|Jordan River entering the Sea of Galilee.|
Isaiah 43: 1-7 & Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
Baptism of the Lord, 13 January 2012
We don’t know where Jesus was baptized, but we know it took place near the Jordan River. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John all agree that Jesus’ baptism took place along or in the Jordan. Today, several sites claim to be the site for Jesus’ baptism: one is near Jericho in the West Bank (which reopened to tourists and pilgrims in 2011, now that the minefields nearby were cleared by the Israeli government); one is near Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee; and one site is known as Bethany beyond the Jordan, in the country of Jordan. John’s Gospel tells us that John baptized people at Aenon near Salim, “because water was abundant there” (John 3:23). We know that there were plenty of springs in that region that fed into the Jordan.
The River Jordan looms large in the history and tradition of Israel. It stretches more than 220 miles: fed by the snow-covered peaks of Mt. Hermon, with an elevation of 9,232 feet, it flows down through the Galilee and into the Sea of Galilee, entering at the north end of the lake, at the south end of lake the river resumes its course down toward Jericho and eventually empties into the Dead Sea at 1,365 feet below sea level, forming the north end of the Rift Valley, which stretches from this region all the way down to Tanzania. The book of Genesis first refers to the Jordan as a source of fertility to a large plain, said to be like “the garden of God” (Genesis 13:10). It has a way of showing up in the biblical narrative at key moments, the setting for momentous events. Jacob crossed it and its tributary, the Jabbok, on his return to Esau. Along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with the mystery man in the middle of the night that left him wounded and renamed (Genesis 32: 22-32). The people Israel crossed over the Jordan and entered the land of promise, led by the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, the presence of Yahweh (Joshua 3). The priests stood with the ark in the riverbed as the people processed past them into freedom. Elisha told Naaman, suffering from leprosy, to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10).
The River Jordan is significant. Its waters offered healing, the source of life and fertility in a barren land, the place of struggle and transition, it was a place of new beginnings, the point of entry into a new land, a new future, offering new identities. It’s not surprising that John the Baptizer chose such a place for his preaching, his ministry of anointing and washing and preparing people for the inbreaking of God’s presence and power in Jesus of Nazareth. And so the River Jordan becomes the place of baptism.
The place itself, wherever it was, represents something deep and profound as we consider the meaning of our own baptisms. As we hear of Jesus’ baptism, we’re invited to remember our own and the ongoing implications of what it means for us to say that we have been baptized into Christ. Most of us baptized as infants need help in connecting with the meaning and significance of our baptisms. Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it’s where his journey toward the cross begins. We, too, have been baptized, like Christ, baptized into Christ in a rite with ongoing implications. It doesn’t happen just once; it’s not simply an event of the past. It’s a present reality. The more we reflect upon the meaning of our baptism, the more we pray about it, allow its meaning to the wash over us and pour through us, the more our lives will be changed and transformed. We have been marked in baptism. It marks the beginning of our journey, a journey that invites us to go down into the Jordan, takes us through the waters of the Jordan, leads us across the Jordan to a land of freedom.
Where is our Jordan? Where is this “place” of new beginnings, of rebirth and renewal in our lives? How can we identify it? How do we know? Here are four signposts to help us discern:
The Jordan is a place of washing. John the Baptist came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s the place of forgiveness, of mercy, of being washed clean and starting fresh. Water itself is a symbol of washing, of God dissolving away sin. What’s left is a new person, a new creation, a new opportunity to repent, which means, to change your mind, to change your attitude, to turn your life around and walk in a different direction. It implies a washing, a dissolving away of past and present stains. It means leaving aside on the riverbank old destructive patterns, former ways that have not yielded life and then going down into the water, dissolving away unhealthy attitudes and practices and beliefs and perspectives and associations and maybe even relationships that do not yield life, to then take up something new.
The Jordan is a place of decision and action. Something is required of you. You can’t just sit on the riverbank and watch the river flow by. You can’t just sit there and watch others being washed, hoping to be washed by osmosis. There’s no room for spectators. You have to decide to get up and go into the water. You can’t just believe in the thought or value of going into the water. The Jordan is about more than having beliefs and ideas and good intentions. It’s about action. It’s something we actually have to do, experience, feel, undergo. We have to get up and move and go down into the water.
The Jordan is a place that calls for commitment. Either we’re washed or we’re not. Either we go down to the river or we stay on the riverbank. Despite my predilection for both-and scenarios in life, this is an either-or moment.
Either we’re in the water – or we’re not.
We can’t be in the water and on the riverbank at the same time.
Either we’re going to go down into the water, like Jesus,
and allow ourselves to be washed – or we’re not.
Either we’re going to identify with Christ – or we’re not.
