“And this is the place where we believe Jesus was baptised,” our Jordanian tour guide declares in accented English. “Right here, at Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.” I look down at a sandy, dry riverbed. Ancient, tiled steps descend into the lowest part.
“Constantine had this small chapel and these steps built here after collecting numerous stories, passed down by the locals, which claimed that this was the baptismal site of John the Baptist. He wanted Christians to come and be baptised in this exact same location, so he paved the way for them.”
The brown, muddy waters of the Jordan River bubble softly a dozen yards away from the foot of the steps. “The river has long since changed its course,” the guide explains, “as rivers do over time. But the steps remain to bear witness to the holy event that happened here.”
Tourists in expensive sneakers and designer sunglasses all around me begin raising their cameras and iPhones to snap a memory of the supposedly sacred site.
How many scores of people were baptised here in these waters in Jesus’ day? How many hundreds, or even thousands, in Constantine’s time? The desire to be baptised in the same spot as Jesus Himself is powerful and timeless—around me people are taking off shoes and stripping away socks to step into the “same” river He entered some 2000 years ago.
I squint against the blazing desert sun, trying to picture John the Baptist somewhere nearby in his rough camel hair cloak, looking more impoverished peasant than holy prophet, here at the deepest and widest part of the old river’s ancient course.
I imagine the crowds along the banks exactly where I stand, listening as John implores, “You must repent! You must be baptised for your sins.” Suddenly, in my mind’s eye, I see the crowds part, and the figure of Jesus emerging, heading towards the water’s edge. And looking up, John speaks: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” clearly identifying Jesus and resisting His request to be baptised. “It is you who should baptise me!”
John realises instantly that he’s in the presence of holiness. “No,” Jesus reassures him, “it is right for us to do these things.”
John lowers his Cousin into the brown water, completely immersing Him and, when Jesus emerges, His Father’s heart is so happy He has to say so. Words of thunder roll across the valley: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
The tourist group snaps final photos and moves on toward “Elijah’s Chapel”. But, loath to leave the spot, I lag behind. I don’t want to just snap a photo and leave; I want to stand longer in this place where Jesus likely walked, this desolate plot of desert where something extraordinary happened. I’m compelled to consider this idea of baptism—of dedicating one’s life completely to God.
How many of us, baptised as mere children or teenagers—or even babies—might now in adulthood be able to say that our hectic workaday lives still belong totally to God? What did we mean in those church fonts, all those years ago? And what did Jesus mean, here, even longer ago?
I believe that, consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life while He walked the earth, His baptism was yet another visible act of laying down His will to His Father’s: Yes, I will follow Your leading. Yes, I’ll hang out with fishermen and sinners, and, yes, I’ll preach from smelly fishing boats. Yes, okay, I’ll walk hundreds of miles, become homeless, endure ridicule and shame, and eventually, I’ll give My very life. Yes, You can have My whole life.
Following His example
I’m not in Jordan now. Rather, I’m at home in California with a sunny but brisk January day outside. My son Caleb’s blond head bounces eagerly beside me. It’s only three weeks since I stood at Bethany beyond the Jordan, and the memory is still fresh, but now I stand waist-deep in a small heated pool outside my home church with my own son. I’ve rehearsed this moment in my mind a dozen times, crafted comments and even written my lines. I’m a qualified pastor; I’ve done this before, but no amount of planning can prepare a mummy to stand with her own son at his baptism. I can’t help it—I picture him on the day he was born—a round little head bundled in a blanket. I remember touching my finger to his button nose, kissing the top of his sweet-smelling baby head, and wondering what on earth he might do with his one beautiful life. I plan to speak these words in a few minutes, but right now I’m not sure that I can. I’m fighting back the tears and I haven’t even begun.
The sun is blazing bright as the church’s rose garden fills with friends and relatives, all gathering tightly around the garden font. My three other children push their way to the very front of the witnesses, eager to see their big brother baptised. They smile and wave, and stage-whisper, “Caleb! Hi, Caleb! Is it warm? Are you excited?”
Grandparents take their places next in line, and my husband stands closest with the camera to record the rite. A few of the mothers in the crowd catch my eye and smile; they’re wiping their eyes and biting down on their lips already. I’d better start before I can’t, and lose it totally.
“My boy,” I begin, bursting with pride and joy, as I begin to deliver my rehearsed lines. “On the night you were born, I remember holding the little bundle of you, looking down at your tiny face, and wondering where would you go, what would you do, who would you become? Would you be a doctor or a teacher or an inventor? Would you be athletic or artistic, funny or quiet, smart or famous? Would you travel, write, sing, snowboard or play an instrument? Sweetie, I didn’t know, and I couldn’t guess,” I smile. “But I did know one thing, and that was my greatest dream for you. My greatest dream was that you would grow up to love Jesus. And today, you are making that dream a reality.”
I pause, looking down at this boy of mine, this little human I grew and raised and fed and tickled—and whom I still tuck into bed each night. Who gets to have a moment like this? My heart’s so full, it’s about to explode. I continue speaking, telling the onlookers about his hunger to know Jesus, to learn everything he could about Him—the way he pestered me to let him be baptised even though I questioned if he was old enough. I share how we named him after the biblical Caleb, “because I wanted my son to also ‘serve the Lord wholeheartedly,’” as Caleb did.
I read aloud the words he wrote himself, about Jesus being his “Forever Friend”, and his desire to serve Him with his whole life and being.
And then the moment: he clutches my arm while I raise the other one in blessing, smiles jumping from both our faces, and I lower my son into the waters of baptism.
It happens so fast. He comes up grinning and wraps his arms around me in a giant wet bear hug, and of course I am crying.
My earlier doubts about his readiness suddenly seem so silly. How old we are, how much we know, and whatever trials the future holds for each of us—these things really don’t matter when it’s time to say Yes.
I kiss the top of his sweet-smelling big-boy head, and praise God above for the unspeakable gifts He has given.