by Heidi Shott
Canon for Communication and Advocacy
Mid-way through my recent journey to Jordan, our band of religion writers arrived at Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site where early believers and pilgrims marked the place of Jesus’ baptism. Many archeological studies have confirmed the veracity of the claim, and the Bible tells us that John the Baptist preached (and partook of locusts and honey) on the east bank of the Jordan. Today the baptism site lies about two kilometers from where the river, which marks the boundary between Palestine and Jordan, now flows.
Rustom Mkhjian, Director of Archeological Works of the Baptism Site Commission, an engineer trained in preservation of historical monuments, shared his expertise and love for the site with us. The hugely complicating factor of any archeological work in this region is sifting through the many the layers of human history: from paleolithic to Greek, Roman to Byzantium, the Islamic period onto the present day. As he led us to several sites, including the discovery of mosaics from a 4th Century monastery, it was fascinating to pass through the modern baptism pavilion with its concrete pool (that looks like it could double as a hotel swimming pool) used by visiting Christians for baptisms. “Popular with Baptists,” he remarked in passing.
As Mr. Mkhjian pointed us to the entrance of the shaded path that meanders along the springs of John the Baptist to the baptism site, he encouraged us to walk in meditative silence. I was glad for that advice and struck by the stark contrast of the verdant growth of trees and shrubbery near the stream from the springs and the vast dry sameness in every other direction.
At the baptism site, early Christians crafted steps leading down to a cruciform pool. The pool has survived through some of its foundations lie askew because of powerful earthquakes over the centuries. As we stood looking over the pool below as Mr. Mkhjian sprinted through two thousand years of history, I was struck less by standing in a place where Jesus and John the Baptist stood, where the heavens opened and God the Spirit and God the Father manifested themselves, but rather by the sense and presence of the steady stream of pilgrims who have visited this site. Many of our group took the opportunity to go down to gather water to take home, but I wasn’t moved to do so. I knew we weren’t done with this place yet.
The convenient thing about traveling to the Holy Land with two Episcopal priests is you can celebrate the Eucharist wherever you please. In the few weeks leading up to our trip, the Rev. Rosalind Hughes (Diocese of Ohio) and the Rev. Tim Schenck (Diocese of Mass.) proposed that we Episcopalians celebrate the Eucharist and renew our Baptismal vows at the Jordan River.
We didn’t have any sense of how this would work out or where exactly along the river we would worship, but, upon arrival at the Russian Orthodox guesthouse – one of several Christian denominations that have built churches along the Jordan side of the river – we were offered several options. We choose the Greek Orthodox baptism site – with its changing rooms, a sheltered porch, steps into the river with helpful handrails. On the porch’s dry ground we began our worship through the renewal of our baptismal vows and then carefully stepped into the water, taking care not to lose anyone on the slippery steps. Our priests asperged us and we asperged them in return. We joyfully (and carefully) offered the peace to one another, these pilgrims and good-humored companions on this remarkable journey.
I think I can say with confidence that each of us was deeply moved by the experience of worshipping along the banks of the Jordan. The cool water refreshing our hot and dusty feet as it had the feet of myriad pilgrims before us and surely Jesus and John so long ago. As we said our closing, “Thanks be to God!” a quiet descended upon this group of boisterous, wise-cracking Episcopalians that lasted long after we made our way back to the bus.
And before long I realized why I was more genuinely moved by the experience at the modern river than at the scientifically-verified baptism site. Jesus was baptized by John in the river where it flowed in his day. We renewed our vows in the river of our day. If baptism is the sign of new life, then we can’t expect to find resurrection in the old places where water has to be pumped in. Over the 2,000 since the heavens opened, the Spirit descended and the Father was “well-pleased” with his son, the river has moved and transformed and the green of healthy, growing things has followed its path. If we expect to thrive and grow, we must be willing to do the same.
To view the public photo albums from each day of our trip, visit facebook.com/heidoshott/photos_albums