So getting washed clean resonates as a spiritual action by people, but does the ritual really do anything or is it all psychological?
Baptism is an action which God does in the world, in and through human agency. We cannot baptize ourselves. That is a fundamental, though overlooked, part of baptism. In baptism I am acknowledging that I am the problem. Me and my choices are contributors to the evil, pain and sadness in the world. I am acknowledging a need to be made clean. There is a real sense in which I receive baptism.
Baptism is also entry into a people, a community. By virute of that initiation rite I become part of a group. Membership, as they say, has its privileges. It also has its responsibilities. There is a self-gift involved as well.
My biggest disappointment with baptism is it is so mundane and ordinary. There is not enough "magic" in it. I want the water to make something amazing happen. I want baptism to give me (and others) super powers. I want to be able to look at a crowd and see baptized people are happier, nicer, wiser and just plain better than other people. I want God to do something with baptized people that makes everyone say, "wow, I want some of that water on me!" In other words, I want baptism to be an ESCAPE from real life!
So is baptism efficacious? Does something happen when we get baptized? Does getting baptized save us?
Yes, it is efficacious, it does what it says. When we are baptized we become God's (adopted) children. We become by His gracious act, part of a people called out of this world to live as His followers. In light of that, yes, something has happened. Is that something salvation? Here is where it gets dicey. I have heard all the great debates about baptism, faith and salvation. To be honest, I do not buy into the starting place of many of these debaters. We live in a world of limits and exceptions to the rule. There is mystery, too. I think that baptism makes me clean and makes me God's child. I also believe that I can choose to get dirty again and I can be a prodigal who wastes his inheritance in wild living. But God has made me clean at my core so the dirt can be cleaned off (in repentance, confession, penance and reformed life). And God has made me His child forever so I can come back home and be reinstated.
In my first real job I was hired to be the supervisor of a child care center. Prior to that I had worked part-time as a janitor while going to school. I was due to start on Monday. That weekend I was mopping floors. I remember standing in that empty building on Sunday afternoon and thinking, "tomorrow I am in charge." It was weird. Baptism is like that. I am really His today, even though the fullness of that new state is yet to be totally manifest. But as I do the grunge work of mopping, I know tomorrow is coming. In the meantime I have to do what I am supposed to do. No escape from life. And it is not always fun or easy. But it is necessary. And I am confident in the promise (okay, not always, but trying to live confidently!). So, yes, I am saved by baptism and yes the salvation is not yet fully revealed. I trust God works in baptism so baptism is necessary. And I believe that I can throw it all away if I choose. So I try to choose not to throw it away. How about you?