Either we’re going to open ourselves to God’s call
and claim on our lives – or we’re not.
Either we’re going to be open to the voice the Spirit
and acknowledge who we are as God’s beloved children – or we’re not.
The Jordan is a place calling out to us for greater commitment. The Jordan wants us to be fully immersed in its waters, not simply sprinkled (the Presbyterian way), but bathed, immersed, soaked, drenched with its grace, its call, and commitment.
The Jordan is a place of washing, of deciding and acting, calling for commitment, all of these, in order to prepare us for that moment when we discern the Jordan’s deeper message and meaning. The Jordan is a place of new beginnings. It’s ultimately about conversion, transition, transformation, new life, liberation – any of these, all of these. It’s ultimately about change and being changed by the Spirit of God in order to take up a new life. That’s why it’s the place of transition.
It’s a before and after moment, as it was for Jesus. He went down into the water with one understanding of himself, but he came up out of the water prepared to receive a new understanding of himself: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). This new identity will chart the course of his life and nothing will ever again be the same again.
When Israel crossed the Jordan it marked the movement from slavery into freedom, from wandering in exile to entering the land the promise. In order to get there they had to transition through the Jordan, they had to cross it. They had to leave one place in order to enter a new place. The Jordan always involves a leave-taking. You have to leave familiar territory, cross through the waters, in order to enter the land of freedom. There’s no other way forward but through its waters.
It’s not surprising that African-American slaves in the South identified so strongly with this part of Israel’s history, of crossing Jordan. In some of the African-American spirituals “Jordan” was code for the Ohio River. To cross that river was to cross into the promised land of freedom. You can hear it in “Michael, row the boat ashore.”
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah….
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh….O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.
The abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was known for singing “Wade In theWater.” “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. God’s going to trouble the water.” The reference here is to the pool of Bethesda (John 5: 1-18). It was believed that when an angel touched the pool with its finger, troubled the water, there would be ripples throughout the pool. If you were near enough to the pool you could jump in and be healed. But to wade in the water during the time of the Underground Railroad meant something else. When Tubman and others sang, “Wade in the water,” it was code for “follow the streams.” As you head North to freedom don’t use the main roads and trails. As you run from slavery, wade in the water, use the streams. Don’t limit yourself to the shores; get in the water, there’s better protection that way. The water helps to wash off your scent leaving nothing for the dogs on your tail, leaving no trace, no footprints for those trying to bring you back to slavery.
Earlier we sang in the middle hymn:
Lord, bring us to our Jordan
Of newly opened eyes,
Through love, immersed in living,
As you were once baptized.
As we begin a new year, I invite you to make this your prayer, both personally and together as a congregation. Lord, bring us to our Jordan – bring us to that place of washing away all that separates us from God, our neighbor, and ourselves; the place where we can start clean; that place of decision and action; of greater commitment to God and our respective callings in the church. Can we step away from the safety of the riverbank and go into the depths? Can we wade in the water? Let the water wash over us, soak us, drench us, immerse us down into the depths of God’s grace? And then come up changed people, different people who make a difference? Can we venture out into the Jordan to cross over toward freedom and new beginnings?
This means, of course, once you leave the riverbank and enter the waters, once you cross over the Jordan, through the Jordan, there’s no turning back. You can’t go home again, back to where you started. You can’t go back to slavery. Once you hear the voice and know your identity in Christ, there’s no way to un-hear it or un-know it. Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down. For what we discover at and in and through the Jordan will change our lives. If it doesn’t, then we haven’t been to the Jordan, maybe we’ve only been to the riverbank.
In the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the great wise wizard Gandalf invites Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, to leave home for the adventure of a lifetime. Bilbo is not easily persuaded. He prefers the coziness of his underground home in the shire, reading his books by the warmth of his fire, enjoying tea and jam and a full larder. Gandalf encourages him to come along, but warns him that if he decides to go his life will never again be the same; he’ll never be able to return home the same person. In the end, Bilbo decides to go. It’s not long in the journey when Bilbo has second thoughts; he second-guesses himself, and talks about going back. But it’s too late. Gandalf says, in one of the many great lines in the movie, “Home is now behind you,” Bilbo. “The world is ahead…. It’s out there!”
That was Bilbo’s “Jordan” moment, without the water, but with the same result. It leads him off on an expected journey, the journey of a lifetime. Our Jordan moment, or moments, our baptism in Christ offers nothing less: it’s the unexpected journey of a lifetime, and then some.
 Raymond Dobbard, Ph.D., on the hidden meaning in spirituals.
 “Lord, When You Came to Jordan,” text by Brian Wren (b. 1936), to the tune: GENEVAN 130. The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: 1990).
 “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” (2012), based on the book The Hobbitt, or There and Back Again (1937) by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973).