, either. But I believe that God does, that God knows just where our hearts are hurting most, where our eye is searching most. What is our need to express thanks? To surrender our lives? To consecrate our days? Our year for God’s purposes, for God’s glory? As we come to this font, I invite you to trust the Holy Spirit to guide your path both here and away.
Holy Spirit, you are welcome in this place and in every place where people gather. Whether it is before a font, or a cup, or a bowl, or an empty table, we are in your presence and we belong to you. Our hearts are seeking you. As we touch these vessels and the waters stir, stir our hearts as well, for you know their deepest longing, their deepest need, today. Holy Spirit, in this and every place we gather, you are near and we are yours. Amen.