John 1 (NRSV) 29 The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”[i]
35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
What would it look like if John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were to appear today on the banks of the Jordan River? What would he say? How would he conduct himself? How would his message differ today from what’s recorded in the Gospel of John? What about Jesus? How would the gospel story play out in today’s world?
These were the questions that came to me from Sunday’s gospel reading.
So I decided to try a variation on the Jesuit meditation technique where you imagine yourself “in a scene from Scripture or with Jesus or Mary or God the Father,” to quote James Martin, SJ, and let God take [you] where God wants to go.” It’s called creative prayer, or Ignatian contemplation, but I’ve used it more as kind of a technique of engaging with the passage — of noticing details I might not otherwise.
Technically speaking, if you want to get technical (and frankly I don’t), what I do may be a mixture of creative prayer and lectio divina — where, again quoting Martin, you read “through a text and see what God wants you to notice. See where that might take you.” I tried it after church and it took me — well, let’s try it and see where I wind up.
For some reason, I can’t place myself at the scene in today’s gospel reading — the passage where John the Baptist sees Jesus and points him out to his followers but doesn’t baptize him. Altogether, I like the way John narrates it better than I do the baptism narratives in the synoptic gospels. It’s quieter. No crowds (the crowds came down from Jerusalem earlier, as John thundered on about the coming wrath of God on the “brood of vipers” in official Jerusalem). In this passage, Jesus talks one-on-one with Andrew and Simon Peter, who will become his disciples and follow him back to Galilee. It seems quietly true to life in a way I can relate to, and it reminds me the experts say portions of John have a strong claim to be directly based on eyewitness accounts.
Perhaps more so than Matthew, Mark and Luke, in fact, but that’s another story for another day
Anyway, instead of the Jordan River in Jesus’ time, I imagine myself at Qasr al-Yahud (castle of the Jews), the traditional location of the Baptism of Christ, now a combination shrine and tourist attraction maintained by the Israeli government’s ministry of parks and tourism. It’s the site I know, but it’s not the only one — there’s a whole scholarly literature giving pros and cons of different locations claimed by tradition. Another might — or might not — be “Bethany across the Jordan” on the other side of the river. They’re adjacent, separated only by a barbed-wire fence (and a minefield), but I’ve only visited the Israeli site. So Qasr al-Yahud it is.
Today the Jordan River is a militarized boundary between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Kingdom of Jordan, surrounded by a minefield and patrolled by the Israeli Defence Forces. I can’t imagine what the shrine at Qasr-al-Yahud would have looked like 2,000 years ago, and if John the Baptist showed up there today wearing animal skins and crying to the heavens of the wrath to come, the Israelis would detain him for questioning at the very least. And for good reason.
In spite of all that (or perhaps because of it), I decide to do my creative prayer meditation in modern dress. It’s going to involve me in some Back to the Future-type narrative problems I never encountered as a newspaper reporter — how do I go about talking with a guy about something that’s going to happen tomorrow, but tomorrow is 2,000 years ago? — but I decide I’m not bound by that kind of stuff in a meditation and start writing. It goes like this:
I’m seated at a picnic table in a pavilion overlooking the Jordan River. On the riverbank, a stairstepped platform leads down into the river . Small groups of pilgrims, dressed in white robes, wait on the platform to be baptized. More tourists are seen milling around in a paved area between the pavilion and a small gift shop and concession stand, with showers attached. A group from West Africa, judging by their matching dashikis, holds devotions on the other side of the pavilion. Two young women in olive green IDF uniforms are seated at the next table, and other tourists have taken the opportunity to sit down in the shade, as I have. A couple of other soldiers can be seen in the distance, unobtrusively keeping an eye on things.
While I’m seated at my table, a man comes up, and asks if the other seats are taken. I say no, he sits down and introduces himself as Jean-Baptiste ______. I don’t catch his last name. With what I take to be a slight French accent, he says he’s affiliated with some kind of outreach ministry that has offices in Jerusalem. He isn’t too specific on the details, and I don’t ask.
“I’m here doing advance work,” he says. “Can’t say much about it, but it’s rather a big deal.”
I’m interested, and we compare notes. I used to do a little media advance for the state treasurer of Illinois, so I want to know how he goes about it here. Especially with the tight security all around. Who’s he advancing?
“Would you believe me if I said he’s Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world? He’s going to call his disciples tomorrow.”
I decide Jean-Baptiste doesn’t really want to know my answer to this one, so I reply with something noncommittal. “The Holy Spirit has descended upon him,” he adds. “One can almost see the Spirit, descending like a dove.” Mmm, I reply, hoping that’s sufficiently noncommital.
