Water is a luxury in the Middle East. So precious is this essential commodity that experts here say that the next wars will be fought over water, not oil. Today in our journey through Jordan we have visited two places that have water in common, though the quality of the two sources are light years apart.
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Planet Earth, some 420 meters (almost 1400 feet) below sea level. Though 233 square miles in terms of its surface area, this massive body of water contains no living thing. The high salinity of the water, almost twice as much as our Great Salt Lake in Utah, prevents aquatic animals and plants from living in it. However, its high concentration of salt allows people to float in its waters naturally. In other words, you couldn’t sink below the surface if you tried. Consequently, both tourists and locals flock to its waters, making it one of the top vacation destinations in Jordan.
Quite frankly, I don’t share the enthusiasm over swimming in the waters. I’ve done it before and found it to be an odd sensation. To me it’s one of those things a person needs to do at least once, and I’ve had my floating experience. But I do enjoy going down to the water to admire this natural wonder and to ponder the many Bible stories that occurred around its shores, from Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-30), to David’s hideaway place from King Saul (1 Samuel 23:29), to the gathering of the four kings against five others (Gen. 14:3), and many others. Clearly, this low place and its nearby caves and valleys made this area a special site, in spite of the fact that it never has been capable of sustaining anything.
In a delicious twist of irony, we left our hotel on the Dead Sea to go up twenty-two miles to Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Bethabara) mentioned in John 1:28, where John the Baptist most likely baptized Jesus. Archeological evidence has confirmed that churches have been built dating back to the 6th century AD to mark the spot where John the Baptist ministered and where Jesus came to be baptized (John 3:22-23). The traditional site adjacent to the Sea of Galilee fails to fit the Bible evidence linking John the Baptist with Elijah, who was taken up into heaven just across the Jordan, not far from Jericho (2 Kings 2:1-18), and most likely reflects the desire of Christians to see such the place of Jesus’ baptism, which until the passage of the 1994 Treaty of Peace between Israel and Jordan was marked by land mines on both sides of the river. After the treaty, Jordan removed its land mines, allowing for the construction of the more likely baptismal site, while Israel still has much of the area on its side of the Jordan River mined for intruders.
Much work has been done since my last visit to Bethabara six years ago. Several churches have been constructed, new baptismal areas have been completed, and much better signage has been erected in order for pilgrims to connect all the remarkable Bible events located in this area. Our group was most fortunate, thanks to our Jordan missions partner, Nabeeh Abassi, to receive a VIP tour of the site from its general manager, who has given such tours for presidents and popes. His passionate and exuberant explanation radiated the life that comes from this place for him. Our group couldn’t help but leave feeling lifted for how he made the site come alive as well.
As we were driving from that place for the other ones we were to visit, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the difference between the Dead Sea and Bethany Beyond the Jordan. One rejects life; the other invites it. One represents conflict; the other reconciliation. One sustains nothing; the other sustains everything.
My mind also wondered to a completely separate episode in the Bible, though it does have some connection with Bethabara because of how it involves baptism. It’s the story in Acts 8, where Philip has been in Samaria proclaiming the gospel and baptizing new converts. An angel appears to Philip, directing him to take the road south down to Gaza. On the way Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading the book of Isaiah, but without understanding. When Philip explains how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and tells him the good news of Jesus, at a point along the way, the eunuch exclaims, “Look, here is water; what can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) The eunuch is inspired to follow Jesus in publicly proclaiming his faith and Philip is given a new revelation as to how the good news of Jesus defies all borders and boundaries.
As a people called Baptist, I trust we understand that signal truth. God sent Jesus to be the agent of salvation (John 3:16). Jesus submitted to baptism “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-15). Baptism symbolizes the new life the Holy Spirit has awakened in us (Romans 6:4). The “living water” Jesus came to bring quenches every thirst and wells up to eternal life (John 4:14).
In a world spiraling toward death because of its inability to sustain itself, we would do well to look for opportunities to point people to the water that gives life. Then we would be faithful to our own baptism and in a position to be used of God to call others to new life and to be in relationship with Jesus, whose mercy and grace never run dry and are more necessity than luxury.