Sometimes, in the midst of intense and difficult circumstances, there is a certain wisdom in finding the humor that flows through life – with the church being no exception. In my thirty-five years of ministry I have had multiple occasions to laugh at humorous circumstances and my own inept responses to them (or, more often, my cause of them). Probably because I have been involved in some form of youth ministry for all of those years, I choose to call these episodes “ministry bummers,” and present the following episode for your enjoyment. You should know that this event took place several years ago, and we have, finally, plumbed the baptismal tank (just a bit of foreshadowing to whet your appetite).
The ordinance of baptism is supposed to be a simple, external reminder of the spiritual cleansing and regeneration that have taken place in the heart of a true believer. However, as is usual in my life of ministry, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. You see, our church has a special kind of baptismal, one in which the baptizee climbs into the tank and the pastor remains on the outside. Oh, and we have no running water to the baptismal so it must be filled with a hose several hours before the time of the baptism (did I mention that my church is in East Tennessee).
On this particular Sunday, all seemed in place. The person to be baptized was present, the congregation was present, the pastor was present, and oh yes, the water was present, in abundance.
Bill (not his real name), the man being baptized, was standing in front of the tank and had just begun his testimony, when I noticed a bit of water on the floor beneath his feet. A quick glance at his face and I could see that he was not pouring sweat – so how did the floor get . . . . Just then, I heard an urgent whisper from behind, “Uh, Chris, look at the tank.” I glanced at the baptismal and saw the shimmer of light reflecting off the water – which was rapidly spilling over onto the sanctuary floor. My first thought was the classic avoidance technique – I’ll pretend that nothing is wrong and maybe this will all go away. But then, my many years of experience in the ministry kicked in, and I did the next best thing, I panicked. Running around behind the tank (while Bill was still speaking), I stared stupidly at the hose for a several moments before recognizing the water shut off valve was still open and slamming it shut. I breathed a sigh of relief – problem solved and disaster averted. Then the thought hit me, “If Bill tries to get in the tank like it is, the people in the first row will think they are at Sea World.”
What to do? Bill was still going strong, and not too many people had noticed my dash behind the tank, but there was no way to remove water without alerting everyone who was not fast asleep (relatively few since I had not yet started preaching). By this time, I had been joined on the far side of the baptismal by several faithful men (sounds like the beginning of a bad country song). We held a quick pow-wow and sprang into action. Greg grabbed a second hose and slid open the window in the front corner of the sanctuary. He took several quick inhalations on the hose to cause flow – and got a lung full of tepid baptismal water for his efforts. Realizing it was futile to drink the tank dry, he quickly thrust the hose out the open window where it began spewing contents onto the street two stories below. Alas, the stream of water was pitifully small, not nearly enough to empty the baptismal before the sacrosanct lunch hour was upon us and the building would empty like magic. So, we grabbed a few mop buckets and began heaving water out the window (and onto a brand new 4×4 parked just within range of our water “shot put”). So much for the subtle approach.
Despite our attempts to be careful, a lot of water had spilled out onto the floor, causing those closest to pick up their Bibles and feet. Fearing that we were ruining Bill’s powerful moment, I glanced at him and realized that he had not even noticed what was going on. He was totally locked in on the now somewhat anxious eyes of those in the audience. By this time, men out among the congregation with mops, yet still, Bill pressed on. He finished up by stating, “now it is time to be baptized,” and turned around. As he took in the scene of men continuing to fling liquid and wring mops, Bill retracted, “Maybe later?”
Ever wonder how many buckets of water it takes to un-fill a baptismal? Too many. I signaled the music team.
After singing their full contingent of songs for the morning, we still weren’t finished. They picked another song and plowed on. Finally, I gestured for the human water cannons to cease fire and the flurry of activity came to a screeching halt. Now my fear was that we had emptied too much water and would have to turn Presbyterian and do a sprinkling. With some trepidation I led Bill into the tank and, as the siphon hose dripped the last of its contents down the side of the building, I was able to fully immerse him in the waters of baptism.