We are going under the water today in Israel, and in Alaska. Have you been underwater? Here’s what I saw.
I watch, fascinated, as the white-robed pilgrims inch into the water. After they are dunked, they rise, step out of the Jordan river, and one by one, they swoon and are caught by two men ready for the fall. Each one is swept up, carried and laid out on the ground in a neat row. What are they seeing and feeling?
Before I left for Israel, Duncan asked me, “Are you going to get re-baptized?" “Of course not!’ I retorted. I was baptized at seventeen in the Suncook River, a slow, silty river that curved through the mill town where I went to high school. My pastor was there, and others from my youth group. I was wearing a white robe, and I walked out into the water and sunk under the river, and it was done. I did not faint or swoon or see heaven open, but I was asking for just as much. I wanted my old life and my old heart washed away. I lived in a house without heat, without a future, without hope. I died in that house a long time ago, until I heard of this man Jesus. He saved my life. I would follow him, I decided, even into the river. Dripping with brown river water, I was starting life again—with him. I was no longer alone.
But that was forty years ago. Maybe I needed to do it again. Maybe I would see heaven open, or feel God’s Spirit overtake me. Maybe I could get it here—more of God, like these pilgrims. Maybe this is my chance!
I stand by the river’s edge, paralyzed with indecision. I don’t even see the two women beside me until they speak.
“Would you take our photo standing in the river?” The women, in red, look hopeful.
“Sure!” I smile, glad for the interruption. “Where are you from?”
“Wow, that’s wonderful!”
They hand me their camera, a pocket-sized digital. We find an empty piece of river beach.
“How about there?”
The women, middle-aged and maybe sisters, step into the brackish water. “Oeeeuuww, that’s cold!” they squeal, rolling up their jeans further.”
I’m angling with the camera, but can’t get the composition just right. “Can you take one more step out so I can get more of the river?”
“Ohhh no, it’s too cold!”
We all laugh, and I snap a few of them beaming, heads together, feet in the water.
“Where do you fellowship?” they ask me when I am done.
“In Kodiak, Alaska.”
“No, what kind of church?”
I think a minute, then decide to keep it simple. “I go to a Baptist church.”
“Oh, I am Methodist!” says one of the women.
“I am Presbyterian!”
“All part of the body of Christ!” I say, giving the first my arm as she steps out of the river.
“Oh yes indeed!” she answers back, the other adding, “Amen, sister!” behind her.
We grin at each other like conspirators before we turn away.
I walk through a group of Koreans, while a busload of Africans wearing batik collect at the river. Every tongue and tribe is here today it seems. I cannot stop trembling.
I see one spot open on a bench near the railings. I sit down next to a seventy-ish man dressed all in white. We begin to talk. He is off a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, he tells me. He is German. In just seconds, he confesses to me, “I don’t beleef in any of this hocus-pocus.” He waves his hand as the praise music fills our ears. “It’s ridiculous. How can there be a god? What are you going to tell me about Hitler, eh? And the tsunami that killed all those people. No, with that kind of evil, there’s no god. I beleef in the stars.”
I listen, mildly surprised at first, but I remember, too, what happened those many years ago, that even then in the midst of all the waterworks of new birth, the Sadducees and Pharisees were there, glowering, doubting, suspicious. Who was this man daring to act like some kind of prophet? What kind of audacity was this, to dress like a madman and announce the arrival of “the kingdom of heaven”?
And I remember this: Not all who follow, not all who gather at the river go under the water. Some only stand on the edges to watch. Some follow to gape and carp. Some follow to destroy. It is not so different now.
But what a world this river has made! An obscure man whom people knew only as a carpenter from a nearby village, itself known for nothing, walked the shores of this unremarkable river and submitted himself to a loony man in animal skin to be shoved under water—and two thousand years later, churches, families, tribes from all nations still come across continents to fall into these waters. They come to confess, to sink, to rise, to swoon, to watch, believing that all can be cleansed under this water, that reconciliation between enemies is possible, that foreigners can be made a family, that no matter what they’ve done, God will forgive them. There are even benches here for unbelief.
What is the power of this water and this place? And is it only present in this river and the Sea that feeds it? No. The Jewish people consider the ocean also as a mikveh, the very first gathering of the waters, and so, too, holy in some way.
Half the world away, we stumble in from our saltwater, drenched, fatigued, but we keep going back, we keep launching our boats onto and under the waters.
And I will come back to this river, I decide, when the hike is over. I must come back. Maybe after hiking all the way around the lake I will want to be baptized again?
What do I know as I leave this place?
Wherever there is water, the thirsty and the dirty are there.
Once you go under the water, you’re never the same.
Have you been under the water too?
What would you say to those here who have not yet been?
(Adapted from Crossing the Waters)