In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.
Qaser El Yahud marks the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. (Remember: “Traditional” in tourism code means a place which cannot be identified with academic certainty but pilgrims have visited for generations.) According to conventional belief, this is the same site where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land and Elijah ascended into heaven.
Due to regional conflict, the site only recently reopened to the public in 2010. A soldier waved our bus through a checkpoint guarding the way to the river. High fences flanked the road with signs warning of landmines beyond the wire.
Wide marble stairs descended to the bank of the Jordan River—although river might be too grandiose of a term for the 20 yard wide stream. The muddy, murky, meandering water flowed through reeds and rushes on the shoreline.
The Jordan River serves as a national boundary. On the far side of the waterway, two Jordanian soldiers with slung automatic rifles observed us with disinterest. One guide with a blend of levity and gravity warned tourists that swimming to the other shore might prove hazardous.
Many Christian pilgrims like to be baptized again in the Jordan. However, United Methodists do not practice rebaptism. If God is the primary actor in the waters of baptism, then the sacrament need not be repeated. We can and do break human promises, but the Lord remains true to the divine covenant.
Bishop Mike Watson led the group in a Baptismal Reaffirmation Service. The worship service gave participants an opportunity to remember our baptism and reaffirm our baptismal vows.
In his introduction, the bishop warned that the Jordan was “a living river.” I appreciated this carefully crafted euphemism. In other words, detritus, effluents, and bacteria contaminated the unfiltered water. Some members of the group filled bottles with river water. The guides warned them to boil the liquid after returning to the United States.
In the flannel board, Sunday School pictures of my childhood, a clean, blue Jordan River flowed under a desert sun. John the Baptist (complete with camelhair coat, leather belt, and unkempt hair) poured water over the smiling face of Jesus. Hmmm, I don’t recall the teachers mentioning that the water might cause infections in any open sores or wounds.
However, the muck and mud of the River Jordan reminded me that we serve an incarnate God. The Lord loved us so much that he invaded our world, coming as a human being into our fallen world. Where else would he be baptized than in “a living river” with sinners on every side?
As we recalled the story of Jesus’ baptism, I also remembered the story before the story. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” When his cousin appeared on the river banks, John protested that Jesus should baptize him.
However, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism—the sinless Son of God received “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In Christ’s baptism, we witness a microcosm of the Incarnation. Emmanuel—God with us in the muck and mire of human existence. God became who we are—at his birth, baptism, and death—at Bethlehem, the Jordan River, and Golgotha.
God became who we are . . . so that we might become who God is.
At the culmination of the service, the bishop dipped a large frond into the river and then flung water across the congregation. As the drops rained on our heads, Bishop Watson declared: “Remember your baptism, and be thankful!”
Remember your baptism . . .
I remembered the stories my parents told about the Reverend L. B. Jones, Junior holding me as an infant in his arms. The water splashed upon my startled face as he recited the ancient words: “William Randolph, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then my parents and the congregation at Capitol View Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta promised to raise me in the faith.
I am who I am today because of what happened to me that winter Sunday morning in 1958. The waters of baptism claimed me as one of God’s own. Over the years, various churches and fellow Christians have fulfilled the vow to set an example for my life.
Remember your baptism . . .
As the bishop’s words echoed in my ears, I remembered my baptism . . . I remembered Jesus’ baptism . . . and I gave thanks. Amen.