By Alston Johnson
Growing up in Mississippi, I have always been drawn to the sight and the sound of clear water flowing over rocks; mountain streams. The waters of my childhood were mostly flat, motionless, and silent. Standing in flat frozen sloughs shooting ducks, or paddling over flat warm water swatting mosquitoes, I have always loved water that is clear and flowing.
My love for rivers led me to work as whitewater guide for the summers of college – spending days on the river in the mountains. And that is when I found that each stretch of river has its own sound, its own song, really its own message.
The first time that I saw the Jordan River I was underwhelmed. We were a group of seminarians visiting that 10-15 mile stretch thought to have been the outpost of John the Baptist. Standing over that stretch of river all I could see was the flat and brown water of my childhood; water that did not seem to be moving.
For a moment I thought that we had missed something, that we might have gotten off the bus at the wrong spot. I might as well have been standing over one of the cut-offs of Cross Lake. There was no bubbling music or song for this stretch of water, just long dark pools covered with a summer algae; something that I could have just as easily seen at home in the South.
Some of us sat down, some filled bottles, some took off their shoes and waded into the muddy pools. I was bored and sort of shrugged off the importance of the place because it did not meet my expectations; it did not capture my imagination with beauty and inspiration.
Then from somewhere nearby we heard people chattering in a foreign language. The voices were animated, laughing, loud, and definitely Asian. A little clump of people cracking with energy. I looked. They were excited. Like kids tumbling off a bus at the fairground . . . so much to see . . . so much to do . . . all cameras and video recorders. A group of about 18-20 men and women from Asia.
The man in the center was clearly the pastor, because he seemed to be doing all of the talking. A small, thin man holding an immense black leather Bible. And as he spoke in a strong voice he raised his hand, lifted his bible, and let forth some old-time gospel truth in an Asian tongue. All the men and women around him nodding their heads, some with eyes closed, saying “Amen! Amen!”
Although I could not understand what he said, I certainly could understand the Spirit and power in his words. They began to sing and hold hands and walk down toward the water together, standing waist deep in the green algae-filled water.
The pastor, with his clothes plastered to his body was standing in the water, and a few of the pilgrims lined up beside him. All held their hands up in the air saying “Amen!” And the pastor gently took them one by one into his arms and dipped them beneath that brown water. There was clapping, laughing, tears of joy, and “Hallelujahs” in that foreign language.
I could not understand a word of what was being said, but I began to understand the moment. They had traveled some 24 hours from Asia to make this trip, some of them to be baptized in the spot where their friend and Lord had been baptized. It was clear these were not wealthy pilgrims. Some had probably saved for years to make this journey to the Jordan River. And from a distance I celebrated in silence with them.
Coming out of the water they gather on a rock in a circle and held hands in the air singing: Amazing Grace.
Odo roku baka ri no
Me gu mi na ri ki
Ko no mi no
Ke ga re o
Shi re ru wa re ni
That was a song from the river that I could understand; I wiped away more than a few tears.
And then an old man, the oldest in the group, probably 70 or 80, put together a makeshift flagpole, drew a white flag with an emblem of the Rising Sun upon it, the flag of Japan, and raised it on the last verse of that hymn. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining like the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we first begun.
He might have been a young man when the two bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August of 1945. My own grandfather, a munitions engineer during the war, whose own work contributed to the development of those bombs. And here we all were gathered so many years later singing Amazing Grace as they lifted the flag of their nation beside the Jordan River toward our Father in heaven.
For reasons known to God alone, these two bands of pilgrims were destined to share that piece of ground at the same time beside the Jordan River, and the Holy Spirit made a visit, God sent his dove – a little lesson in theology for our group of seminarians traveling in the Holy Land.
God provided the music that I could not find on that day.
This has been my lesson throughout my own journey with our Lord. God will provide; God will not always provide the music that is desired, but God will provide the music that is needed. When the soul is dust, when our soul is empty or wandering, he comes like a river.
Yes, there are theological reasons for baptism, and I have read almost every one of them. There are also baptismal moments – moments when God tears through time and space, and God sends a dove.
The dove of the Spirit speaks the language of the heart, and the dove reminds us that we are loved by the Father who gives us life. The gift of Baptism is that we are marked – no matter which side of the bombs we find ourselves living on – no matter that we feel lost, that we feel alone, that we feel empty, we are marked with love by heaven as God’s own children. And where Jesus walks in God’s country, in God’s Kingdom on earth and in heaven, there are no lost children.
The waters and the dove are forever singing one song – a song for God’s own Son, and a song for each of God’s children, “You are my beloved child – and with you I am well pleased”
The Very Rev. Alston Johnson is dean of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, Louisiana.