A River Runs Through Us – Br. James Koester

Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Isaiah 42: 1 – 9; Psalm 29; Acts 10: 34 – 43; Matthew 3: 13 – 17

I don’t know if I actually saw it the first time. I think I did, but I can’t swear to it. It was on my first visit to Jerusalem and the course I was taking at St. George’s College had spent a few days in and around the Old City. We had then departed for Egypt and had been to Cairo and then on to St. Anthony’s Monastery and to St. Catharine’s in the Sinai. We had crossed the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea and had visited Madaba, Petra and Nebo in Jordan. We were finally heading back to Jerusalem and had just passed through the border crossing into the West Bank and were driving over the Allenby Bridge when our course director announced that at that moment we were crossing the Jordon River. Luckily I had a window seat, but even in the moment it took me to turn my head and look out the window, we were over the river and all that could be seen as we drove off was the lush growth of trees, scrub and brush that outlined the river bank. I remember seeing that, but I don’t actually remember seeing any water, much less anything that passed as a river, at least to my mind.

I have been back to the Jordan River a number of times since then, and each time my response has been, well, to be honest, disappointment. I have been to Banias, familiar to us as Caesarea Philippi, and there visited the source of the Jordan. I have seen the Jordan as it enters Lake Galilee and further south near Jericho. Each time I have thought to myself: is this it? Is this the mighty Jordan? Is this the river Jordan deep and wide? It’s not much more than a stream or even a babbling brook! Is this the river Jordan chilly and cold that chills the body but not the soul?[1] I’ve waded in it and cool tending to lukewarm is about the best you can say.

About all you can say for the Jordan River, at least today, is that it makes the Artichoke River that runs behind the hermitages at Emery House, and empties into the Merrimac River look like the Amazon in comparison!

And yet, and yet  ….

There is something about the Jordan River that draws pilgrims from all over the world to its banks and into its shallow eddies to discover again the healing and restorative power of water.

It was not the St. Lawrence or the Mississippi that divided when the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of God, allowing the people of Israel to pass through the river into the Promised Land with dry feet[2], just as they had passed through the Red Sea on dry land when they escaped from Egypt[3]. It was the Jordan. It was not to the mighty Artichoke or even the Merrimac that Naaman was commanded to bathe seven times in order to be healed of his leprosy.[4] It was the Jordan. And it was not at the Columbia or the Mackenzie that John the Baptist was found baptising the crowds that day Jesus appeared on the river bank and sought baptism himself. It was the Jordan.

Since the dawn of time human beings have been drawn to water; to lakes and oceans and rivers and we have found in them sources of life, and healing, and refreshment. For some reason or other when we find ourselves near water, we find that we belong and the truth of that is written deeply into our souls.

For eons human beings have flocked to water in all its forms not just to bathe, but to be healed; not just to be refreshed, but to be reborn. And today we flock once again, not to the Charles, but the Jordan; not to the Ganges, but to the Jordan for it is the Jordan that has carved its course through our hard stony hearts, just as those other ancient rivers have, over millions of years, carved their riverbeds across the hard, stony surface of the globe. It is the Jordan that has turned our hearts from hearts of stone into hearts of flesh[5] and made us the people of God. It is the Jordan that runs, not only from Banias to the Dead Sea but through our hearts gushing out of our souls and across our lives and here today, we stand immersed once again at its source as we hear the voice of God say, not just to Jesus, but to us as well: you are my son, my daughter, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.[6]

The truth of baptism is revealed in what it does and who it shows us to be, cleansing us, not from dirt but from separation: separation from God, separation from ourselves, separation from one another. In baptism we are cleansed from the original sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, who reached out, not to God, but to the forbidden fruit thinking that in so doing they could become like God.[7] In baptism we reach out not to the forbidden fruit but to God and God reaches out to us, restoring that union between Creator and creature and showing us once again to be the beloved daughters and sons of the Most High.

It is to be reminded of our union with God that we come again to this water today; to this Jordan just as did Jesus that day so long ago, for in his baptism he was shown to all the world to be the beloved Son of God.

For centuries rivers have shaped nations and moulded peoples. Look at any map and you can see the history of the world outlined in water, on rivers and oceans and lakes. It is water that has been the lifeblood of nations and given birth to civilisations. It is water that has marked and delineated and enabled the migration of peoples and the movement of armies. But so too has water shaped souls, mended hearts and restored what once was lost so long ago.

