John said, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing. – John 1:26-28
The Jordan River begins its 251-kilometer journey in the north, on the border between Syria and Lebanon. From here, high in the mountains near Mount Hermon, it descends to Lake Huleh (in northern Israel) and the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Carving its way along the border between Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied West Bank, it empties into the Dead Sea. The banks of the Jordan are lined with tamarisk, willow, and Euphrates poplar trees, but beyond it lies only barren mountains and desert. The only life in this area owes its existence to these waters. In the same way, we who follow Jesus owe our spiritual lives to the life-giving waters of Baptism.
This river, which has played such a significant role in biblical history, is sacred. Its waters need not be blessed; they are already holy. It was through the waters of the Jordan that the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land (Josh 3:7-17). It is along its banks that Elijah was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:6-14). It is here that Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, was healed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). But perhaps the main reason that the Jordan River is so loved by Christians is that Jesus was baptized in its waters. It is here that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove, anointing Him as He prepared to begin His salvific mission (Mt 3:1-17).
Although the landscape is otherwise barren, several Greek and Russian Orthodox churches straddle the road leading to the baptismal site. Along that same road, ominous signs hang from barbed wire fences, warning of the presence of mines. For today, the control of the Jordan is a source of conflict among the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians. In these lands, water is a scarce commodity. In fact, “Water lies at the heart of Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbours and the Palestinians – and poses some of the toughest challenges for peace in the Middle East.”2
In his autobiography, the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, said, “People generally regard June 5, 1967, as the day the Six Day War began. That is the official date. But in reality the Six Day War started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.”3 “While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.”4
Today, the Jordan River is peaceful. Across its narrow banks, a soldier answers emails on his cell phone as he stands guard over the site. To our right, a large group of Christians are being baptized amidst joyful singing. Across the way, the ringing of bells reminds us that this place – despite all present-day contradictions – is holy. As we descend the steps into the water to renew our own baptismal promises, we are reminded that wherever it may be celebrated, Baptism is the beginning of new life for all who follow Christ.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The Jordan River is mentioned in many other places in Scripture as well. For example, when Abram and Lot parted ways, Lot chose to settle in the city of Sodom, in the Jordan Valley (Gen 13:10). Jacob crossed the Jordan when he returned to his people in order to be reconciled with Esau (Gen 32:9-10). It was along the banks of one of its tributaries – the Jabbok – that Jacob wrestled through the night with the angel. For other Scriptural references, see Num 34:15, 35:1; Josh 22:10, 25; Judg 7:24, 12:5-6; 1 Kings 7:46; 2 Kings 6:1-7; and 1 Mac 5:24, 9:42-49.
2 Chris McGreal, “Deadly Thirst,” The Guardian [newspaper on-line]; 13 January 2004; available at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2004/jan/13/water.israel; Internet; accessed 7 October 2013.
3 Ariel Sharon, Warrior: An Autobiography, trans. David Chanoff (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989; Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 167. Today, the Jordan River supplies Israel with 40% of its fresh water.
4 Ibid., 166.