Jordan River: The Jordan river flows from the north down into the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee. From there it flows out of the Southwest corner of the Sea of Galilee and flows south to the Dead Sea, snaking its way in and out across the borders of the countries of Israel and Jordan. At the place where it flows out of the southwest part of the Sea of Galilee to go to the Dead Sea there is a traditional place (and highly commercialized) set aside for Christian pilgrims to be baptized. We had the opportunity to be dunked in the river here in a baptismal remembrance celebration.
This is most likely not the place where Jesus was baptized by John. It was most likely further south near Jericho as it says all Judea was coming out to hear John preach and be baptized by him (Matthew 3:5, Mark 1:5, Luke 3:3, and John 1:28, 10:40). In John 10:40 it refers to the place being across from Bethany (not Bethany by Jerusalem, but a town called Bethany of Perea across the Jordan (in today’s country of Jordan) near Jericho – see also John 3:23. Thus, the country of Jordan also has a traditional baptismal site for pilgrims, but we are not going there.
Sea of Galilee: The Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:18-22), is also known as the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1, 21:1); also known as Lake Gennesaret (Luke 5:1). While we think of “seas” as salt water, this is what we would call a lake for it is fresh water. It is the main source of irrigation for the surrounding lands’ farming. For many millennia wars have been fought over control of this valuable water source. This is where Jesus walked on water (Mark 6:45-52), where Peter tried to walk on water (Matthew 14:22-33), where Jesus calmed the storms (Mark 4:35-41), and where some of the disciples had made their living as fisherman (John 21). Across the sea, to the east, was gentile territory in Jesus’ day. Beyond those hills/mountains was the area of the Decapolis (“ten cities”) and the story of the Gerasene Demoniac(Mark 5:1-20) in today’s Jordan and Syria. It’s hard to imagine the herd of swine rushing down those “cliffs” to their death, even if the water levels were higher in Jesus’ day – it would take some effort and intentionality on the part of the pigs. The witness of the healed man from the legion of demons led to a Christian community that still exists today and boasts of one of the oldest Christian churches on earth.
Jericho: Touted as the oldest city on earth. Famous in the bible for the story of Rahab in Joshua 2, and the walls coming tumbling down in Joshua 6 (Hebrews 11:30). It was the last stop on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem and here Jesus met and stayed with Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 and healed the blind beggar in Luke 18:35-43. As you travel from Jericho up to Jerusalem you can imagine the setting for Jesus’s famous parable about the Good Samaritan who was beaten and left for dead by robbers in Luke 10:25-37. This was a notoriously dangerous trail/road in a desolate land where robbers hid behind rocks to attack pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem.
Dead Sea: the lowest place on earth – over 1400 feet below sea level. The site of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Qumran Caves (Dead Sea Scrolls) where the Essenes resided. Many wonder if John the Baptist wasn’t part of the Essene community. It is salt water, with a salinity of about 35%, 9.6 times saltier than the ocean. Because of its density and salinity, it is near impossible to sink – one floats.
Masada: Overlooking the Dead Sea, this was Herod the Great’s fortress project that became the last stand for the Jews against the Romans in 73AD. This was after the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70AD. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, reports that as the Romans built a ramp on the western side (remnants can still be seen today) and prepared to breach the fortress on top, 960 Jews committed suicide rather than being enslaved by the Romans.
It was hot today – especially down at the Dead Sea. Our day started at the Jordan with a commemoration of baptism ceremony where most of us put on our white robes, prayed together, then one by one were dunked in the Jordan reminded of the promise or covenant Christ made to us in our baptism. For me, this was an overwhelming and moving experience. I lost it emotionally when my oldest son, whom I baptized 24 years ago came to me to be dunked and hear that promise once again. It was equally powerful to do the same for my siblings whom my dad baptized, and for my wife, cousins, and congregational members. From there we went to Qumran and learned of the Dead Sea Scrolls and saw the caves, then onto Masada, which was a highlight for many. We ended the day at our hotel on the Dead Sea and many of us went “swimming” (one only floats) in the Dead Sea. This was a highlight for many as well. We have one night here and leave tomorrow for our final destination (for the Israel part of the trip). Spending time in fellowship over food, or drinks in the evening has also been such a joy.