Baptists now have a special site to seek baptism in the Jordan, and at a special place — very near the traditional site at “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” where Jesus was baptized by John. Being “Beyond the Jordan” means it’s on the Jordanian side of the river, and the Jordanians have been kind enough to donate a plot of land and to construct a baptism center there.
The site was dedicated March 20 with about 1,700 people attending — and more than 120 local persons being baptized by five Jordanian pastors. That in itself is an amazing thing: baptists aren’t fully recognized in Jordan, which is a Muslim state — but King Abdullah II himself agreed to the donation of the land and financing of the baptismal center. The official offer was made in a meeting with Baptist World Alliance president David Coffey in 2007. Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammed has been the primary advocate for the project, where a large plaque “welcomes visiting pilgrims from the member churches of the Baptist World Alliance.”
The site contains a building where worship may be held, and a rustic outdoor shelter near the river where candidates can wait in preparation for baptism in a fenced-in area of the Jordan. A popular baptism site on the Israeli side is located farther to the north, closer to the Sea of Galilee.
Many people find baptism in the Jordan to be particularly meaningful. Among the Eastern Orthodox, for example, it’s customary to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in old age, purchase a burial shroud in Jerusalem, and wear it while being baptized in the Jordan. The shroud is then put away until needed at the funeral.
Many Protestant pilgrims also seek baptism in the Jordan, and some find it intensely meaningful. Personally, my understanding of the theology of baptism reduces leaves me scratching my head over the practice. If baptism truly symbolizes one’s departure from sin and rebirth as a disciple of Christ, it stands to reason that once is enough.
I wouldn’t deny the experience to others, but it’s not something I’ve ever wanted for myself. Beyond that, one also has to consider what the Jordan River is like these days — no longer the strong, fresh-water river of antiquity, the Jordan has been tapped so much for irrigation that the shallow, stained water remaining comes largely from sewers.
Still the opening of the center is significant in many ways. High-level dignitaries including former British prime minister Tony Blair attended the ceremony, and letters were read from former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Jordanian Baptists hope such attention will help improve their reputation in Jordan, where many consider Baptists to be a type of cult and open evangelism of Muslims is still prohibited.
The opening of the center and the hope it brings to Jordanian Baptists are reminders of why the Baptist World Alliance is such an important organization: operating with a shoestring budget, BWA advocates for religious freedom and helps to meet human needs throughout the world. The organization has been severely pinched by the financial downturn, and could use additional support: I hope you’ll consider sending a few (or many) dollars their way.
[Photos by Eron Henry, from a BWA blog about the visit.]