ALONG THE JORDAN RIVER (AP) — The Bible says Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.
The river’s eastern bank, modern-day Jordan, and its western one both house baptismal sites, where rituals of faith unfold, a reflection of the river’s enduring religious, historical and cultural allure.
The river holds further significance as the scene of miracles in the Old Testament; after years of wandering the desert, the ancient Israelites are said to have crossed the Jordan on dry ground after the water was stopped for them to pass.
At the Jordanian baptismal site on the eastern bank recently, a woman dipped her feet in the waters and then cupped some with her hands, rubbing it on her face and over her head. Others touched the river and crossed themselves or bent over to fill empty bottles.
Kristen Burckhartt felt overwhelmed. She needed time to reflect, to let it sink in that she had just briefly soaked her feet in the water where Jesus is said to have been baptized, in the Jordan River.
“It’s very profound,” said the 53-year-old visitor from Indiana. “I have not ever walked where Jesus walked, for one thing.”
Tourists and pilgrims come to the site from near and far, many driven by faith, to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to touch the river’s water, to connect with biblical events.
Symbolically and spiritually, the river is of mighty significance to many. Physically, the Lower Jordan River of today is a lot more meager than mighty.
By the time it reaches the baptismal site, its dwindling water looks sluggish, a dull brownish green shade.
Its decline, due to a confluence of factors, is intertwined with the entanglements of the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict and rivalry over precious water in a valley where so much is contested. Championing the transboundary Jordan’s revival without wading into the thicket of the disputes that have fueled its deterioration can be a challenge.
A stretch of the river, for instance, was a hostile frontier between once-warring Israel and Jordan; river water also separates Jordan on its eastern bank from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, seized by Israel in a 1967 war and sought by the Palestinians for a state.
“It’s a victim of the conflict, definitely. It’s a victim of people because it’s what we did as people to the river, basically, and now adding to all this it’s a victim of climate change,” said Yana Abu Taleb, the Jordanian director of EcoPeace Middle East, which brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists and lobbies for regional collaboration on saving the river. “So it’s a victim in every way.”
EcoPeace has said for years that the Lower Jordan River, which runs south from the Sea of Galilee, is particularly threatened by decades of water diversions for agriculture and domestic use and by pollution. Only a tiny fraction of its historical water flow now reaches its terminus in the Dead Sea, not far south from the baptismal site that Burckhartt visited.
That’s one reason the Dead Sea has been shrinking.
Standing at the Jordanian baptismal site Bethany Beyond the Jordan, Burckhartt, a Presbyterian, said the river’s water felt cold on her skin, offering a respite from the sweltering heat around her. In the jumble of emotions, she grappled with, she could also feel sadness for the river’s dwindling.
“I am sure God above is also sad.”