January 13, 2013

Rev. David Boyd


The River Jordan is not what it once was, the place where Jesus was baptized by John... the ancient sacred river. In days gone by, it was proclaimed as a mighty river that the Israelites needed to ford in order to enter the Promised Land. John baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus taught around the Jordan River. The "River Jordan is chilly and wide." How many hymns and spirituals have been written about the River Jordan?

Today, when I meet with people who have returned from the Holy Land, many express their disappointment of the River Jordan. Two kilometers south of the Sea of Galilee, the source of the River Jordan, the world's lowest river in elevation, there is a dam, the Alumot Dam. From that point on, the flow of the Jordan River is not natural. Often when pilgrims immerse themselves in the Jordan, they do this between the dam and the Sea of Gaililee. The views are there, too. But a few hundred metres downstream, the story is different.

Beyond the dam, on the downstream side of the river, there is little water. And unfortunately, much of what little water there is comes from a pipe that pumps raw and partially treated sewage into the riverbed. Further downstream, agricultural wastewater and more sewage flows into the Jordan. The countries Jordan, Syria and Israel have removed nearly all of the fresh water from the river and its sources so that all that remains is a mere 2% of the natural flow. Already 50% of the biodiversity of the river valley has been lost. And apparently, you can't cross the river because stray land mines have been swept into the river from old minefields and army patrols are usually waiting for you if you do get across. Not a pretty picture! Michael Schwartz, in an article about the River Jordan earlier this year said, "when you look at today's Jordan River, you mainly see a reflection of human greed and shortsightedness." That is a sad commentary, indeed!

But all is not lost. The good news is that the Friends of the Earth Middle East are working to clean up the River Jordan. They are working with local and national governments because the work is hard and cooperation is vital. One person's pollution is everyone's pollution. And what the Friends of the Earth Middle East is showing is that environmental clean-up can be a means to achieving peace, mutual respect and learning and developing a new cooperative relationship.

Things are beginning to happen. Sewage treatment plants are starting to be built. Communities along the river are starting to take notice about what they can do about the river. The Israeli environment minister has pledged to return fresh, untainted water to the River Jordan. The Friends of the Earth Middle East has successfully applied the principle of collective self-interest. Water is for everyone to live and the problems and challenges can be approached collectively.

And people are working from both ends. The Dead Sea is shrinking because no water gets in from the River Jordan and community groups are working to preserve the Dead Sea. There are tourist facilities in Jordan and in Palestine to help promote an alternative to water-intensive agriculture. So, while the Jordan River is still not what it once was, there are many fronts working to restore the river to its former glory and to share the water rights and benefits. It has become a means for building community and creating peace, perhaps harkening back to what it symbolically represents for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, namely a symbol of new life.

Maybe this is still where John the Baptist would be today, calling people to repent of their abuses of the River Jordan, which are symptomatic of the many abuses in the world today. John would be at the forefront of this movement to green the River Jordan and share the water rights and benefits. And Jesus? Maybe Jesus today would climb down into the River Jordan and stand in the sludge as an active symbol that nothing is beyond redemption. Isn't that what his baptism was about, a means of beginning a new ministry of reconciliation and peace, a means of pointing to the fact that God has not abandoned us and the earth?

I think this modern story of the Jordan is a perfect parable for the manner in which God works in John, in Jesus and in us. It is a retelling of the story of the Israelites enslaved in Babylon who were released by the Persians to return home. To what? To a broken-down country and a destroyed Temple?

Well, yes! "Yes," says God. And besides, "O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." God speaks a resounding yes into the misery the people experienced. The prophet says that God will be with them... with us through trials and tribulations.

And more than that, in whatever we might think is unredeemable, God does not give up. There is an old Jewish story about Abraham offering hospitality to a stranger passing through, a vital cultural norm. This stranger is obnoxious, opinionated, rude, puts down Abraham's beliefs in God and almost everything Abraham believes in. Finally Abraham has had enough and orders the man to leave his table, his tent and his camp. As Abraham watches the man leaving, a thing that is anathema in this hospitality-oriented culture, God whispers in his ear, "What?! You could't stand one night with this man? I've been working with him all his life. I won't give up on him."

John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community, in writing the hymn that I love, "The Touching Place," point to the fact that Christ enters into those places of our world, and situations, where there isn't much hope, where there's war or despair or unemployment or grief. "Feel for the people we most avoid--/strange or bereaved or never employed./Feel for women and feel for men/who fear that their living is all in vain." (Verse 2)

This is the God and the Christ that I choose to place my faith in: the love that says that nothing is beyond redemption, the compassion that reaches out in spite of disease and horror, the grace that speaks a word of comfort, the prophecy that challenges unjust structures and policies. God creates, in Jesus, a touching place... where no one is untouchable, where all are held and loved and called beloved.

The River Jordan CAN be redeemed; this is its teaching today, a teaching that nothing is beyond redemption and that new life CAN prosper and flourish. The River Jordan WILL roll again! Amen.