The Old River

Friends and colleagues of mine who studied and worked in Jerusalem always came back with fascinating stories. They loved to talk about the history, the politics of Israel and Palestine, and about the deep spiritual impact of walking on the ancient roads and across the hills of Galilee. None of them, though, ever said much about the Jordan River. Apparently it is much more impressive in our imagination than in physical reality. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it in person, but mentally I’m prepared to lay eyes on something much closer in size to Richland Creek than to the Cumberland River. Folks who have stood on the banks of the Mississippi may look at the Jordan and ask themselves, “What’s all the fuzz about?” Of course that’s exactly what Naaman, the great commander of the army of the king of Aram said, when the prophet Elisha told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed.[1] “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” he declared angrily, and in those days the Jordan was still considerably larger than today. The people who measure this kind of thing tell us that the lower Jordan today only has about 5% of the flow it had in the 50’s. Irrigation and other water usage are taking a heavy toll. What Naaman couldn’t fully grasp was the particular role of that river in the life and faith of Israel. For one, the Jordan is one of very few rivers in that dry region that actually flow year-round, turning the river valley into a lush, fertile band in an otherwise rather dusty landscape. More importantly, the Jordan marked the border between Israel’s wilderness wanderings and the land of promise. It was in the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, where Moses expounded one more time the covenant commandments before the people crossed the river to live as God’s people, according to God’s will, on God’s land.[2]

The Jordan is a mighty river because crossing it means entering into freedom and fulfillment. The Jordan marks the border between exile and home. African slaves who fled the South didn’t have their geography mixed up when they lifted up their eyes upon the Ohio River and sang,

Deep river, my home is over Jordan;
deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” he called people to reaffirm their willingness to live as God’s people, according to God’s will and purpose, on God’s land. A lot of people from Jerusalem and the surrounding region were heading down to the river to listen to John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, confessing their sins. One by one they stepped into the water. They could see the fire in his eyes. One by one they said what needed to be said. Then they trusted themselves to his strong, sun-burned arms as he plunged them beneath the surface, into the silent depth of the old river. Their ancestors had crossed this river to enter the promised land and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people. Now they sought to be baptized in this very river because they wanted to be worthy of being counted among God’s people, worthy to live in the coming kingdom of God. They prayed that the river would wash away their sins, their shame, their fear, and that they would emerge from the chilly depth refreshed and renewed.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” the Baptist said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[3] A mightier one was already among them, and he would bring the fire of judgment.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized. He came like the rest of them had come, walking the same dusty roads and down the same rocky paths to the river’s edge, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water to be baptized. It is good for us to notice and remember that Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered; some full of fear of the coming judgment (just like some of us), others much too comfortable in their presumed righteousness (just like some of us).

John looked at Jesus, and he was convinced that the days of preparation and repentance were over, that the day of truth and fire had come. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he asked. It wouldn’t be the last surprise the Son of God brought with him. And so Jesus got in the water with all who had come to the river for a new beginning, who wanted to step out of the past and welcome God’s new day with freshly-washed lives.

We get into the river hoping that it will carry away all that weighs us down, our failures and our worries, our self-condemnation and our broken promises, all that gets in the way of our living a life that is faithful, real and whole. We get into the water, and Jesus gets in with us. He steps into the river and is baptized along with all who gather there, not because he needs to repent, but because he wants to be with us. This is what righteousness fulfilled looks like. Obedient to God’s will and purpose, Jesus is baptized in solidarity with us. He is Immanuel, God with us in our broken humanity. He gives himself to the murky water of our sinfulness, trusting that the river of God’s grace will carry not only him but all of us with him. He gives himself to the path of humble servanthood that is greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Stepping into the water with us, he gives himself to the path that leads to the cross where the muddy water of human sin washes over him and kills him, carrying away to the sea of oblivion his love and compassion, his mercy and wisdom – all for naught?

The little scene at the river is like a sketch of his entire life and ministry. When he came up from the water it was a glimpse of Easter, a first glance at the first day of a new creation; the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When Jesus got in the water with us, something wonderful and beautiful happened to that old river that marks the border between wilderness wandering and home, between life as a slave and life as a servant of God. In his baptism, Jesus made our lot his own, he let himself be immersed in our alienation from God, our sin, our lives far away from the kingdom; and in our baptism, his beautiful, faithful life becomes ours in the forgiveness of our sins, in our reconciliation with God and with each other, and in our call to participate in his mission.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God had said through the prophet Isaiah, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[4] The words the voice from heaven spoke were not a quote, but there’s enough of an echo for us to notice the deep connection between God’s delight in God’s servant people Israel and God’s delight in this servant. There’s enough of an echo for us to recognize in Jesus the kind of obedience that will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick, but establish justice in the earth. There’s enough of an echo for us to hear in just a few words the whole promise that the life of the obedient servant would be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, the liberation from prison for all who sit in darkness, a blessing for all the families of the earth.[5] Jesus entered the water in solidarity with us, making our lives his own and his life ours. The old river has been changed forever by his beautiful, faithful life.

Some of you probably remember the day of your baptism, how cold the water was, and how you didn’t feel any different at all and at the same time like a whole new person. Some of us, including myself, can’t recall that day or that moment because we were babies when we were baptized. Christians have fought long and hard over when and how to baptize people properly and it took us many years to realize that the church of God is big enough to accommodate a variety of traditions and practices. No matter what particular form of baptism we undergo, in it God claims us as beloved sons and daughters. Our lives are woven into the life of Jesus and we become members in the body of Christ. We no longer worry about whether or not we are worthy of life in the kingdom, because Christ has made us his own. In baptism as in all of life, what Christ has done for us far outweighs anything we do or fail to do. Whether we were immersed in a river or had a little water poured over our heads in a chapel, when we were baptized the life of Jesus became our life, the story of Jesus our story, and the mission of Jesus our mission.

We discovered last year that Vine Street’s role in that mission would include our commitment to help vulnerable communities gain access to safe, clean drinking water. Beginning today, you will be asked to volunteer to be trained for that work. Think about it, pray about it, and if necessary, be a little braver than you thought you could be.

The mightiest river in all the world is the river of God’s mercy and justice, and Jesus has called us to step in.


[1] 2 Kings 5

[2] Numbers  36:13; Deuteronomy 1:1-5; Joshua 3-4; see also 2 Kings 2:6-13

[3] Matthew 3:11

[4] Isaiah 42:1

[5] Isaiah 42:3-7; Genesis 12:3; Matthew 12:18-21