It almost didn’t happen.
There were some who said it shouldn’t happen, who warned me plainly that when you hear the first distant boom of thunder at the public pool, you have to get out for at least a half hour.
But this was no Sunday afternoon swim: This was the Fourth Annual River Baptism and there were 12 people lined up on the riverbank ready to be “buried with Christ in a baptism like his” as Paul puts it.
That word – buried – seemed eerily appropriate as I waded out into the James River a little after 5 with the skies darkening to the west. And just as the second hymn ended I heard it – the distant boom of thunder.
What’s a pastor to do?
There were those 12 candidates lined up on the riverbank. One of them had hugged me at church that morning and squealed, “Do you know what day this is? It’s the day I get baptized!”
How could I disappoint her and the others who had waited so long for this day?
And what about Bill and Beverley Hundley, who had made their beautiful place on the river available to us and spent weeks getting everything ready, manicuring the lawn and even raking the river bed in preparation?
What about the members of the baptism team, who had brought robes for the candidates and helped them into makeshift changing booths and given them careful instructions about what to do and when to do it?
And what about those dozens, perhaps hundreds (Baptist preachers tend to estimate high) of family members and friends sitting and standing on the riverbank expectantly, waiting for their loved ones to wade out into the water?
In the end, I did the only thing that seemed reasonable at the time:
I ignored the thunder.
I motioned for Ralph Starling to assist me in the water. He gulped hard and waded out.
And then the first candidate came, the one who had been so eager about her baptism day.
Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail was going to stop her from taking the plunge. She came up out of the water triumphant, with a shout and a raised fist.
The others seemed just as determined, even when lightning flashed in the distance, even when the skies opened up briefly and the rain poured down.
“Welcome to the first mass baptism of 2012!” I shouted. “Some of us are being immersed and others are being sprinkled!” There was laughter from the riverbank, and then the next candidate waded out, undaunted.
It was just after that shower that the skies cleared and the sun broke through the clouds.
When the last candidate had been baptized, we sang “Amazing Grace” and said a closing prayer.
People began to open up their picnic baskets and spread out their blankets. The evening was as soft and lovely as any you’ve ever seen.
I changed into some dry clothes and began to move among the crowd, meeting extended family members and friends, mooching food off of almost everybody and breathing a huge sigh of relief that nobody had been struck by lightning at the Fourth Annual River Baptism.
On Tuesday morning, our staff debriefed the event. We agreed that next year we should definitely have a backup plan in case of inclement weather. Definitely. This year I’m just thanking God for watching over fools and children …
… and Baptist preachers.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.