“There he is,” says Jean-Baptiste, interrupting himself. “Over there by the concession stand.” I look over and he points out a guy speaking with a group of pilgrims wearing white baptismal robes over their clothing. He’s thirty-something, dressed informally. Windbreaker and slacks. Reminds me of George Burns’ character in Oh, God!, but younger. Knitted kippah, or yarmulke, on his head, too. Looks Middle Eastern, close-cropped beard — in fact he looks like that forensic anthropologists’ reconstruction in Popular Mechanics a couple of years ago. He and the pilgrims are talking back and forth, and they’re obviously delighted with the conversation.
“The Kingdom of God is drawing near,” says Jean-Baptiste. But I don’t reply for a minute.
My attention is absorbed with the guy wearing the kippah. He’s moved on and now he’s quietly introducing himself to another group of tourists over by the concession stand. Some of the women are wearing babushka scarves, and I wonder if they’re Russian Orthodox. These holy sites attract pilgrims from all over the world.
Clearly the guy has charisma. The Russian pilgrims are smiling, talking eagerly with him now. Like old friends, and I just saw them meet the guy for the first time a half minute ago.
If this is Jesus, I ask Jean-Baptiste, why’s he wearing a yarmulke? He looks at me for a minute like that’s the dumbest question he ever heard. And, yes, I guess it is dumb.
“He’s Jewish,” says Jean-Baptiste, relaxing his expression a little. “We keep forgetting that.”
Jesus is coming over our way now, and he’s chatting with the Israeli soldiers at the next table. They’re speaking Hebrew, so I can’t make out what they’re saying. But he’s asking them questions, they’re smiling and chatting animatedly. He’s drawing them out. Good will all around.
Now he comes up to our table, sees Jean-Bapiste and sits down at an empty chair. “This is my friend Peter from the United States,” he says to Jesus.
“Oh, I know a guy named Peter,” says Jesus. Infectious chuckle, I know it’s a cliche to say this, but there’s a twinkle in his eye. Nice guy. A real mensch. Completely at ease. I’ve got his undivided attention and, he puts me at ease too. “What part of the States?” he asks. Drawing me out. Is that a hint of New York accent in his voice?
Illinois, I say. But I grew up in Tennessee, and my father’s family was from Brooklyn. I guess I’m kind of a mutt. “Yeah,” he says. “My work takes me all over America, and I have a lot of cousins in Brooklyn. Distant cousins, but, hey, family’s family. Who am I to complain? What part of Brooklyn?” I say my grandfather had a church at Fourth Avenue and 63rd Street in Bay Ridge, but it’s no longer there now. “Oy,” he says, and we’re off and running.
So we chat for a while — Jesus drawing me out all the time, putting me at ease, kvetching about how hard it is to keep a congregation going in a changing part of the city. Any city, he says, and it’s not just parish churches. How do you do church in a secular society? It’s hard with temples and mosques, too, it’s with everybody. I figure this is what comes with being eternal and omniscient — you do keep up with things, I guess — and he’s going on to ask how I feel about this and that. He draws me out on religion, too. After all, he explains, it’s the family business. He asks about books I’ve read. Spiritual direction. That article about Lutheran immigrants I never get around to writing. Why not work on it a little at a time, he suggests, maybe an hour a day? He volunteers his opinion sometimes, just nods his head agreeably at other times. I’m comfortable, and it feels like I’ve known the guy all my life.
“So,” he asks at a lull in the conversation, “you must have some questions?”
Well, I babble, stalling for time, trying to collect my thoughts. I’m here for an Ignatian meditation, I say, on the Gospel according to St. John, and I’ve always had trouble with John. Um … I’m casting about in my mind for the right words, trying to figure out a way to put this politely …
“So what’s the deal with John?” he asks.
Yeah, I say, relieved. He’s reading my mind — I guess it comes with the territory when you’re part of the all-knowing Holy Trinity. Yeah, what’s the deal? Something like that, I tell him.
“It’s pretty simple,” he says (paraphrasing John 13:34-35). “I gave you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Sure, I say. That was at the Last Supper, wasn’t it? Jesus nods his head yes. But I say I thought the love-one-another stuff was just for the disciples.
“Do you mind if I answer a question with a question?” Jesus answers.
I should have seen this coming: Isn’t that that he always does?
“You remember in Oh, God! where George Burns says that I’m the son of God?” he asks.
I answer yes. I love that movie.
“And he goes on and says the Buddha’s the son of God, Mohammad and Moses? Even John Denver’s character. And that means those pilgrims from Russia, it means those soldiers at the next table, means you, it means everybody.”
Yes, I say, I remember it.
“So don’t you think it’s the same with disciples? Don’t you think that’s for everybody, too?”