A river runs through this place, gushing not from the source of the Charles and running its course to the Atlantic but gushing from our hearts[8] and running its course into the heart of God. That river marks and delineates and enables not the migration of peoples and the movement of armies but the shape of our souls. A river runs through this place and it is called the Jordan and we return again and again and again, because it is here that God says to each of us, as he did to Jesus: “you are my daughter, you are my son, you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

A river runs through this place. We don’t often see it. Sometimes we only know it by the trees and scrub and brush along its banks but this is the river that shapes our lives, and melts our hearts and moulds us into the holy people of God. A river runs through this place, and it is called the mighty Jordan!

[1] The version of the spiritual Michael Row Your Boat Ashore made popular by Pete Seeger refers to the River Jordan as both “deep and wide” and “chilly and cold”.

[2] Joshua 3: 14-17

[3] Exodus 14: 1-31

[4] 2 Kings 5: 1-14

[5] Ezekiel 11:19, 20 I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh so that they may follow my statutes and ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

[6] See Matthew 3: 17

[7] Genesis 3: 1-24

[8] John 7: 38b As the scriptures has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’

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  1. marta engdahl on September 23, 2018 at 21:41

    I’ll not forget the baptism of my youngest grandaughter at All Saints in Atlanta. The Rector after making the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, tossed the remaining water up and it descended in golden droplets back into the font. Truly blessed!

  2. James Tafulo on August 13, 2017 at 05:32

    Thank you.. i like your prayer.. its inpired me…

  3. Nancy on May 20, 2016 at 09:35

    Thank you for these words…they have touched my soul.


  4. Tom Macfie on May 20, 2016 at 08:23

    Thank you Brother James. Prayers to God as you walk towards your installation as superior. Prayers for all in All. Tom

  5. Pam Porter on May 20, 2016 at 07:09

    Here are some apropos verses from a Longfellow poem that have sometimes revived my stony heart. They have been set to music and are perhaps familiar to many:

    As torrents in summer
    Half dried in their channels,
    Suddenly rise, though the
    Sky is still cloudless
    For rain has been falling
    Far off at their fountains,

    So hearts that are fainting
    Grow full to o’reflowing
    And they that behold it
    Marvel and know not
    That God at their fountains,
    far off has been raining.

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  7. Nancy Barnard Starr on May 19, 2016 at 16:15

    And then there was the little Wisconsin stream along the bike path with loosestrife growing and goldfinches dipping in it. Our sons’ first trail ride, 3 and 5. “When will we get there?” How can you tell?

  8. Michael on October 26, 2015 at 08:28

    Some rivers and certainly the oceans are far too vast for me. It is the brooks and small rivers we can step over that brings me into a union with the divine. This water will not overpower me or drown me, but rather refresh and renew me. It is in its smallness that I take comfort and consolation like the trickle of water used in our baptism.

  9. Pam on September 16, 2014 at 10:00

    I live in Maine, where we are so blessed with all sorts of water–lakes (aka ponds), rivers (I live on the biggest one, the Kennebec), and the ocean. For me it is perhaps the latter that most especially evokes the feeling of intimate relationship, i.e., belonging, with everything in the created universe. I remember the late John O’Donohue using a metaphor to speak about the interaction between the land and the ocean. He said that the ocean and the land are always in conversation. When I watch and listen to the waves break on the rocky shore in Maine, that’s all I can think of–the land and the ocean having an eternal conversation, one that includes us.

  10. Ruth West on September 15, 2014 at 18:11

    In 1996 my husband and I visited Israel with a tour group from the Dio. of W. MO. We stopped near the Jordan, and, like you, we were somewhat disappointed. The river was so narrow, a tall man could have stepped over it. But my husband took his wine bottle he had saved for that purpose and filled it from the Jordan. When we were back home, he boiled the water and, for at least a year, used it for baptisms. It seemed to serve a great purpose for those who were baptized. It mattered not to those new believers that the river was narrow. It became holy water!
    Thanks for your sermon.

  11. Anders on September 15, 2014 at 11:15

    Thanks. Your words remind me of Norman Maclean, who writes: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.” He continues with “I am haunted by waters” and delves into the painful mystery of loving without understanding. In the Biblical words from another time and place, I accept another message of love without understanding. The local rocks in my local river can also proclaim that I too am the son, the beloved in whom God is well pleased. We all are. And it is good.

  12. Polly Chatfield on June 12, 2014 at 10:25

    Dear James,

    What a beautiful evocation of what it means to be baptized! As I read I felt immersed in the healing and tenderness of God’s love – a kind of baptism by words. Thank you.

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