[A reflection from my pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine.]
Today we visited Beth She’an, the Jordan River, and the Shepherd’s Field in Bethlehem, but the experience that stood out to me most was our time at the Jordan River. To get there we drove from Beth She’an through the West Bank. Along the way, we traveled through checkpoints that reminded us of the harsh realities of division. We passed burned-out mosques and settlements of Palestinians whose basic rights, including the right to travel freely, have been taken from them. We drove by synagogues flying Israeli flags, with memories of crematoriums still all too present. We walked alongside areas with landmines left by people fighting over the same land that we call holy, and we saw Israeli soldiers casually toting semi-automatic weapons even in the midst of this sacred space. It is in this context that we gathered at a muddy river bank to remember our baptisms in the same place that a dark-skinned man from a poor little town under the shadow of Empire came to the water and began his ministry.
As we read the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism and sang “As I Went Down to the River to Pray,” we looked on as people from all over the world – all ages, all races, all nationalities – followed in the footsteps of our Lord and came to the water. Some jumped in eagerly and submerged their whole body without even a moment’s hesitation. Others stepped timidly and maintained a white-knuckled grip on the handrail throughout the entire experience. Children played. An elderly woman emerged from the water overwhelmed with emotion, tears flowing freely. And as our group looked on, voices shook as we prayed together.
Stepping into the cloudy water, I can’t say that I was thinking anything particularly holy. My inner monologue was more along the lines of “I wonder if there are snakes in here” and “Oh, these steps are really slick. I hope I don’t fall.” Like countless pilgrims before me, I smiled and had my picture taken and maybe even had some passing thoughts about Jesus, but the enormity of the moment didn’t hit me until much later. Much like my own baptism as an infant, I didn’t realize what had just happened until what felt like years later. My heart didn’t catch up with my head until I was sitting clean and dry in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus watching the Jordan River fade into the distance.
As I reflected on the experience, I realized that the first words said to me as I emerged from the river – the first human voice that I heard before the water had stopped dripping down my legs and before I even set foot on the bank – indicated that I had “done it wrong.” I felt deflated. How could I have done something so important and sacred wrong? How could something freely given be so complicated that I could manage to mess it up? But beyond my initial reaction, I began to see how common this perspective is among people of faith. I thought about how much of our history we have spent fighting about the “right” or most theologically-appropriate way to do things. We expend so much of our time and energy arguing over who is right and who is wrong, who is included in God’s plan of salvation and who is not, whose truth-claims we give credence to and whose we don’t. Contention and strife run rampant not just in Israel-Palestine, but in our Church, our denomination, and in our hearts, and even baptism cannot insulate us from this human reality. In fact, just as Jesus was immediately sent into the wilderness following his baptism, we too must confront the brokenness and hostility of the world around us as a ministry that begins even before the water dries.
As I walked back to the bus and shared these experiences with a friend on the trip, she assured me that I need not worry about “doing it wrong.” Her gentle reminder that “we don’t have to be Presbyterians here” helped me to see that whether we’re sprinkling, pouring, making the sign of the cross in water on our foreheads, or just jumping right in, dry clothing be damned, we all proclaim one Lord and one Baptism, and that’s what really matters.