We left Masada after two or so hours of exploration and learning. It was now time to do something I'd been excitedly waiting on for months. We were going to the Jordan River.
But not just any location along the 156 mile ribbon of water known as one of the most sacred bodies of water in the world. No. We were heading toward the historical site where Joshua and the early Hebrews crossed the muddy and rising waters to the Promised Land ... the place where Elijah and Elisha crossed over ... but only Elisha returned ... the place where John the Baptist cried out, "Repent!" and the place where Jesus came to be baptized.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is in Jordan. And, it is the location of a lot of historical evidence, having been written about as far back as the 5th century. Churches have been erected here, crosses discovered, and -- in fact -- a church marking the spot where (it has been said) Jesus laid his clothes before being baptized.
Most modern-day pilgrims to Israel, when desiring to be baptized in the Jordan, do so at the mouth of the river where it spills out from the Sea of Galilee in the north. While it is no where near the Bethany beyond the Jordan mentioned in the Gospels as being where Jesus was baptized, it has been -- at least -- a place without conflict.
Until recently. Thanks to renewed relationships with Jordan, conflicts have lessened. Still, with the exception of special dates and occasions, one must obtain special permission to visit Kasr el Yehud (Possibly: The Castle of the Jews), which is on the Israeli side of the site.
We had special permission!
Our driver pulled the van just inside a narrow strip of road, which was blockaded. A call was made. We sat, waiting somewhat patiently for our military escort to arrive. Around us was nothing but land and sand, boundaried off by barbed wire and large yellow-gold signs reading "Danger! Mines!" in not one but three languages. Minutes passed. I don't think anyone said a word. Except maybe for Robi. By now Robi was talking 100 miles an hour. (Praise God!) The rest of us just watched and waited. Then, a humvee approached. Stopped. An Israeli soldier got out, came to the driver's side of the van, spoke Hebrew to Tzvika, and the returned to the military vehicle. Soon enough we were jostling along the road behind it, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts.
We were in an extremely militarized zone. We were in the West Bank. We were heading toward the Jordan escorted by a specially ordered team of soldiers with AK47s.
We came to a stop and climbed out of the white van. We said "Shalom" to our new friends (the guards) and then slowly made our way toward the newly constructed building and a platform with steps leading down into the water.
Across the way, Jordanian soldiers stood guard. We were so close, we could have whispered and they would have heard us. Instead, we waved. They waved back. I think I may have giggled, even.
A look at the river told us a few things. 1) it's just not that wide. If you tried to skip a pebble, it may only hit the water twice. 2) it's muddy as all get out. 3) no one was up for going any deeper than our ankles.
But the platform was covered in about two to four inches of creamy mud. Someone mentioned it might be too slippery to reach the water. But nothing was stopping me. I slipped out of my shoes, rolled up the legs of my jeans, and forward I went.
"Be careful ..." I heard.
I was. Trust me, I was.
And then my feet slipped into the cool water of the Jordan River. For a moment, my breath caught. How beautiful the feet of those who bring the good news, the Bible says in Isaiah 52:7.
I turned now to see each of my fellow journalists taking one easy step at a time. When Cheri reached the water, she choked and then cried openly. Larry was so moved, he could hardly say a word. Robi gathered water in a jar for the purpose of baptizing her new grandchild (who was born a month later...). Sharon and Ellie held back for a while, then Robi and I helped Sharon to the steps amid a lot of laughter. The next thing I knew, Ellie had joined us and Cheri was "sprinkling" everyone as a form of baptism ... including our IMOT rep.
I don't think a single one of us was ready to leave when it was time. But the soldiers grew weary and -- appreciative -- we knew our time had come to say goodbye. (It was about this time someone walked up who Sharon actually knew from the States! Only in Israel!)
We had washed our hearts by dipping our feet into the water ... now it was time to wash our feet of the mud.
On the way back to the gate, we were all talking, laughing, chirping away like caged birds set free. And in a funny and beautiful way ... I believe we now were.