Six years ago I was moved to tears at the telling of the story of Elijah and the still, small voice (1 Kings 19:9–18). Deeply immersed in the Spirit, Deborah Saunders spoke at the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends in Lancaster, England, and in telling the story of Elijah linked the Quaker practice of waiting worship with prophetic witness. While Elijah had been a prominent character in my First-day school education, Deborah’s portrayal of him as a flawed, carnal human listening and speaking to God called each of the us present to walk into God’s presence and surrender. What are you doing here Rachel? Which was the exact question I was asking myself today.
The press tour and film crew traveled to the East Bank of the Jordan River. The area known as Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan consists of several biblical excavations including Elijah’s hill and Jesus’ baptismal spot. The wilderness is preserved and protected by the National Jordanian Park. While some construction is occurring on the site, a great deal of effort is being put into preserving the wetlands and wildlife.
The beginning of our tour brought us to Elijah’s hill. This is the site where people think Elijah was taken up to heaven (2 Kings 2:1–12). Excavations of wells and baptismal pools dotted the hill and the remains of a church stood around the cave’s entrance. The waters of the approaching spring had made the landscape green and the wind blew through the rushes singing the songs of the wilds. I craved a moment to sit, and in solidarity with Elijah, worship; I craved a moment to listen to the still, small voice within me, within the beauty of the landscape, and within the memory of a prophetic witness.
Unfortunately the ways of the Religious Society of Friends are peculiar to many and my craving for waiting worship was overshadowed by the group’s excitement to get to Jesus’ baptismal site. We moved on away from Elijah’s hill and drove closer to the Jordan River. The baptismal site can be found nestled in a forest of wetland scrub and whirling locust. A short walk took us through a wild area that was similar to the wilderness of John the Baptist. During my moments when I was surrounded by the exquisite beauty of the Jordan Valley, I greatly envied him.
I found it interesting that the place where John the Baptist probably baptized Jesus is at least a quarter of a mile from where the Jordan River snakes through the grassy marshes of the valley. This change in route is mostly due to severe climate changes and earthquakes over the last two centuries. For pilgrims who want to baptize in the river, they must walk about ten minutes to an access point on the river’s bank. I found the actual baptismal site rather uninteresting but my visit to the living river was another story.
Several members of my group wanted to enter the Jordan’s waters. Two members of the film crew baptized each other while most everyone else played around in the shallows. I took this time to sit in worship and also to contemplate the day’s events so far.
What are you doing here Rachel?
I’ve been raised to defend the Quaker stance on baptism. John the Baptist declared, “I baptize you with water for repentance but he who is coming after . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). From this passage (and similar ones in Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33) Quakers have taken the stance that water baptism is unnecessary. Rather, the spiritual experiences of being baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit is central to each journey in faith. My friend Karla Moran has been exploring the Quaker theology of baptism on her blog and she brings up some very interesting questions for the contemporary discussion.
Rather than go into much of the theology here, I’ll conclude my story by saying that I did find a way to satisfy my craving for worship; I settled into the waiting silence by the River Jordan. While my friends and colleagues were splashing around in the beauty of nature, I was splashing around in the stream of the Spirit (as described more fully by William Taber in the Pendle Hill PamphletFour Doors to Meeting for Worship). Perhaps the shift in the Jordan river’s route over time is like continual revelation; God’s work is dynamic and living. Surrendering to the call in worship, I passed through the fire by the River Jordan and came out the other side crying.
first published at the blog of Friends Journal