This walk will be memorable. I invite you along. For most of those privileged to make this pilgrimage, it will be a once in a lifetime experience. Seldom can you hop off a bus and know that within five minutes you will be standing at the edge of the Jordan River—the same river where John baptized Jesus. The Israeli government promotes two sites for pilgrims to use for baptisms and other affirmations of faith. The Office of Tourism opened the Yardenit site in 1981 to replace the original site of Kasser Al Yahud at the southern end of the Jordan, near the city of Jericho and within sight of the Dead Sea. Even though the Yahud site is probably the most likely site for the baptism of Jesus, Yardenit remains the most popular. Today, we are visiting the Yardenit site just a short walk from where the Sea of Galilee provides the Jordan with its water.
As we walk the sidewalk to the entry into the dressing rooms, restaurant, shops, and steps down to the river, we see Mark 1:9-11 written on mosaic tiles in multiple languages. We pause in front of the English mural and read: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’”
It only takes a few second for us to pass through the entry booth. The Jordan, probably twenty feet below the level where we stand, draws our attention. The view is breathtaking; the experience is surreal. Shades of greens, grays, and browns dominate the landscape. Trees and shrubs, such as, apple of Sodom, tamarisk, rhododendron, and angus castus, border the river. Only the sky is light blue and a slight breeze cools the riverside.
We begin to hear pilgrims singing in more than one language. Many of the visitors at the river’s edge wear white baptismal robes and form lines to the water waiting for their moment of baptism or reaffirmation. Despite several ceremonies occurring at different baptismal areas side-by-side along the river, we soon become focused upon our own service. Today, we will baptize four from our group.
Life is one continuous experience after another. We hardly pause to distinguish one from the other. More importantly, I wonder which events actually personally involve God. When does God choose to enter directly into the life of people? Is God mostly an observer? Just how personal is God? Why would the Creator want to relate to the creature? Since God is omnipresent and infinitely loving, what would restrict him from always being by our side?
Scripture teaches us that God prefers, but doesn’t demand, to dwell in all parts of our created nature—the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Christians call the presence of God in an individual “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit”. The biblical justification for this is found in its books, but especially rooted in the last chapters of John, particularly in John, chapters 14-17.
Jesus once said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)
For me, the personal nature of God is often confirmed in God’s unique, sometimes silent, appearance in daily life. We will see this physical confirmation in a few moments. Watch carefully or you might miss it; or more likely, you may see the occurrence but miss the message.
Some of us head to dressing rooms to change into our white ankle-length gowns. As we approach the water’s edge, the tall plumed river grass waves in the gentle breeze. We fortunately come at the end of a day and more and more pilgrims are finalizing their services and leaving the area.
Mark Hester and I will baptize the others. Each has chosen immersion. This mode of baptism is new for Mark and me, so we help one another. It is still a rather strenuous process and I wonder how 3,000 people could be baptized by immersion in a single day. But, then my mind shifts from mode to significance. We have finished the baptisms, and Mark and I stand face to face looking into one another’s eyes; we decide at that moment to reaffirm our baptism by cupping our hands and pouring water upon one another. It is a special moment, but the experience doesn’t climax with the falling of the water from our head back to its source. We stand up to our thighs in gently flowing waters as small fish nibbled on our feet and legs. None of us want to leave this sacred place or walk away from such a precious moment. As we begin to leave the water and climb the underwater steps to the riverbank, quietly a brown dove glides in and lands on a handrail three feet from us. Someone exclaims, “LOOK AT THAT!” We stand quietly for a moment and then walk the rest of the way to the bank.
I am so glad that Sally and Mark were right there to share this appearance of a dove on the bank of the Jordan. Granted it didn’t land on one of our shoulders and there was no audible voice affirming God’s presence. But, I choose to believe that God wanted us to know that he was there to bless this significant moment in our lives.