As a seminarian, I travelled to Palestine as part of a group organized by St. George’s College, a ministry of the Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. Like millions of Christian pilgrims for generations, we visited the shrines that commemorate events in the life of Jesus and the early church: the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum and around Galilee, and the Passion and Resurrection in Jerusalem. Visiting the sites certainly provided a clearer historical understanding of scripture, and while some spots felt uncomfortably like tourist traps, at many there was a definite sense of holiness, of a powerful connection to the miraculous events that unfolded there.
One of the standard stops is a spot along the Jordan River in Galilee where pilgrims can wade in the water to renew their own baptism near the spot where Jesus was baptized by John. We were encouraged to bring empty bottles so that we could carry home water from the site of Jesus’ baptism. Our tour guide, a wonderfully knowledgeable and devoted Palestinian Christian man named Iyad, happened to mention that this site with its bus parking lot and stone steps down into the river was relatively new: that the site that had historically been venerated as the place of Jesus’ baptism was a few miles up the river, but that the old location had become too dangerous during the wars between Israel and Syria, so that the Israeli tourism ministry had simply built a new access point in a safer spot. One of our chaplains, a monk with the Society of St. John the Evangelist, smiled and said, “That’s okay. We’re Episcopalians. We have a sacramental understanding, so that any place along the river is as good as any other.”
I didn’t completely understand what Brother David was saying, but I dutifully filled a plastic liter bottle with Jordan River water and carried it home in my overstuffed luggage, along with all the olive-wood tchotchkes I had bought as gifts and souvenirs. When I got home, as instructed, I filtered the water twice through coffee filters and boiled it for five minutes (The Jordan is not any cleaner than any other river in a populated area). I decanted it into little glass bottles, some of which I gave as gifts, some of which I still keep in a box in my office.
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what Brother David said: that as people who practice a sacramental theology, any place along the river is as good as another, and in fact, any river is as good as the Jordan. It’s true, of course: we believe that any piece of bread can become the Body of Christ, that any cup of wine can become His blood. More than that, when we participate in the sacrament, time and space collapse: we are celebrating the feast with every Christian throughout the world, every Christian who has ever lived or ever will live, “with all your saints, from every tribe and language and people and nation, to feast at the banquet prepared from the foundation of the world.” We may fill the bowl of our font with water from the sacristy faucet, but that water unites the person being baptized to Christ just as surely as if she were standing in the Jordan River two thousand years ago.
So why are we drawn to holy places – to the places where we believe that holy people have walked or miraculous things have happened? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is built on the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, revealed to Empress Helena when she visited in the fourth century CE. Hundreds of years later, more modern-thinking church historians found Helena’s claim dubious, but more recent archaeological studies seem to support the likelihood of this location for a first century Jewish tomb. Has the holiness of the spot changed? Would the holiness of the spot change if we had absolute archaeological proof that it was or wasn’t the site of the Resurrection?
One often hears reference to churches or shrines which have been hallowed by hundreds of years of prayers of the faithful, and it is certainly true that one can feel a sense of connection to faith history in such places. But do we honestly believe that God hears prayers from Iona Abbey more clearly than from the fish-and-chips stand up the road? That kind of superstition about the power of particular places or particular objects to put one in touch with the Divine has more to do with magic than with the Gospel.
The fact is, every place is made by God. Every place is holy, because God is here. We cannot make any place more holy than it already is, no matter how many thousands of years we pray there. If I splash a little water from a little glass bottle into the font along with the water from the sacristy faucet, it doesn’t make the water any holier and it doesn’t make the child any more baptized than she would have been otherwise.
So why do it? Speaking for myself, it has more to do with reminding myself of what it means to be a sacramental people. It’s a reminder that, with or without the Jordan water, all who are baptized are baptized into the life of Christ. It’s a reminder that the water isn’t really that important, that I am not doing anything particularly important as I cup water onto a child’s head; that the important, world-changing work is being done by God in the Holy Spirit and was done by God through Jesus Christ a long time ago. It’s a reminder that any place along the river is as good as any other.