The Baptism of Gladys Wetherbee
(the event portrayed was real but the people involved are deceased,
except me and the names are changed.)
I will never forget my first baptism. I was a fresh graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was midway through my first year in rural Manitoba, that Gladys Wetherbee asked for baptism. I had been taught everything a person would want to know about believers’ baptism except how to perform one.
I remembered my own baptism at age fifteen in First Baptist Church Lethbridge, Alberta. The day came for our baptism, and the church was full that Sunday in June 1961. The girls wore heavy white robes thick enough to preserve their modesty once they became thoroughly wet. One of the funniest topics at theological college was anecdotal accounts of transparent gowns and wet t-shirts during full-immersion baptisms. These mostly occurred at church picnics when baptisms were often conducted spontaneously without the standard degree of preparation or caution.
Boys were baptized wearing almost anything as no one really cared what we looked like dripping wet. Our class changed into dark pants and white dress shirts. I remember how warm the water felt as I descended the three steps into the baptistry. I noticed that our pastor was wearing a black choir robe over jeans and sneakers. I don’t know what I thought proper liturgical garb might be, but the sight amused me. The water was just above waist-deep, and I stood next to him looking out into the church congregation.
Some of my concern was what would happen next. Our pastor had walked us through the process, but all I remember was “lean back and close your eyes.”
We were told, “don’t worry, your body will almost float, and I promise not to drop you.”
I had no idea how those words would come back to me many years later at the baptism of Gladys Wetherbee. I had no idea that wet T-shirts were not the only disasters that can occur when you attempt to immerse a grown adult into a tank of water, even with their consent.
Adult full immersion baptism teeters on a fine line between solemnity and farce if not done well and with decorum. There is something about tipping over backward into water that feels inherently alarming. You feel helpless and at the mercy of the person holding you. I suppose this is part of the lesson—submission into the hands of another. And as long as you can do that, the moment passes quickly, and you come up dripping but no worse for the wear. Unless you are Gladys Wetherbee.
Hers would be my first baptism and a sure sign I was a successful pastor. Gladys had one caveat, however. She had an issue with anyone touching her head. She said this was, in part, what held her back all these years. I did my best to reassure her that I would not need to touch her head during the glorious ordinance of baptism. She agreed to proceed, and a date was set. We decided to meet at the church before the baptism to do a dry walk-through.
A few days before the rehearsal, she came to see me in my office.
“I have an idea for the baptism, pastor”.
“Really, what’s that Gladys”?
“I could wear a motorcycle helmet when you baptize me”.
I was a bit nonplussed but kept my composure. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. I assure you that I’ll take care not to touch your head or drop you. Come to the rehearsal, and we’ll walk through it slowly.”
The time of the rehearsal came, and Gladys arrived at the church. I led her down into the dry baptistry, positioned her to show there was ample room, and how I would immerse her, following the example of my own baptism. She seemed willing but dubious. If it were not something she felt so deeply about, she might not have gone through with it. But she did.
The day of her baptism came. The baptistry in our church was a tank situated behind the choir. Prominent, was a painting that depicted the Jordan River flowing directly into our tank. Folks loved it. At both sides was a platform, like the offstage area in a theatre. A helper waited on each side. One was there to help the candidate into the baptistry and assist the person exiting up the narrow stairs.
The candidate was handed a towel, then led to the dressing area following the baptism, which happened to be my office.
Gladys was led to the stairs, and I held out a hand to assist her. After a brief prayer, I placed my right hand between her shoulder blades and, with my other hand, gripped her clasped hands, which she held just below chin level. Gladys was a diminutive woman, and I knew this would be a breeze.
I lowered her into the water, but at the last moment, her fears kicked in, and she pulled her head forward, so it was not submerged. This was all out of sight of the congregation, and in hindsight, I should have immersed her to the shoulders and then brought her up. There would be enough splashing and sloshing to satisfy most purists. But not enough for Glen McDonald. He was a kind, caring, and devout Christian. On that day, he was one of the helpers just out of sight a the edge of the baptistry.
Glen jabbed his finger downward with the imperative, “Psssst Pssst, get her down!” He was my elder and an elected deacon of the church, so who was I to say no? But I think Glen was bringing Achilles to mind more than Jesus. He must have thought that if any part of the body stayed dry, then maybe the blessing might not fully take.
I took my hand off her back, and placing it on her shoulder, thrust her under the water. Perhaps it was the surprise of my actions that caused her to gasp at just that moment. She came up gagging and coughing, clutching at my robe while struggling for her footing. Amid coughs and gags, I managed to lead her to the steps and upward to Glen and the waiting towel.
Having successfully completed my very first baptism, I turned to the congregation. I voiced the only thing I had ever heard following a baptism. Quoting Philip from the Book of Acts, and with as earnest a voice as I could muster, I implored the whole church:
“Look, here is water! What hinders you from being baptized?”