“This is it?”
I’m in Israel touring Qasr el Yahud, a baptism site for Christian pilgrims situated near Jericho and the Dead Sea on the Israeli side of the Jordan River. Christian-themed tour buses in the parking lot signify the importance of Qasr el Yahud as a must-see spot for pilgrims seeking to retrace Jesus’ footsteps.
But where’s this majestic Jordan River I’ve heard proclaimed with gusto by countless Gospel singers? Nothing mighty could flow through this stagnant, fly-infested water. It looks more like a fishing hole than the spot where, according to scripture and tradition, John anointed Jesus as the ultimate fisher of men.
As I walk down the marble steps toward the river, pilgrims toting water bottles and clutching Rosaries scurry by me to the river’s edge, each one seemingly searching for their own salvation. Some adopt the somber visage of an ascetic monk. Others smile with the unbridled joy commonly found in children on Christmas Day. A few look dazed and from either jet lag or too much touristy travel.
A plethora of languages intermingle Babel-like. While I can’t decipher most conversations, their actions depict rituals that can be understood by all Christians. Almost everyone possesses a camera or a Smartphone so they can post ontological proof of their presence.
They touch the water. Capture a few drops for future spiritual prosperity. A few lost souls take the plunge into the river—though the water only comes up to their calves. With a priest’s blessing, they emerge with a cleansed soul reborn as a new member of the Christian family.
The ruins of ancient Byzantine and Crusader churches coupled with the development of new churches tell me I must be on holy ground. People have been coming here for centuries to connect in a very personal and visceral way with their Lord and Savior.
During my visits to Jordan, I paid homage to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the name given to the seemingly identical site situated on the Jordanian side of the river. The rituals performed there parallel the actions performed on the Israeli side. Walk to the river’s edge passing by another set of ancient church ruins and newly designed models. Touch the water. Capture a few drops. The baptisms seemed to be transpiring only on the Israeli side. Otherwise the journey remained the same.
Yet, when I bend down to collect a few samples of water for some spiritual friends, I feel nothing. Nada.
My eyes move from the pilgrims performing their rituals at both sides of the river to a soldier on the Jordanian side toting an automatic machine gun. I can feel the presence of Israeli soldiers though they remain hidden from my view. Like the others who journey to the Jordan, I want to experience this peace that passes all understanding. These soldiers remind me how elusive this vision remains.
The song “Jordan River” may tell me “Jesus will be waiting, He’s gonna help me to cross.”
However, no one can actually venture across the river at this juncture.
So I sit at the bank of the Jordan, wondering if the day will ever come when we can truly cross this earthly divide that prevents us from becoming one in our shared humanity.