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From out of the quiet, the sound of water splashing into the font wakes me up to worship. More than the first song of praise, more than the greeting, more than the shuffle and shift of the congregation, that sound calls me into God’s presence.

Usually it’s Julie, one of our dancers, who pours a pitcher of water into the font just after we confess our sins. This happens every week during our morning worship. We hear a call to confession, we speak a confession together, and then, in the pause that follows, Julie pours a pitcher of water into the font: slowly, even a little solemnly. Then we hear the promise of forgiveness and respond with a song of gratitude.

Oddly enough, the sound of the water tends to take me by surprise, even after years of experiencing this worship pattern. This is especially true during some seasons of the year, when our habit is to speak our congregational words, then bow our heads and close our eyes for several moments of silent confession. Then a gentle splash—the music of grace—signals us to look up again. It’s over. Time to move on.

Confessing sin as a congregation during public worship is not unique to the Reformed tradition, but it was a particular commitment of Reformation worship. Today, some people don’t think much of it. After all, when we speak words of confession together, they tend to be rather general: “We have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” That covers everything, I suppose, but it hardly allows us to perform the kind of agonizing, individual soul-searching, the ferreting out of our own particular sins, that Christian spirituality commends.

But that is not the point of congregational confession. We can do that kind of soul-work in the course of our private prayer. In worship we experience patterns that give us a feel, an instinct, for the shape of confession. By ritual repetition we learn the contour of dying and rising, so that it might feel familiar and natural to us outside the sanctuary.

One other important detail: Julie begins her journey at the back of the sanctuary, the bowl of the font in her upraised hands. While the pastor speaks the call to confession, she is waiting. While we are muttering and stumbling through the words, she begins stepping quietly through the congregation to the front. By the time we finish our words, she has placed the font in its stand near the communion table, and her hand is on the pitcher, which was filled with water even before the service began.

That’s what gets me every time. Even before we come to worship, the water is prepared. Even before we finish our confession, God is already proceeding toward us with grace. Even before—that’s the testimony of grace, and that’s why Reformed people practice infant baptism at that font: to lay weight on the even before.

We remember our baptism through this weekly routine. Not simply the particular occasion of our own baptism, though that’s a lovely thing to do. But, far more important, we live into what baptism means, every week, every day. We remember our baptism by letting it shape our identity as a people, letting it form our understanding of what God has done and is doing, even before we wake up to that divine work.

Because of the even before of God’s grace, the confession sequence ends in forgiveness. We move on. A song of gratitude. The Word proclaimed.

Reflection

We emerge from repentance like a baby coming out of the bath.

—Henri Boulard

About the Author

Debra Rienstra is an associate professor of English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.