“We don’t have a car for you for tomorrow. You can call back in a few hours to check,” said the person on the other end of the phone.
“I called few days ago and you said that you have a car for me,” I asked with desperation.
“Sorry. The renter has not returned the car. You probably should consider other places,” the car rental person told me in a matter of fact manner.
“Oh….” I ended the phone call not sure what to do next.
For the past week, I have been researching into the best way to reach the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist more than 2000 years ago. Six months ago, Joani gave her baptismal testimony in front of our church home group. Knowing that we would be in Israel, I suggested that it would be extra special if she was baptized in the Jordan River. Therefore, we decided to hold off the actual “dunk” in the water until we reached Israel.
Every day in Israel felt like a once in a lifetime highlight. We witnessed the history of Jerusalem’s temple wall by going inside the Western Wall tunnel. I was touched by the Holy Spirit while reading out loud the Bible passage on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple while on the Temple Mount. We followed Christ’s footstep chronologically from the Last Supper to his crucification and resurrection. At the Garden Tomb, we were overwhelmed by the reality of “He is not here. He has Risen” at the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. We saw the tomb of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob split in half between a mosque and a synagogue at Hebron. We celebrated Christmas Eve in Bethlehem together with 20 Indonesian Christians at the Shepherd’s Field. We felt our way through the pitch black water tunnel that King Hezekiah built to defend attackers at the City of David.
At every Biblical location, we felt the words in the Bible come to life as we took turn to read the Bible passage related with each location. Being the youngest and least familiar with all the stories, Joani asked questions after questions, eager to understand more about the places we are seeing and the significance behind each one. Unintentionally, Joani, together with the rest of the family, were participating in the best baptismal preparation class that only God could have prepared. From the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of Christ, Joani got to see and understand the significance of what Jesus did and the hope her faith is based upon.
Given our extraordinary experience so far in Israel, we all look forward to the long anticipated baptism for Joani. What I didn’t foresee was the difficulty of getting there.
Taking a private taxi from Jerusalem was way too expensive. Taking shared taxi was feasible, but we still needed to find a taxi from Jericho to the Jordan River and back. Taking the bus was the cheapest but again we needed to find a way from the bus stop to the river. Renting a car was the best option overall, except car rental companies in Jerusalem does not allow the vehicle to be driven into the West Bank, which is wheret the Jordan River is at. So finally, I decided to try a car rental company in the West Bank side of Jerusalem recommended by an expat who used to live in the West Bank. But I just got the bad news that there was no car and Joani’s baptismal date is tomorrow on Dec 28th!
I desperately searched the web for a list of Palestinian car rental companies and found 10 companies. One by one I called every single one down the list. Some required a minimal of three days, some contact phone numbers where out of service, and some didn’t have any car available due to high demand during Christmas season.
“Why are you making this so difficult?” I questioned God in my mind after another wild goose chase with a car rental company. “The whole preparation for the baptismal was going so well until now. Isn’t doing baptism a good thing?”
It was frustrating as I had stayed up many nights researching and trying to make arrangements. I felt as if all the efforts were wasted.
“We have to try taking the public bus,” I announced finally to the family with frustration. “From the bus stop, we might need to walk about 3-5 kilometers to the Jordan River, unless we can find a taxi at the bus stop or hitchhike.”
Surprisingly no one protested. So the next morning we woke up early and left the house at 7:30AM with hummus and pita bread for lunch, swimsuits for our anticipated dip in the river, and a bottle of King David red wine with a bag of crackers for the communion service we plan to hold for the whole family right after Joani’s baptism.
The bus ride to the closest bus stop to the baptismal site went smoothly. We got off the bus at the right place with the help of Israeli soldiers on our bus who translated for us. There was no taxi at the intersection but it was sunny and the weather was balmy, and we were all in a good mood as we hiked down the desert 400 meters below sea level where Jordan River meets the Dead Sea.
“Do you realized this is the exact spot where John the Baptist walked and called out for repentance and baptism 2000 years ago?” I said excitedly while taking photos of us walking down the desert road.
When we almost reached there, we came upon a checkpoint.
“Sorry, my boss told me that you can’t walk all the way to the Jordan River because it is a border with Jordan. You have to get a ride with a car or tour bus,” The soldier guarding the checkpoint told us.
