This morning we left our Dead Sea Spa hotel for a visit to the Jordan River and the purported baptismal site of Jesus by John. The weather here is noticeably warmer and more humid, owing in part to our location at the lowest point on the earth (approximately 1,300 feet below sea level). There are also significantly more flies here than anywhere else we have visited during our stay in Jordan. Even Petra, with its donkey and camel dung on all the trails, was less fly-infested than the Jordan River area.
We are given ample time to notice and remark on this many times over, since after exiting the bus we are delayed in entering the Jordan River site by over forty five minutes. We will be approaching within ten feet of the Israeli border when we arrive at the Jordan, so security in this area is much higher than anywhere else we have visited. We pass the time examining 3-D pictures of The Holy Family in the local gift shop.
We are finally given access, and walk down a trail bordered by barbed wire fencing as we approach the Jordan. Lisa leads our devotions this morning, in a shaded grove across the trail from the Baptismal Site. She reads from John 1:19-39, ending with the phrase “come and see.” An appropriate message for all of us to take back to our congregants. No amount of photos (or blog postings) can begin to deliver the impact of being here, of absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells, of seeing and meeting the people. Come and see.
As I sit here in the grove swatting flies and trying to pay attention to the reading, it occurs to me that the one speaking in the Biblical passage being read lived here amid the flies. He could not simply return to a spa hotel and Swiss-made ice cream after passing the time here. John chose this setting for his ministry. We have met others during this trip, both Palestinians and Westerners, that have likewise chosen this place for ministry. Some of them are prophets in their own manner.
From the grove we visit the banks of the Jordan, which is barely ten feet wide at this point. The river is overgrown with rushes on both sides, and the water is pea soup green, almost brackish. A short walk across this narrow stream lies Israel; of course such a walk today is to court death. There is a fence on the other bank, and a group of buildings at the crest of the bank. We are assured that someone in one of those buildings is watching our every movement. Some of our group fill small bottles with Jordan water, dipping into the stream. One of our members, emboldened, steps into the stream for an “immersion experience” (and to cool off from the oppressive heat). I hold my breath for the staccato burst of Uzi fire, but nothing happens. Perhaps the watchers have seen this many times before. Perhaps they are as human as the Roman Centurion who humbly asked for Jesus’ healing power, even while exercising dominion over him.
As we climb back up the bank on the Jordan side of the Jordan, we are greeted by a Jordanian soldier, rifle at the ready, who has been watching over us. There are Centurions on this side of the river, too.
We return to the bus for a box lunch, eaten as we journey back to the Dead Sea. Once back at our hotel we experience the unusual buoyancy of this body of water. One can truly walk on water here, standing totally erect without toes touching the bottom.
After dinner, and well into the evening, we meet with Doug Dicks, the Presbyterian Liaison for the Middle East. Doug shares with us the incredible depth of knowledge he has amassed in his ten years on this assignment, and provides us with a sorely needed perspective “from ground zero” in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This conversation is probably as important as anything we will do or see during our ten day journey. Certainly it is the most candid presentation we have had.