Something in the Water

In the Jordan River, an ecumenical moment at a political crossroads

By / February 2015

The cry is loud enough to startle everybody on the dock. Over the drone of laughter, we hear a young boy shout, “Mama, nyet!” And we turn and look, just as his head plunges under water. A half-a-moment later he explodes from the river, flailing, gasping for air. Before he can bawl another protest, the thick arms of his Russian Orthodox mother push him back under.

Three times down. Three times up. With each resurface he screams louder. Later on he might very well but right now he can’t much appreciate being immersed in the Jordan River, despite the fact that his baptism is taking place at the very location where, according to Christian tradition, John baptized Jesus himself.

Earlier, walking down the tree-lined dirt trail leading to the river, I noticed people from Russia, Korea, France, and Spain. The path grazed a cross-shaped pool built by sixth century pilgrims. It’s dry now. The course of the river has changed over the past 1000 years. But they still fill it on special occasions, such as a recent visit from Pope Francis.

Now I stand on a wooden dock under a thatched roof and watch twenty Russians clothed in white robes wade into the waist-deep Jordan. They immediately begin dunking themselves. Some swallow large gulps of the brown, muddy water. Others fill plastic bottles of the sacred swill.

Near the shore, a phalanx of green, leafy reeds slows the current. A mesh fence extends from the dock to poles sunk vertically into the river bed, forming an underwater pen to keep visitors from swimming across or floating downstream.

When the ritual is over, the Russian mother comforts her sniffling son. They climb the stair out of the pool. As they head for the changing room, they pass two khaki-clad Jordanian soldiers nonchalantly smoking cigarettes and sipping Turkish coffee. As if blinded by nearness, the officers are bored silly. What is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these pilgrims is a daily spectacle for them.

I look across the narrow river. The Israeli side is only about 20 yards away. I spy more pilgrims descending concrete steps leading from an information center down to a wooden boardwalk lined with palm trees. A group of Koreans sing hymns as they enter one by one.

It’s an ecumenical moment. A Christian holy site being guarded by an Islamic monarchy on one side and the Jewish state on the other. On this fertile sliver of the dry Middle East, there is a penumbra of peace, unless, of course, you happen to be a young boy from Russia.


Danny Wright is a contributing writer for EthnoTraveler.