Four times in the Bible, we read of a “parting of the waters” and a “crossing on dry land.” The most heralded example is the crossing of the Red Sea. But it is at a non-descript spot on the Jordan River, a few miles north of the Dead Sea, just east of Jericho where the other three happen. Here, at Qasr el Yahud (“the castle of the Jews”), the children of Israel crossed into the Promised Land with Joshua, following the Ark of the Covenant over the dry riverbed as the waters ceased to flow. Here also, according to tradition, Elijah came to the Jordan, accompanied by his loyal successor Elisha, crossed over on dry land to the eastern shore and ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire. And after watching his master disappear into the heavens, Elisha turned back again, touched the river with Elijah’s mantle, and once again the waters parted as he returned to the western shore of the river to begin his work as a prophet. All of these moments are turning points of a kind, great milestones in the life of a people or an individual.
But the lion’s share of pilgrims come to Qasr el Yahud because, according to tradition, this is where Jesus was baptized by John: another transition in the life of a single person, or to a believing Christian, in the history of the world.
Qasr el Yahud was inaccessible for decades after the Six Day War, surrounded by landmines, but in a rare moment of cooperation on all sides, in 2011 the arduous and dangerous work of clearing the area of mines was begun by the HALO trust, an international demining initiative. Today, Qasr el Yahud is a national park, visited by thousands of pilgrims from every country in the world. Entrance is free to all, and after driving through the main gate, there is a long access road through the desolate desert in an area called “The Land of Monasteries.”
Surrounding the approach to the site are seven different churches (Syrian, Ethiopian, Russian, Greek, Catholic, Coptic and Romanian) and many other smaller chapels from as far back as the Byzantine period, all testifying to the centrality of this moment in Christianity. Beyond the parking lot is a tiny gift-shop whose major business is to sell baptismal robes. A lovely broad porch above the river offers a view and leads to the steps down to the water.
There isn’t much water. It’s gray, muddy and there’s hardly a current to speak of, but for the faithful, this is the moment, and this is the drama that defines their faith. Only a few feet across the river is the Jordanian site of baptism, Al Maghtas, and one can talk to the visitors being baptized a short distance away on the Eastern bank as though chatting with a next door neighbor across a picket fence. The only thing that separates Israel from Jordan at Qasr el Yahud is a little string with floats on it, like those that mark the lanes in a public swimming pool, but the Jordan isn’t even as wide as most public pools. On the Israeli side, a couple of soldiers stand around mostly for appearance sake, and often agree to be photographed with tourists. On the Jordanian side, occasionally one can glimpse an equally bored jeep patrol having a cigarette break.
It is perhaps this calm, this quiet, and even the very paucity of water in the little stream in this ancient wilderness that makes the place so spiritually rewarding. Here, thoughts are inward. Here, the pilgrim can visualize the baptism of Jesus not as a cinematic moment amidst a thunderous torrent, but as two men alone in a desert brook charting a new path. Here Elijah and Elisha came to their tragic yet magical parting of the ways as two lonely prophets facing a world of sin. And even the Children of Israel led by Joshua were trudging across a wadi with Jericho in front of them not knowing if they would live or die tomorrow. All had profound faith, something that comes from within, not from the pyrotechnics of a roaring storm of water, but from a slender trickle in the desert, or as Elijah had experienced it a short time earlier, “a still small voice.”
The wandering of the Children of Israel begins and ends with a body of water. We became a people when we crossed the Red Sea and began to take responsibility for ourselves when we crossed the Jordan. It is a uniquely Jewish story, but it is also the story of all humankind, always seeking rebirth, seeking redemption, seeking purification, and seeking meaning. May this Passover be a time a renewal for all of us.