Honky-Tonk Baptism: Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water”
Listening to country music these days can feel an awful lot like you’re sitting on a tailgate, drinking a longneck, talking with rednecks about guns and girls and baptism. Yes, you read that right; I said baptism. Carrie Underwood’s newest hit single, “Something in the Water,” is a splash of musical liquid on the sawdust floor of Nashville.
There Must Be Something, or Nothing, in the Water?
The lyrics lead us into the life of one who, late one night, is “all out of hope and all out of fight.” At the end of her rope, she recalls what someone had recently told her. He said that earlier in his life, he’d been where she’s at now, where “down every hallway’s a slamming door,” where there’s “no way out, no one to come and save me.” Then a friend told him what he’s telling her, “Just a little faith, it’ll all get better, so I followed that preacher man down to the river.” There, on her knees, in tears, she prays the only prayer she knows, “God, if you’re there, come and rescue me.” And He does. She’s “washed in the water, washed in the blood.” And now she’s changed, she’s stronger, because “there must be something in the water.”
Underwood is not trying to transform the jukebox into a pulpit; she’s not a theologian. She’s merely singing about a spiritual journey, as country music often does. But what I find refreshing and ironic about the song is that she ends up saying more about baptism than some preachers do.
One of the reasons this song resonates so strongly with me is because, like many Protestant churchgoers, I grew up hearing from the pulpit, and believing wholeheartedly, that there must be nothing in the water. Nothing but me and the preacher. The preacher did the dunking and I submitted to the act of watery obedience required by Jesus to show Him that I’m really serious about being His follower. In fact, because my baptism was a pledge of allegiance to Christ as Lord, when I failed miserably to keep that allegiance, I hit the repeat button and walked into the fountain a second time (read about that here). Still, even then, I believed there was really nothing in the water but a teenage boy recommitting his life to Christ. And had God not eventually revealed the truth to me—the sweetest, most beautiful truth imaginable—then I fear I’d have been baptized a million more times as I tried, and failed, to be the person God would be proud to call His disciple.
Mishearing the Bible’s Lyrics of Baptism
Have you ever thought you knew the lyrics to a well-known song, only to discover that you were mishearing them all along? Like hearing “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky,” in Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze.” Or, “reverend blue jeans” instead of “forever in blue jeans” in Neil Diamond’s song by the same title (for a laugh, watch this scene from King of Queens). Once you learn the right lyrics, you go back and listen to the song again, with a fresh set of ears, and you wonder how you ever misunderstood them!
That was basically me when I first listened to the biblical lyrics about baptism. The Scriptures say, “Baptism now saves you,” (1 Peter 3:21) but I misheard those words as, “Baptism now represents that you’re an obedient child of God.” Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them,” (Matthew 28:18) but I heard “after you’ve made them disciples, then you baptize them to show their commitment to the faith.” Peter preaches, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children…,” (Acts 2:38-39), but all I heard were the first four words, “repent and be baptized.” I didn’t hear that we’re baptized for forgiveness, that baptism gives the Holy Spirit, that all—including children—are welcomed to the font. Paul writes, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,” (Ephesians 5:25-26), but I heard “washing of water to symbolize me giving myself up for Christ.” When God was singing about baptism, He didn’t slur His words. He didn’t mumble. Each syllable was clear and crisp. The problem was not in His mouth but in my ears.
When the Holy Spirit finally gave me a fresh set of ears, I heard—really heard—what He’d been saying all along. Baptism really does save. It really gives the forgiveness of sins, life, the Holy Spirit, the whole salvation-shebang. Why? The last phrase from the Ephesians verse says it all: because it’s the “washing of water with the word.” Baptism is God’s word-washing. As Carrie sings, “there must be something in the water.” And she’s right. There indeed is: the word is in the water.
Do you mean the word by which God made the heavens and the earth?
Yes, the same word.
Do you mean the word by which He still upholds all things?
Yes, that very word.
Do you mean the word by which Jesus spoke healing to the lame, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and life to the Lazaruses of this world?
Yes, that healing, vivifying word is in the water.
And do you also mean the word which was in the beginning, the word that was with God, the word that was God, the word which became flesh and dwelt among us?
Yes, the incarnate word, Jesus Christ, is in the water, too.
Jesus Puts Himself into the Water
There must be something in the water of baptism—and someone. And both are truly the same. At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was baptized to put Himself into the water, in order that when you’re baptized He might put you into Himself. He Himself was baptized in that river, but you might also say that He christened the water, too. All rivers and streams and oceans and little pools of font water everywhere became fit meeting places between Him and you. At every baptism, the Lord of all is in the water to give all of Himself to you. He who made the heavens and the earth remakes you into a new creature. He who uphold all things holds you up like a newborn naked baby to the excited chatter of angels. He who spoke healing to the lame, blind, deaf, and dead, heals and enlivens you in this holy word-washing. And He who is the word made flesh, makes your flesh part of His through His word. You become of Him, as He became of you.
There must be something in the water that does such great things. And there is. You’re there, the Father’s there, the Son’s there, the Spirit’s there. You’re washed in the water, washed in the blood, the water and blood that streamed from Jesus’ side on the day He died for you.
And there’s no better place to be.
P.S. I borrowed the idea for the title of this post from the book, Honky-Tonk Gospel: The Story of Sin and Salvation in Country Music, by Gene Veith and Thomas Wilmeth.
If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out my two books: Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or here for The Infant Priest. They are both also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (or here on Kindle). Thank you!