And this is the place where we believe Jesus was baptized,” our Jordanian tour guide declared in accented English. “Right here at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.”
I looked down at the dry, sandy riverbed. Ancient tiled steps descended into the lowest part.
The tour guide continued “Constantine had this small chapel and these steps built here after collecting numerous stories that had been passed down by the locals who claimed that this was John the Baptist’s baptismal site. Constantine wanted Christians to be baptized in this exact same location, so he paved the way for them.”
The brown, muddy waters of the Jordan River bubbled softly a dozen yards away from the foot of the steps. “The river has long since changed its course,” the guide explained, “as all rivers do over time. But the steps remain to bear witness to the holy event that happened right here.”
All around me, tourists in tennis shoes and sunglasses begin raising their cameras and iPhones to snap a memory of this supposedly sacred site. And I couldn’t help but wonder, How many scores of people were baptized in these waters in Jesus’ day? How many hundreds, or even thousands more, in Constantine’s time?
The desire to be baptized in the same spot as Jesus was is powerful and timeless. Around me, people began taking off their shoes and stripping away socks to step into the “same” river He entered some 2,000 years ago. I squinted against the blazing desert sun, trying to picture John the Baptist somewhere nearby in his rough camel-hair cloak, looking more like an impoverished peasant than a holy prophet, here at the deepest and widest part of the old river’s ancient course.
I imagined the crowds along the banks exactly where I stood, listening as John implored, “You must repent! You must be baptized for your sins.” In my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw the crowds part and the figure of Jesus emerge as He headed toward the water’s edge. And looking up, John says, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” ( John 1:29), clearly identifying Jesus.
John was astonished when Jesus first came to him and requested baptism. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14; emphasis added). He realized instantly that he was in the presence of holiness. “Let it be so now,” Jesus reassured him. “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (verse 15).
In my mind’s eye, I pictured John lowering his Cousin into the brown water, completely immersing Him, and then raising Him up. And when Jesus emerged from the water, His Father’s heart was so happy that He spoke words that rolled throughout the valley: “This is my Son, whom I love: with him I am well pleased” (verse 17).
The tourist group snaps final photos and moves on uphill toward Elijah’s Chapel, but loath to leave the spot, I lag behind. I didn’t want to just snap a photo and walk away. I wanted to stand longer in this place where Jesus likely walked—this desolate plot of desert where something extraordinary happened.
And I felt compelled to consider this idea of baptism—of dedicating one’s life completely to God. How many of us who were baptized as mere children or teenagers, or even babies, can now, in adulthood, say that our hectic everyday lives still belong totally to God? What did we mean in those church baptistries all those years ago? And what did Jesus mean at the Jordan River far longer ago?
I believe that, in consistency with the rest of Jesus’ life while He walked the earth, His baptism was yet another visible act of submitting His will to His Father’s: Yes, I will follow Your leading. Yes, I will hang out with fishermen and sinners. And yes, I will preach from smelly fishing boats. Yes, OK, I’ll walk hundreds of miles, become homeless, endure ridicule and shame, and eventually, I’ll give My very life. Yes, You can have My whole life.
Following His example
Fast-forward three weeks. I’m no longer standing at the edge of the Jordan River. I’m back in California, and it’s a sunny but brisk January day. The Jordan River is still fresh in my memory, and my son Caleb’s blond head bounces eagerly beside me. We’re standing waist-deep in a small heated pool outside my home church.
I’ve rehearsed this moment in my mind a dozen times, crafted my comments, and even written out my lines. I’m a qualified pastor; I’ve done this numerous times before. But no amount of planning can prepare a Mommy to stand beside her own son at his baptism.
My mind goes back to the day he was born—a round little head bundled in a blanket. I remember touching my finger to his button nose, kissing the top of his sweet-smelling baby head, and wondering what he’ll do with his one beautiful life. I plan to speak his baptismal words in a few minutes, but right now I’m not sure I can. I’m fighting back the tears, and I haven’t even begun!
The sun is blazing bright, and the church’s rose garden fills with friends and relatives, all gathering tightly around the baptistry. My three other children push their way to the very front of the witnesses, eager to see their big brother baptized. They smile and wave and whisper, “Caleb! Hi, Caleb! Is it warm? Are you excited?”
Grandparents take their places next in line, and my husband stands closest with the camera to record the rite. A few of the mothers in the crowd catch my eye and smile; they’re wiping their eyes and biting down on their lips. I’d better start before I can’t and lose it totally.
“My boy,” I begin, bursting with pride and joy as I begin to deliver my rehearsed lines. “On the night you were born, I remember holding the little bundle of you, looking down at your tiny face, and wondering where you would go, what you would do, and who you would become. Would you be a doctor or a teacher or an inventor? Would you be athletic or artistic, funny or quiet, smart or famous? Would you travel, write, sing, snowboard, or play an instrument? Sweetie, I didn’t know, and I couldn’t guess.” I smile. “But I did know one thing—that my greatest dream was that you would grow up to love Jesus. And today, you’re making that dream a reality.”
I pause, looking down at this boy of mine—this little human I grew and birthed and raised and fed and tickled and whom I still tuck into bed each night. How many other people get to experience a moment like this? My heart’s so full that it’s about to explode.
I continue speaking, telling the onlookers about Caleb’s hunger to know Jesus, to learn everything he can about Him—the way he pestered me to let him be baptized even though I questioned whether he was old enough. I share how we named him after the biblical Caleb, because I wanted my son to also serve the Lord wholeheartedly, as Caleb did (Numbers 14:24). I read aloud the words my Caleb wrote about Jesus being his “forever Friend” and his desire to serve Him with his whole life and being.
And then comes the moment: he clutches my arm while I raise the other one in blessing, smiles bursting from both our faces. I lower my son into the waters of baptism. It happens so fast! He comes up grinning and wraps his arms around me in a giant, wet bear hug, and of course, I’m crying. My earlier doubts about his readiness suddenly seem so silly. How old we are, how much we know, and whatever trials the future holds for each of us—these things really don’t matter when it’s time to say yes to Jesus.
I kiss the top of his sweet-smelling big-boy head and praise God above for this unspeakable gift He has given my husband and me.
Melissa Howell is a family life pastor in Sacramento, California, an author, and a proud mother of three.