Touching the water of deliverance

Eastern Christians follow in Jesus's footsteps as they bathe in the waters of the Jordan River at Qaser el-Yahud.

Jordan river immersing 2 (photo credit: AP)
Jordan river immersing 2
(photo credit: AP)
Men, women and children thronged around the bearded, swarthy, Greek Orthodox priest dressed in black holding a white dove in one hand and a cross emblazoned with a little crucified Jesus in the other. The priest through the crowd like a shepherd leading his flock on a spiritual journey as one by one the faithful approached him, bowed and passionately kissed the four corners of the cross that was repeatedly sprinkled with holy water. The water was everywhere. It filled little bottles to be taken home, it shot out of makeshift showerheads, it filled large tanks. The believers donned white robes embroidered with crosses and Greek letters and showered in the water, they climbed into the large tanks to immerse themselves, they wet their clothes with it. They even drank the murky stuff despite warnings from Israeli authorities. These Eastern-rite Christian pilgrims - Greeks, Romanians, Serbs - had traveled a long way to come into contact with this water at its source. Many had saved for years, scrimping together the money needed to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Now they were here, where Jesus was baptized by John, where, according to the gospels, after the baptism, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove declared Jesus the son of God. "This is the place where God opened the way for salvation by choosing an earthly being to be our savior," said a man in his mid-30s who identified himself as Stefan-Igor, a Serb immigrant living in New York. Diana Mishka, a Romanian teenager, said she was disappointed that the IDF and the civil administration, who arranged the visit, did not allow the pilgrims to enter the Jordan River to immerse themselves. "This isn't what I expected. I thought it would be more spiritual here. Everything is so commercial," she said, pointing vaguely in the direction of a Gazebo where a modest contingent of vendors sold crosses, candles and other religious paraphernalia. "We can't even go in the water." Mishka's complaint was echoed by many pilgrims who felt cheated for being prevented from entering the water after going to such great lengths to come to the holy site. Yitzhak Deri, director of the civil administration's Coordination and Liaison Office, who oversaw the preparations and was on hand to field questions from reporters and pilgrims, said that he was sensitive to the Christians' desire to immerse in the Jordan. "It would be like me traveling hundreds of miles to visit the Kotel and to be told when I get there that I can't kiss the wall or even touch it. "But for security reasons I cannot allow it," said Deri pointing across the narrow river to the Jordanian side. "We can't take the chance." Deri estimated that 6,000-7,000 people visited the site on Tuesday. Called Qaser el-Yahud (the fort of the Jews) in Arabic, has been under military curfew since the outbreak of the second intifada in late 2000. However, the IDF tries to facilitate two visits a year, one in January around the celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany and the other during the week preceding the Orthodox Christian Easter, which falls this year over a month after the Western Christian Easter. Despite the initial disappointment at being prevented from going into the Jordan River, most of the pilgrims were visibly excited to be where Jesus walked, talked and was baptized. "Wetting ourselves with this water here enables us to atone for all our sins," said Yalena Birognev a Serb in her mid-40s who is visiting Israel for the first time. "Just being here strengthens my religion." Stefan-Igor, who has visited the baptismal site several times, said it was less important what you did at a holy site and more important what you felt. "Visiting a tangible place is just a way of evoking spirituality that is hiding someplace under the surface. It's a trigger for feelings inside," he said. "There are poor people here who earn no more than a few hundred dollars a month. They have been saving for years, probably denying themselves basic necessities so they and their families can visit here. "Of course they would like to immerse themselves in the Jordan. But look at these people. Look how excited they are just to be here. Most of them can't even explain what they feel. But it's there." As the group prepared to leave, two young women with scarfs on their heads stood as close as they could to the river and genuflected over and over again, crossing themselves each time.