Stubborn Water Heaters

I am sitting in a church pew. This chapel is empty. It’s lunchtime, and I’m supposed to be meeting an old friend here since I am passing through town for a book tour. Gene is the father of a guy I grew up with, and he has always been good to me.

The church secretary told me to wait in the sanctuary. The lights are off. Sunlight comes through the stained glass windows.

The whole world has shut down because of the coronavirus. Schools are closed. Restaurants have closed. Major League Baseball is cancelled. This morning, I saw a mile-long line of people outside a Birmingham grocery store. I don’t know what they were buying, but they looked afraid.

Gene works at this tiny church. He is the maintenance man here. It’s a part-time gig since he is almost seventy-eight.

This church gets smaller every year. Some of the younger parishioners are trying to grow the congregation by promoting the church. But the elderly folks in the congregation aren’t interested in this. “I’m not running ads,” the elderly preacher said at a recent meeting. “You don’t have to advertise a fire.”

I hear the door open. Gene’s sleeves are rolled up, he has dirt smudges on his forehead. He’s holding a wrench. His white hair is a mess.

“Sorry,” he says. “I gotta cancel lunch, we’re fixing the water heater.”

I follow him to the back room where three old men are crammed against a water heater. These are deacons. They are ticked off and fussing:

“Hold the flashlight steady! I’m blind over here!”

“I’m trying, but your feet keep getting in the way.”


There is a special way old men gripe when they’re fixing things and becoming frustrated. It’s pure wrath. It spews out of them like poison. It happens to us all. You can take a soft spoken man who walks on water; who never cheats on his income taxes; who calls his mama four times per week; who always puts the toilet seat down; give him a clogged garbage disposal and this man will turn into Beelzebub.

I am standing at a distance, watching them work.

There is an art to watching other men do fix-it jobs. If you are a man, you don’t watch, but you oversee.

Guys would never, for instance, merely watch another guy tune his carburetor. We would stand EXTREMELY close to him, sometimes leaning into his engine for moral support. We would offer helpful tips as though we minored in nuclear physics. “Hey Frank, have you tried twisting the defraculation nodule with the precipitator cuff valve?”

When we run out of things to say, we spit, or offer to get in there and help. But we are lying when we offer to help. We DO NOT want to help. Because this would mean that other men would then be giving us a steady stream of helpful advice, and then we might have to strangle them with a tape measure.

The water heater closet is flooded with an inch of water. The men are sloshing around, soaked to the bone, and filthy. And I am glad that I have something to think about today that isn’t related to the coronavirus because it feels like the world has been flipped upside down.

I’m getting a lot of email from worried people. I got an email from a nineteen-year-old girl who is having panic attacks. And one from a single mother whose full-time job has been cancelled.

But all is well inside this little church. The old men are really going to town on this heater. These are Baptist men who grumble in the sort of way that only Baptists know how. They talk themselves right up to the edge of cussing, but never do.

“Dang this no good sunuva…”

It’s beautiful. If you were raised Southern Baptist like me, you live for this kind of thing. An old man named Rick has taken to beating the water heater with a hammer and speaking with lots of near-cuss-words. This is a direct quote:

“This no good piece… All I wanna do is… Line up the danged threads and kiss my… You piece of doo doo!”

By now, a Presbyterian would have said an actual bad word. An Episcopalian would have already left the church and bought a twelve-pack. But not this elderly Baptist. He actually said, “doo doo.”

This is the greatest day of my life.

By now our feet are splashing in a little river. Even the church secretary is watching. She is trying to make helpful suggestions but the old men aren’t listening to her because what would she know? “Hey,” she says, “shouldn’t you turn off the electricity with all this standing water around?”


Finally, after an hour of struggling, it is finished. The water heater is fixed and it is a great day to be alive. Old men are shaking hands, slapping shoulders, high-fiving. The secretary has gotten to-go sandwiches. The old men are all in the empty sanctuary, sitting on clean towels, eating.

One old man says grace. Men bow their heads. Nobody says a word for a solid minute. Everyone is quiet. We are all thinking about the same thing. We’re thinking that in a few moments we will finish our sandwiches, leave this warm building, and rejoin an upside-down and panicked world.

“Lord,” says an old man. “Even if all hell breaks loose, help us not to be afraid.”

Hear, hear.


  1. GaryD - March 14, 2020 7:44 am

    I’ve got my toilet paper. I’m prepared for the Coronavirus. 😉

  2. Sandi. - March 14, 2020 7:57 am

    Hi Sean, after I read your posts, I always click on “See All Comments” which takes me to the Comments page, and there I look to see which sketch you included for that specific story. I love the one you drew of the country church to go along with this post. Your artistic talent is surpassed only by your splendid writing ability. Thank-you for using your talents so well!

