I finally got to check a big one off my bucket list! As we made the last winding turn from Jericho, the breathtaking panorama of the Dead Sea came into full view. At long last the dream of a “swim” in the waters that had journeyed from the slopes of Mount Hermon through the Sea of Galilee and Jordan to this unique place, the lowest land spot on Earth, was about to become reality.
There are actually two parts to swimming in the Dead Sea.
First, because of the extremely high salt content, I actually floated on the surface of the water. That was as close to swimming as I would get.
Second, the shore of the Dead Sea is a strange kind of legendary mud that is supposed to have healing powers. So, I slathered myself with that gooey sticky mud, and sure enough experienced a pleasant tingling sensation. Washing the mud off turned out to be somewhat difficult. It would actually be several days before I could declare myself clean!
Our pilgrimage had begun at Bethany by the Jordan at the site where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. As pilgrims, we reprised our own baptisms with the muddy Jordan water, so it seemed fitting that we concluded our Holy Land time in the waters and mud of the Dead Sea. In a way, I suppose, we had two baptisms.
The experience has turned out to be a lasting reminder of the gift of baptism by our Lord, who had no need of baptism but insisted on it to show us a truth. We just experienced that truth again in Christmas as God became incarnate, in the flesh, so that we might see Him through Jesus. As we in Adam are created out of the dirt (mud), so too was Jesus. Into Adam’s nostrils God breathed his Spirit and gave him life, so too God in the Immaculate Conception joined spiritual and biological DNA to form the holiest persona the world has ever known – Jesus Christ.
Tomorrow, the first Sunday after Epiphany, is the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus. It will be a day in many churches for baptisms. Even if there are no baptisms, we will repeat our Baptismal Covenant renewing our commitment to Christ and one another. In those vows we will promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves, respecting the dignity of every human being.” God became our flesh in Jesus and walked into the muddy Jordan with everyone else that day, showing us that God respects the dignity of every human being, and God in Christ came into the world to save all of us – everyone – no exceptions.
Yes, baptism is about being washed clean of sin and the promise of a changed life in a new direction. The baptismal ceremony is easy, the rest is hard to do; and the absolute truth is that we cannot do it alone. The good news is that once Jesus walked into the Jordan River, we would never be alone – ever. We are born and we all will “kick the bucket.” In between those two events is life. Jesus joins us in that life – mud and all.
The Rev. Joe Bowden is the priest in charge at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Augusta.