Last weekend my father told me a story about a minister friend of his whose wife, as he was preparing to serve communion, motioned to him from the front pew that the zipper to his pants was unzipped. Unflappable, he turned away from the crowd towards the altar, zipped them up in a fluid motion and continued blessing the elements. No one was the wiser, until he turned to serve communion to the congregation. Everything on the altar—the candles, the loaf of bread, the chalices of wine and the altar cloth itself—came crashing to the ground. The poor man had zipped the altar cloth into his pants.
When my father was a young pastor (for those who do not know, my father is an ordained Methodist minister) an elderly woman came to the church asking to be baptized, specifically requesting baptism by immersion. I don’t know why but I’ve always imagined her as a sort of Ruth Bader Ginsburg type—dignified, deliberate and determined—perhaps because it takes a headstrong person with that sort of do-what-I-want-to-do-when-I-want-to-do-it mentality to see no need for baptism until she is 83 yrs. old and then insist it be done by immersion despite the fact that the Christian tradition to which she has turned has no facility to accommodate her request. Methodists tend to prefer sprinkling the waters of baptism. Nevertheless, it had to be an immersion baptism.
There was a Disciples of Christ church down the road that could accommodate her request and was willing to host the ceremony; so on a summer Sunday afternoon my father, the elderly woman and a large crowd of believers (her conversion was a big deal, after all) paraded down the street for the great event.
This may have been my father’s first baptism (it was certainly his first immersion baptism) and he wasn’t altogether confident as to how to proceed. For starters, he didn’t even know how to position himself or the woman in the baptismal font. The pair looked down in a bewildered silence at the rectangular font, which ran long across the front of the sanctuary, until the woman leaned in and whispered confidentially, “Which way do I turn?”
He considered the question in earnest and then proposed it would be best if she faced the crowd, even though the width of the font was considerably narrower than its length. He figured that since everyone came to witness her baptism, the effect would be far more dramatic for the congregation if they could see her face the moment she emerged from the waters.
But when it came time in the ceremony to lean her back into the water, my father realized that she didn’t fit. Of course, the sensible thing to do would have been to simply ask the woman to reposition herself so that she was facing lengthwise. But as Sherlock Holmes so aptly said, “It is easy to be wise after the event.” Instead, seeing the elderly woman with her knees braced against one side of the font and her head tucked tight into her chest, hard up against the other wall, he placed his hand on her forehead and shoved until she went underwater.
It only took a few seconds for my father to realize the dire situation the woman was now in—if she was stuck going down she’d certainly be stuck coming up. He dove in and, wrapping his arms around her, pulled with all his might until she popped right out. Fortunately, the congregation was comprised of Methodists who had never seen an immersion baptism and never realized anything had gone awry.
Every person I know who has served in ministry any longer than it takes to sip a cup of coffee can retell similar stories. The thing I find so incredible is that even in our moments of social faux pas and utter chaos that would tempt so many to roll theirs eyes and scoff at our seeming incompetence, God still steps in and performs miracles, imparts grace and establishes covenants with His people. His faithfulness to His promises is not dependent upon our ability to perform (it is not we who are doing anything great for God in these sacramental moments) and so He is unhindered by the messes we make.
One wonders why He does it. Why does He even bother? The only reason I can find that makes any sense at all is to simply take His word for it: He truly loves us and truly delights in us.