  3. Victoria G - March 14, 2020 8:00 am

    I love this and can relate! I am our church secretary/treasurer and I would do the exact same thing she did, words and sandwiches all. I laughed at your “women” comment. Thanks the smiles and laughter. I enjoy reading your stories, you paint a beautiful picture every time.

  4. Ann - March 14, 2020 10:37 am

    Amen! And once again…thank you……it’s all so visual and a joyful distraction!

  5. Judy Sears - March 14, 2020 10:47 am

    This sketch looks like our Episcopalian church,sixpack and all,in a small rural town in Virginia. You are a voice of reason and that is comforting. Beer is good,God is great and people are crazy.

  6. Lynn - March 14, 2020 11:33 am

    This 100% accurate about Baptists. I love your writing as always.

  7. Susan Kennedy - March 14, 2020 12:15 pm

    This is everything. 💕

  8. Susan Kennedy - March 14, 2020 12:17 pm

    This is everything! 💕

  9. Jayne Ellison Harbour - March 14, 2020 1:15 pm

    Such humor in a chaotic time..I felt as if I were there. I love your sketching, and the last line gave reassurance..thank you for the words
    Jayne from Chattanooga

  10. Berryman Mary M - March 14, 2020 2:04 pm

    AMEN, Sean! May me trust and be fearless! This too shall pass.

  11. Deb Lockard - March 14, 2020 2:06 pm

    Thank you for being there for us Sean. We need your “love letters” , especially now.

  12. Jan - March 14, 2020 2:09 pm

    Amen! Beautiful … we are still here and God is still in our midst!!!

  13. - March 14, 2020 2:56 pm

    Maybe “Stubborn Baptists.” I’m one, so I can say that.

  14. Linda Moon - March 14, 2020 3:50 pm

    I know and love one those Beelzebubs who sometimes crosses the grumbling edge. Maybe that’s because he’s not Baptist. Women —- yep, we are cautious, but unafraid in this upside-down and panicked world. We’ve birthed babies, lost breasts, and artfully watched our men “fix” things. I’m glad you had the greatest day of your life, Sean! And I mean it!!

  15. Jenny Young - March 14, 2020 3:58 pm

    I never noticed that Sean draws the sketches! Cool.

  16. Margaret - March 14, 2020 4:20 pm

    I know you and your wife have been on a book tour. I don’t know your schedule, but I pray God’s angels to protect you both and get you back home safely.
    And that you have plenty of toilet paper.
    I really enjoy your columns each day.

  17. Robyn - March 14, 2020 4:53 pm

    Holy shrimp! You have done it again! Luv all your work…thank you for all you do!

  18. Bobbie E - March 14, 2020 5:09 pm

    Yes, we’re still here, still trusting, still going from day to day as long as our days last. Love Linda Moon’s comment ☺️ God bless us everyone

  19. Ann Mills - March 14, 2020 6:31 pm


  20. oleralf - March 14, 2020 7:22 pm

    Boy howdy! this column is a barn burner. Thanks so much for bringing back some fond rememories.

  21. Nancy M - March 14, 2020 10:52 pm

    I do that, too, Sandi!
    And I say “Amen” to that old man’s prayer.

  22. Sandi. - March 14, 2020 11:16 pm

    Hi Nancy, and yes, a hearty “Amen” to the old man’s prayer!
    I admire Sean for his ability to write, draw/sketch, plus play guitar and accordian. There’s not much he can’t do!

  23. John - March 15, 2020 3:16 am

    I just don’t get the toilet paper thing. Why is it people are hoarding tp? Do they think this is a stomach virus?
    I’ve yet to see anything from the local medical field to the CDC that says anything about intestinal problems with this disease. It’s all respiratory. People are just WEIRD!

  24. Jackie - March 15, 2020 2:40 pm

    I am so so so glad you called it a water heater. So many people around here call it a hot water heater. I am constantly telling them the correct term along with, ” If you have hot water you don’t need a heater. It is a water heater and it heats cold water.”

  25. Fran Decker - March 15, 2020 2:49 pm

    That last prayer

  26. Beth - March 16, 2020 1:02 pm

    Entertaining at first but then applicable to our situation. Praise God for His presence with us

  27. Becky Souders - April 18, 2020 1:44 am

    Perhaps you could repeat this one weekly, Sean. “Help us not to be afraid.”

  28. Donna Schoditsch - April 18, 2020 2:36 am

    I appreciate any age men and women who speak to the Lord like he’s standing at their elbow!

  29. Elizabeth Simmerman - April 18, 2020 6:49 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly! The disease does not cause diarrhea so what are they going to do with all that toilet paper?? All I can say is “TREES BEWARE!” if and when this is over.


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