Today we were back in the West Bank, to Jericho. This is the place Rahab the prostitute saved Joshua’s spies (remember that, The Story alumns?), the prophet Elijah was taken to heaven, and perhaps most famously for Christians, Jesus set the parable of the Good Samaritan. On the way we made a quick stop at the sycamore tree of the Zaccheus story. It is one of the few remaining sycamore figs in the country. I thought of my colleague in ministry Terry Doyle, as Zaccheus is among his favorite stories. The tree is huge with plenty of branches to climb on for one to get a better view. I also learned that Jericho is eight thousand years old. It has more rainfall than other parts of the country and a natural spring, so it is very green, especially compared with the desert area around it.
We also went to the Judean wilderness- the desert place where the gospels report Jesus spent forty days and was tempted by the adversary. After seeing it and spending time there, my hope is that the gospel writers meant ‘for some length of time’ and not a literal forty days. It is a vast and even desolate place. Beautiful in its way though. For some reason I picture desert as flat, and this is a series of significant hills as far as the eye can see.
Our class reflections this morning before the trip also spoke of the wilderness as a place of solitude and searching, prayer and preparation, a place of losing and of finding, and a place of formation. I imagine how all of these apply to Jesus and the time he spent there after his baptism before he started his public ministry, and that the wilderness was a place that contributed to the formation of Jesus’ identity.
Another thing I learned today, this from my Maori classmates, is that in their tradition, instead of a last name, one gives the river, mountain or sea closest to where you live.
Which brings me to the first place we went today: the Jordan River. The place Jesus was baptized. I knew that it is muddy and not very wide in its current incarnation, but the picture in my head was not like this. First of all, the other side of the river is the country of Jordan. Which is a weak-armed stone’s throw away, though no one would throw any. The armed Jordanian soldiers on the other side would discourage even the thought. This is because the Jordan River is a border between Israel and Jordan, which never clicked with me before.
So we stood at the river and renewed our baptismal vows. Others at the site wore white robes and dunked in the water. Many of us in our group waded in the higher-than-knee-level water just to be in the water Jesus stood in. It was pleasantly cold. And the whole experience was incredibly meaningful; I couldn’t stop smiling. It was easy to picture John the Baptist and Jesus there.
One discordant note was that the approach to this place is a demilitarized zone. So besides the armed soldiers, there are signs for land mines in either side of the (very safe) roadway. The mines are the product of the 1967 war. As they remind anyone who comes here, this country is a place of contradictions and paradox, all the time.