Before visiting Jesus’ Baptism site along the Jordan River this weekend, I had anticipated the moment for years. Every time we’d sing “On Jordan’s Bank” at Mass, I’d think about how powerful the experience might be—going to this holy place from which my name comes.
(I learned from my archeology professor a few weeks back what my name really means: slopping, fast, running water. Though its now stagnant and small, the Jordan River (or “Naher al-Urdun”) used to be a strong, flowing river that descended from the Golan Mountains and into the valley. Because of the softness of the clay, its path was twisting, zigging and zagging, but still swift and quick because of the water’s strength. “Urdun”—Jordan— seems to mean playful, determined, even passionate, and I’d like to think that there’s a reason I share that name.)
Though I tried to temper my expectations about my visit to the river, I still had them nonetheless. I wanted to have a moving experience, to sit on the bank, alone and in quiet, and ponder my name, my life, and my God.
But, upon arriving, I realized that wasn’t likely going to happen. Our group’s tour guide moved us quickly from spot to spot, and some students in my program were loud, unaware, and outright disrespectful. Often, anger and resentment bubbled up in me—feelings that can never accompany good prayer. I wanted my special moment, and others were ruining it.
Thankfully, the Spirit was able to break through and settle on me at times. The white wings of doves—the symbol of the Holy Spirit— flashed in the sun as the birds flew from the stairs of the nearby church. The coldness of the water made the murky river feel somehow cleansing as I washed my hands in the shallows. And a rich, warm smell rose up from the green, life-giving land that God wanted to give His people.
These moments didn’t make up for, or fill the place of, the moment I expected. They were beautiful, but they weren’t what I wanted. What I still want.
But, surprisingly, I’m not that disappointed. Because I realized that I can go back. Maybe not physically, (though I hope to again,) but in prayer and in my imagination.
Whenever I need time to think or be alone, I can walk slowly and sit quietly in the grasses of riverbank. I can hear the birds chirp short “eeks,” and squint as a bug bounces against my face. I can follow John the Baptist as he ducks under branches to reach the water. And I can climb down the stone steps with Jesus, and take his sandals as he slips down into the water.
All of us have been graced with imaginations, and God wants us to use them. God works through them.
And God wants for us the things that we want most for ourselves. He wants me to come back to the river.