In the book, “Even Angels Must Laugh” it speaks of some of the funniest real life experiences that have occurred in church. One day I hope my experience will be an addendum in that book.
It was my last weekend as pastor of my small Appalachian Church. It was only fitting that on this day I would culminate my time there by having a baptism. The candidate was a lovely older woman who had been relegated to a wheel chair due to declining health. It was her desire to take the plunge for God. An appropriate choice on such a sweltering July day.
It would have been impossible for her to be baptized in our church for obvious logistical reasons; the church’s baptismal tank was not handicap accessible and she was pleasantly “healthy”. The soon-to-be interim pastor accompanied me as we set out the day before the event to scout out the lake. We needed the best boat ramp and access point with the least grade to hold the special gathering.
We found it, and as if sent from God, a fisherman in a small boat was sitting twenty-five yards from the ramp where we stood. Shouting out to him, we asked him if he had a depth finder. He replied that he did. When asked how deep the water was, he said at the base of the ramp it was eight feet. But go beyond that he said, and it took a deep turn downward to twenty feet or more.
Satisfied we had found our spot, we reported back to the church family that we were good to go the following day. This event was soon to be a life lesson on, planning for most everything but NOT possibly everything.
The day was hot and cloudy as the church gathered around the boat ramp. The guest evangelist and church elder patiently waited in the water at the side of the ramp waiting for the baptismal candidate to be wheeled into the water. Concerned she could fall out of the wheelchair if rolled forward, I proceeded to turn her around, and in bare feet, made my way down the ramp backwards.
I distinctly remember on my checklist the items from yesterday. Slope……check, access……check. But a boat ramp with algae slick as a greased pig? That was not on my list. Like a torpedo from a submarine, the moment my feet touched the concrete ramp, the woman and I were jettisoned into the water for an unknown target. As she flailed and my eyes got as big as saucers, the crowd along the shore wondered why I was running backwards so fast. The evangelist and church elder could only helplessly watch in shock as we whizzed by them in the opposite direction at 90 miles-per-hour.
It was the woman’s young grandson who sized up the true nature of our circumstances when he waved his bottle of Mountain Dew and screamed at the top of his lungs, “He’s going to drown Grandma!”
I concurred with his assessment. Yet, almost as if on cue and what can only be described as a miracle, the runaway wheelchair stopped dead on the ramp in a millisecond. The water was now lapping at the chin of this grateful and relieved woman. The event though beautiful was a tad bit anticlimactic from this point on. I almost had presided at the first ever drive-in baptism. Baptizing was the easy part, getting her out, became the tricky part.
Gripping the rumble strips on the ramp with my toes it took three plus another volunteer to push her back up and out of the water. As the church family sang the words to, “Shall We Gather at the River”, I whispered to the choir director that they had been singing the wrong song. I told her the proper song should have been, “We have an Anchor.”
While I am most grateful that I could be a part of this friend’s important event, it also gave me pause for reflection and thanksgiving. This baptism didn’t land on YouTube and God saved me from drowning a sweet grandma.