“We don’t have a car. We are just few steps away. Can’t you just let us go?” I said trying to negotiate with the guard but he would not budge — another unexpected frustrating set back.
While waiting at the checkpoint for a vehicle, we read Luke 2 about Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist: John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…”
Since we were close to Jericho, we also read about how the Israelites crossed the Jordan River on dry ground and how they circled Jericho 7 times and blow the shofar for the walls to tumble down.
After few vehicles passed, a minivan with Americans agreed to pack the five of us on the three seats in the back for a short 2 minute ride.
The baptismal site was quiet and nearly empty. The facility is free on the Israeli side while just less than 5 meters across the river on the Jordan side, it costs almost USD 20 per person to enter!
After changing at the shower room, we head eagerly towards the river. The river is only 5 meters wide and muddy slightly muddy due to the water being siphoned for agriculture. The only persons there were two female Israeli soldiers guarding the border with Jordan.
Joani first shared her testimony of how although she was born into a Christian family, she thought Jesus was adults’ version of an imaginary friend. Often, she would blame God for things. After she heard Uncle Edwin’s story of his trip to Israel and India, sharing from Joelle and Dennis, seeing Olivia’s personal relationship with God, and after understanding all the different religions in our travel and experiencing God through finding her lost sunglasses and ear rings, she came to put her trust in Jesus and decided to be baptized.
We were all proud of Joani as she gave her testimony by heart. The reason was that she couldn’t find her written testimony but it showed that her change in Christ has become a part of her and not something made up. She actually shared more than what she had written originally! The two soldiers and some other tourists were watching Joani as she gave her testimony. Although it made Joani more nervous, Joani did not stop because she felt that she was glorifying God by publicly giving her testimony.
After her sharing, Joani and I went into the river.
“Oh…it is cold!” I cried out being the first to get in. However, given the importance of what we were about to do, I quickly overcame the coldness. “Come in, Joani. There are wooden steps so we won’t be stuck in the muddy bottom.”
For Chinese parents, their duties are completed when their children are married. For Annie and me, when our children thought it through carefully and make a deliberate commitment and decision to put their faith in Jesus and testified publicly about their trust in God, our worry for them are lifted because I know that no matter what happens to them in their life, their eternal salvation will never be taken away.
I put my right hand on Joani’s head and prayed:
“Dear Heavenly Father,
Just as our family just did,
You led the children of Israel through the red sea to worship you on mount Sinai;
You led them into the freedom of the promised land of present day Jordan and Israel.
Here in the river Jordan, John baptized our Lord Jesus and your Spirit anointed him.
We thank you, O God, for the gift of baptism.
In this water you confirm to us
that we are buried with Christ in his death,
raised to share in his resurrection,
and are being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
Then I looked at Joani and asked, “Is Jesus Chris your lord and savior?”
“Yes,” Joani responded.
“Do you want to follow Him and live for Him?”
At this point, Olivia was really touched hearing Joani say “Yes” to the two questions, because Olivia has been waiting for a long time for this moment.
“Based upon your profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Pressing down on Joani’ head, she bent down and submerge herself in the cold river water. When she came up, Joani’s face was radiant with a big smile.
Nathan playing the ukulele led us in singing three times:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Our God is marching on!
We hugged and congratulated Joani. If it wasn’t for the sign that says to keep quiet because this is a religious site, we would have been making a lot more noise and “partying” for joy!
“It’s my turn now!” Annie exclaimed.
Although the rest of us have already been baptized, we just wanted to be “dunked” in the same spot where Jesus was baptized. So unofficially, I baptized Annie, Olivia, and Nathan. Then Nathan baptized me. The water was cold but the experience was worth it.
Drying under the sun, we opened the red wine and crackers we brought with us and I led the communion. For the very first time, all five of us participated in the Communion together. It was a special moment.
The two female Israeli solders saw Joani gave her testimony, saw her going into the river, saw her taking communion, and were mesmerized by what they were seeing. Later they asked us whether today was a special day. In turned, we witnessed to them about Jesus, similarly as what Johan the Baptist did when he called the Roman soldiers to repentance in the wilderness.
After changing back to our travel clothes, I went to the parking lot to look hitch a ride out of the Jordan River. A large tour bus just arrived at the parking lot and a group of Chinese-looking tourist came out of the bus.
