I stand 6’4” and weigh over two hundred pounds but felt physically insignificant standing next to David. He weighed north of four hundred pounds and was one of my first baptisms in my first church—almost three decades ago. When we both stood in the baptismal, we displaced a goodly amount of water. The choir seemed a little nervous as two behemoths stepped into the water behind them, for the only thing between them and a biblical flood was an 8-inch tall pane of glass.
I faced the congregation and David faced towards my left. I told him that he would have to bend his knees and help me get himself back up after he was fully immersed. He nodded and licked his dry lips like he was nervous. As it turns out, there was good reason for both of us to be nervous.
I wore fishing waders underneath my snow white Baptismal robe. David was dressed in a blue shirt and “overhauls”—4XL. He folded his hands together at the surface of the water, ready to clasp his nose as I tipped him back for a full dunking. I put my right hand in the middle of his back, between his shoulder blades and raised my left hand, palm facing out toward the congregation, and began to recite the familiar incantation: “David, upon your profession of faith and in obedience to the commands of our Lord and Savior, I now baptize my brother in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
His hands went to his face and clinched his nose as water ran down his elbows. He bent his knees and began to lean back. I spread my feet and prepared for his weight in my strong right hand, but it wasn’t strong enough even with the help of the buoyancy of water. When he passed some sort of geometric tipping point, he went down into the water like a sack of stones. There was nothing I could do but get out of his way.
As he went under, fear set in and David’s hands left his face. He began flailing for something to grab to save himself from going to the bottom. Not once or twice, but at least three times he groped and grabbed at me, the curtains—anything—while his bare feet tried to get purchase on the slick concrete floor.
Heads in the choir turned with furrowed brows of concern upon hearing the thrashing just feet away. One later said to me that he couldn’t tell if I was trying to help or kill him. Their eyes got large as offering plates when David’s ham hock of a hand landed on and tightly gripped the only thing standing between them and Noah’s flood. He had grabbed the glass with his right hand and my robe with his left and was trying to right himself, spitting and spewing water out of flared nostrils like a surfacing beluga whale.
I went low and dead-lifted with all my might so as to take pressure off the glass and thus save the lives of men and women in the choir that tithed regularly. Somehow, some way with the strength of Samson, I lifted David and saved the flood. As he stood and wiped the water from his eyes, tsunami waves slapped from one end of the tank to the other, the choir released a collective sigh and someone muttered, I think it was Otis Whittington, “That was as close to dying in church service as I have ever come.”
David climbed out with effort. He was winded. I was too. After we dried off he confided in me that the reason he wanted to be baptized in our church was because he thought I was the only preacher in the county who was large enough and strong enough to handle him. Then he said something that I have never forgotten. Layered with meaning he said, “Pastor, everything was going great until you let me down.”