The Jordan River is not one of the mighty rivers of this world. Compared to other rivers, it is tiny: it’s merely 156 miles long and 60 feet across at its widest. It’s fairly shallow: its deepest point is about 17 feet. It’s never been navigable. It is formed by tributaries in the mountains of the border area of modern day Syria and Lebanon, flows south through the Sea of Galilee, and ends in the Dead Sea, which is bordered by Israel, the West Bank and the country of Jordan. The Dead Sea doesn’t have any outlet, and so the water just evaporates. Now the thing is: despite its modest size, the Jordan is the largest and most important river in the area.
Although, and I think this is a fascinating tidbit, no major settlement was ever built right on the banks of the Jordan.
In modern times, the Jordan has been tapped by the various bordering nations for its waters. 70-90% of its waters today are used for human consumption and enterprises; the flow of the river has been drastically reduced since biblical times – and, by the way, the Dead Sea has also been shrinking, since less and less water is carried there by the Jordan.
In addition, the Jordan is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. A roughly 2 mile stretch just south of the Sea of Galilee is kept pristine – since this is the stretch that Jesus supposedly was baptized by John and today still many pilgrims and tourists flock to this site, sometimes to be baptized there themselves– although there are several sites that claim that Jesus was baptized there, and nobody knows for sure where exactly John used to baptize. But overall, the Jordan and its ecosystem suffer from the abuse and overuse of the nations that border it – and its tributaries.
Not surprisingly, there have been quarrels by the various nations in the region over the use of the Jordan’s waters – which only add to the ongoing conflict in this region.
Now despite its modest size, the River Jordan is one of the most famous rivers in the world. We know from the Old Testament that the people of Israel had to cross the River Jordan westward to enter the Promised Land – but then, of course, Jesus was baptized here. The Jordan has also become very symbolic: during slavery, ‘crossing Jordan’ became synonymous with gaining freedom among African-Americans. And ‘crossing Jordan’ has also become a euphemism for death, as we hope to enter God’s eternal Promised Land, eternal life.
What is so interesting and fascinating about the Jordan River is that, in biblical times as today, it always has signified a border – first between tribes, chiefdoms and kingdoms, and between modern states and territories today. Nobody ever could lay exclusive claim to the Jordan. In a way, it always has been no man’s land – and all man’s land. A borderline where one could encounter the stranger and the unknown. The Jordan always has been part of the wilderness, this strange place where human beings tend to feel ill at ease -because it is wild and unpredictable, unprotected.
John the Baptist appears here, in this border region, the wilderness, trespassing on lands claimed by various kings and leaders, even the Roman Emperor himself, proclaiming and performing a baptism of repentance. We hear in today’s gospel that people from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside – in short, civilized areas – leave the relative safety and comfort of their respective homes and enter this strange territory on the banks of Jordan – this territory where nothing is for certain, this territory where many of them probably feel ill at ease and vulnerable.
And isn’t it strange that John, the messenger of God, the one who prepares the way of the Lord, doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God come near in Jerusalem’s temple – the place where, after all according to tradition, God’s presence was to be found in the Holy of Holies? Isn’t it strange that people made the pilgrimage AWAY from Jerusalem, AWAY from the Promised Land, into uncivilized and unpredictable territory, even trespassing into foreign territory?
If you think about it, all this – choosing new ways, leaving the well-known and comfortable, even straying into foreign terrain – fits with John’s message, ‘Repent!’ Turn away from the same-old, same-old, seek new ways and truly follow God into unknown territory – God territory. And it fits very well with the theme of Epiphany. Just this past Sunday, we were reflecting on how the magi were detoured and traveled new ways – to Bethlehem, but also on their way back into their own country.
Many people ask themselves, why did Jesus have to be baptized by John? What did he have to repent for? Wasn’t he perfect and blameless as the Son of God? But it also makes sense. Jesus leaves the community behind where he spent most of his life, Nazareth in Galilee. He leaves the comfort of his home, the safety of his family, the security of his profession as a carpenter, the support of his community – and enters a new and contested territory, this wilderness. His journey is about to take an entirely different turn – and will ultimately take him to the cross just outside of Jerusalem. Basically because many are ill at ease in the places Jesus leads them. Jesus repents in the sense of going the way God sends him on.
It is also quite telling that Jesus comes into this contested border region along the River Jordan, crossing over, trespassing in all these worldly realms, proclaiming the kingdom of God come near, staking God’s claim in this no man’s land – and all man’s land.
Baptism in the early history of Christianity retained the character of crossing over into unknown and foreign territory, of turning one’s life around, of leaving the well-known and comfortable behind. Baptism in the early history of Christianity was a clear statement of faith in Christ, faith in a new life, a new existence in God, which also had consequences for one’s life choices. In those early years, the newly baptized would even be given a new name, to signify a new existence in Christ. And being a Christian could be dangerous. There is a reason why we have so many martyrs in the first centuries AD, before Christianity became the Roman Imperial religion. Baptism is still dangerous in some parts of the world today.
But throughout history, baptism became quite domesticated. As the centuries passed, it was emphasized that a person is baptized INTO the church, INTO the community of saints, INTO a mystical communion with God. And it’s all well and good and true. But in many places the idea that baptism also has something to do with going OUT into unknown and maybe even wild and unprotected territory where we might feel ill at ease – walking the ways God shows us – has gotten pretty lost.
Sometimes we are reminded of THIS part of baptism. Like this past year, when the pandemic forced us to seek and go new ways – individually and as church. Or as we look at the state of churches everywhere which have gotten a little too comfortable in their buildings and traditions and set ways and hardly venture out of their comfort zone – and have trouble proving to a younger generation that the work of the church is relevant in our day and age – that God is relevant in our day and age.
This past week, as we all in disbelief stared at the images from Washington D.C., where misguided people stormed the Capitol building with the intent of doing harm and thus endangering the democracy in this country, we were reminded that our baptismal call is to condemn all violence, lies, and twisted truths spouted by those at the top.
Being a Christian, being the church feels more and more like a journey in a confusing and strange wilderness – a highly contested territory, where many things, ideas and ideologies that are idolized vie for our attention and worship. Nothing on this earthly pilgrimage is certain anymore.
On this Sunday, the Baptism of Our Lord, I usually like to celebrate a service in which we remember our baptism. I was lacking the imagination on how to do that today. But we should still remember – remember that, in the beginning, baptism happened on the banks of the River Jordan, in the wilderness. Baptism was and still is a call to repent, to turn one’s life around, to follow the new ways God shows us – even though these ways may make us feel ill at ease.
Baptism is a challenge – but it also contains the promise of God: I will be with you, always. You are my beloved child. You are part of my huge and diverse family. Look around, and you will always find companions on your pilgrimage through the wilderness of life. Wherever you go, even the wildest places in life – it is my territory. Take heart.
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