In the long, long ago, in the days before indoor baptistries, preachers baptized their new converts in creeks and rivers or at the beach. But there seemed to always be special challenges while baptizing in a creek or a river.
It was a hot, muggy Sunday afternoon in August as I stepped into the cool water of a creek in Southern Ohio as a boy evangelist of 16. This was to be my very first water baptismal service ever to be handled alone, without pastoral assistance in the creek itself.
There were 31 new converts to be baptized that day.
About 100 people from the church were on the creek bank as onlookers and well- wishers. As they sang the chorus to Shall We Gather at the River I carefully made my way to the almost half-way point in the creek.
The water was not waist deep. In fact, it was just barely more than knee-deep.
Pastor Bud Settle, from nearby Wellston where I had just concluded a soul-winning revival campaign, warned me ominously of a severe drop-off located almost exactly in the middle of the creek where the water abruptly became about 10 feet deep.
I could swim, but that was not my purpose on that day. As the church folks on the creek bank sang, I continued to carefully probe the creek bottom for the spot of the 10 foot drop-off. When I had discovered the ledge where the drop-off was located, I carefully took two giant steps backwards into the barely knee-deep water. Smiling, I invited one of the young ushers from the church to bring the first new convert to me to baptize; he brought Wanda McAfee from Wellston, who knew almost nothing about the ordinances of the church – especially water baptism.
Now, I’m very familiar with weight problems, but at that time – age 16 – I was about as skinny a preacher as you could find and Sister McAfee was a very short (five by five by five) but very large woman who might have weighed over 300 pounds.
She was shaking all over when she got to me in the cool creek.
As the singers on the creek bank faithfully sang, I quietly asked her if the reason she was shaking was because she was cold.
“No,” she responded.
“Are you being blest?” I asked hopefully.
“Are you nervous?”
“I’m just scared to death!” she exclaimed as her lower lip started quivering.
“Brother Richardson, I’ve never had my face underwater in my whole life of 57 years,” she admitted to me.
I signaled to those assembled on the creek bank to keep on singing. They did, as I quietly began trying to reassure her. I calmly instructed her that she was to hold her nose with her index finger and thumb and clasp her wrist with her other hand. I spoke reassuringly to her that everything would be alright. She quietly promised, “I’ll do my best, Brother Carl.”
This is the last time that “quietly” will be used in this story.
Attempt Number One: I tried to push her backwards into the shallow water of the creek but instead, she leaned forward and steadfastly resisted. I couldn’t get her down; then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed several on the creek bank snickering.
Attempt Number Two: Mercifully, the folks on the creek bank kept singing and I kept talking with Sister McAfee trying to convince her to permit me the privilege of baptizing her in water. She said she would try. This time I pushed her back quicker and with more physical force, and to add to all that, I also very cleverly placed my foot behind her foot so that as she began backpedaling, she might trip over my foot, allowing me the extra leverage of getting her under the water. I was right. She did backpedal. But instead of tripping over my foot, she came down with her foot directly on top of my foot with all 300 plus pounds. “Ohhhh! Sister McAfee,” I grimaced.
“Please move forward! You’re standing on top of my foot!” Apologetically, she moved forward to her old spot.
“Keep on singing, folks!” I shouted to those on shore. By this time, half of them were laughing so hard they simply couldn’t sing, no matter how much they tried.
Attempt Number Three: I thought it was time for more enlightened instruction.
“Sister McAfee, this time when I get to the part where I say, “I baptize you, Sister McAfee, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “Yes – Yes – what then?” she asked semi-frantically.
I responded confidently, “just let your whole body go limp!”
Let me now add a lifetime edict for those in ministry: Don’t ever advise a 300 pound woman in knee-deep water to “go limp.” Just don’t go there. Ever.
However, I was getting anxious myself and just used that horrible advice on her hoping it might knock her over. It didn’t.
Thankfully she had the good sense to not follow any of it. She stood her ground and all the ground available within a 15-foot radius. I think she even stood on some of my ground. She simply wouldn’t move and I couldn’t make her move.
Attempt Number Four: Obviously we were at an impasse. “Sister McAfee, this is the last effort that will be made to baptize you in water this afternoon and I want to encourage you to do your best to be obedient to the Lord’s command to be baptized in water.” Clasping my hands she said, “I’m going to try my hardest this time, Brother Richardson. Please don’t give up on me yet,” she pleaded.
I was touched.
And I was truly convinced that she really did want to be baptized in water, irrespective of her embarrassment until now. Faithfully, those on the creek bank continued singing. This time she voluntarily submitted and trusted me to baptize her in water. In such shallow water, I must confess that had I not been a strong young man, I might not have been as successful at getting her up from beneath the water.
When Sister McAfee realized that she had gone through with it and that she had actually been baptized in water, she got really Pentecostal and started praising the Lord with a loud voice.
Then, her excitement grew and she started jumping around in the water, shouting aloud, “Praise God! I obeyed You, Lord! I obeyed You!”
As she flailed about in the water, I tried to hold onto her hands and arms, but the water had made her too slippery to hold onto. Her hands kept slipping loose from my grasp.
This large woman who had only had her face in the water for about 5 seconds her whole life, moved ever closer to that 10-foot drop-off near the middle of the creek. I clung to her like a puppy clings to its master’s trouser leg and the effect was similar. I was at her mercy. I had chilling mental pictures of what might happen if she were to step off into the watery chasm beneath – taking me with her.
I spoke urgently and rapidly, “Sister McAfee, please turn around and shout back the other way or we both may drown!”
I think I got through with the word “drown” although it may just have been the mercy of God, but she kept right on praising the Lord and calmly turned around and shouted right back toward the creek bank where those faithful people were still singing.
They all welcomed her safely – thankfully – back to shore.
You could say that I got my “baptism of fire” that day during the water baptism of my first baptismal convert in that little creek in Southern Ohio, and I’ve used that instance as a reminder to trust God and let Him do what He wants to do with you, your life and your ministry. Don’t resist, don’t fight Him and He can complete the work in you that he started.
One more thing – just in case – be sure you’ve learned to swim.
For 4 brief movies capsulizing Carl and Bev’s more than 50 years in ministry, just click here.