Oh the Places You’ll Go: Jordan River, Assisi, Dover & Belmont

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I love it when the groups I lead finally arrive at the Jordan River. They ooh and ahhh – and inevitably say something like Wow, it’s narrower than I’d imagined. The first time I ever took folks there, we ventured to a spot called Yardenit – and a young man in my group, zealous for God, tore off his shirt and leaped into the water! In that peculiar spot, they’ve dammed up the water so it’s deep enough. Generally, the Jordan is too shallow for such a dramatic leap of faith! It’s more like the old spiritual “Wade in the water.”

Nowadays we take people to Qasr el Yahud, which scholars believe is very close to (if not the very spot) where John baptized Jesus. Just a few feet wide, muddy and shallow. Israel on this bank, the country of Jordan on the other. You could wade 20 feet and touch off an international incident. Once when we were there a Korean pilgrimage group on the other side sang “How Great Thou Art” in their language. Moved, we echoed it back to them in English. God’s Church asking “Shall We Gather at the River?” Yes, we did that day.

Wherever I travel, I enter the churches and inspect the baptismal font. The earliest survivals from the ancient churches are in Milan and Provence, 8-sides cavities dug into the floor, reminiscent of Roman baths, the old custom being that on Easter you took off your old, dirty work clothes, stepped down into the waters to be baptized, then stepped up to be wrapped in a brand new pure white robe and given a drink of milk and honey.

My favorite fonts? San Rufino, little visited but right there, wide open in Assisi, the most productive font in history, having produced 3 saints: Francis, St. Clare, and in the 19th century, St. Gabriel, not to mention the emperor Frederick! Then we have the font in the sanctuary of Davidson United Methodist Church, crafted while I was pastor there. A large, beautiful glass bowl, featuring running water! When it was delivered, on day one, light from the afternoon sun streamed through a window, hit that glass bowl like a middle school science project, focusing its energy on the carpet – and starting a fire! So fitting.

We have many architectural wonders, like the stand-alone Baptistery of Florence, a 12th century octagonal marvel, with its stunning bronze doors by Ghiberti – where Dante was baptized. We have random rivers, ponds and lakes where Christians have found available water and dunked or dipped new believers – and so we sing “Shall We Gather at the River” or “Down to the River to Pray” (from O Brother, Where Art Thou).

I was baptized in a Baptist Church in Dover, Delaware, after responding to an altar call which frightened the Hell out of me. I had no idea Pastor Adams would rather rudely shove my whole body under the water not once but thrice! That font, that pool, since that little church was renovated, is now a storage closet for Bibles and children’s Sunday School materials. I like that.

And then there’s the Catholic basilica at Belmont Abbey, a short drive from where I live. When the Benedictines built their cathedral, they reworked a stone that had been used as a trading block for slave auctions; the transformation of the offending stone into one giving life is proclaimed in the plaque attached to the font:  “Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery.  Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, men become free children of God.” I’m sure God adores this tone. God made the thing a few billion years back, it lay around for a few millennia, then was put to perverse use that angered God. But then to God’s giddy delight that old stone found its way into a church, held water for the thing Jesus told us to do to people, and now speaks to us.

On Thursday, we’ll go where Francis, once he was baptized, heard God speak. Teaser: it wasn’t in a pretty garden.