Seeing the bus driver, I asked, “We are a family of five. The soldier said that we can’t walk out of here, Do you think we can ride with you on the bus for a little bit?”
“I am just the driver. You have to ask the tour guide,” the driver responded.
After I found the tour guide, I asked her the same request but she pointed me to a lady and said that I need to ask the leader of the Chinese tourists. As I head towards the lady, one of the tourist asked me whether I am Chinese and quickly we were surrounded by other Chinese tourists and began to ask each other about each other’s travels. Graciously, they welcomed us to ride on their bus but given that they just arrived, we went again to the Jordan River together with them.
“Do you know that this is the spot where Jesus was baptized?” I shared with one of the tourist while showing the photos and videos we took. “My daughter was just baptized here.
Soon many of them surrounded around my iPhone screen to look at the photos and videos.
“My daughter is a seeker. Do you think she can be baptized here?” one of the lady asked me.
“Yes, of course. If you like, I can perform the baptism service for your daughter,” I offered as if the encounter of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 were being reenacted in modern time.
Quickly, I changed again into my wet clothes and went back towards the river. To my surprise, not one but three persons were ready to be baptized. There was another seeker with her daughter who also would like to be baptized.
Before performing the baptism, I sat down with the three of them and asked them few questions to make sure they are clear about what they believe and what they were about to do. One of the three is 5 years old and didn’t really understand. So I told the mother that we can still baptized her daughter but only as a ceremony of dedication, not baptism. The daughter would still need to have a confirmation ceremony when she is older. In addition, I asked them to share with their fellow companions why they want to be baptized and what difference has Jesus made in their life. I was surprised that given that they had no prior preparation, the two adults bravely answered my questions and shared their convictions in front of the other tourists.
One by one, I performed the ceremony. One by one they submerged into the Jordan River and came up with joy on their face. Even two of their non-Christian companions were moved to tears.
“So touching…” they said. “You have the Christian Spirit. Even we have an urge to be baptized here.”
While on the bus with them out of the baptismal site, I asked if they would like to have a communion service. They all agreed. So in the short few minutes we had on the bus, again, I led them in a “shotgun” communion, breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine in remembrance of Jesus.
At the highway intersection, we were dropped off on our way to Jericho where we wanted to go next. After hiking for 3 kilometers and waiting for a while, we couldn’t find any taxi that is willing to take us at a reasonable price.
Strangely, instead of feeling frustrated again, all five of us remained joyful. For we knew in our hearts we witnessed a miracle at the Jordan River. It didn’t matter to us anymore whether we get to see the ruin of Jericho or the mountain where Jesus was tempted by Satan on this trip. At that moment, we had no other desire except for praising God.
That night we each gave Joani her baptism gifts and our blessings for her. Olivia gave Joani a bookmark she made and prayed that God will show her whom God wanted her to be. Nathan gave Joani an eraser from Taiwan to remind her that living for God is not about “erasing” her mistake but choosing to follow God. Nathan prayed that any lie that Satan tells her, she would reject those lies. Annie blessed Joani that she will be anointed with real joy and that she knows that she is God’s daughter. I gave her a spiritual notebook and blessed her that she might hear God personally more and more.
“Somehow I had imagined that getting baptized where Jesus was baptized would be very dramatic, but it was not as much as I had hoped. But then afterwards I realized that baptism is not only for me but also for the people who are around me. Today, so many people were moved,” Joani shared afterwards.
“Because of your baptism, three other people were baptized today. Isn’t that amazing?” Olivia added.
“Yeah, that’s cool!” Joani agreed.
“I feel that often we don’t get to be at the ‘harvesting’ side, seeing things happen. Today, for people we never knew, never talked with, we got to harvest what someone else had sown. That is incredible,” Olivia shared excitedly.
“Dad, you know that when you walked down into the river Jordan and began baptizing the Chinese tourists, you really looked like John the Baptist!” Olivia kept telling me.
“You know, I learned a lesson today about trust,” I shared. “Although I felt frustrated about not having a rental car for today, God had a better plan. If we had driven in by car, we would not have met the Chinese tourists and would not have baptized them. God wanted me to wait by the river for them and God moved their hearts to accept Jesus at that very moment and used me as his instrument.”
“It is amazing to go to where Jesus was baptized to see how the gospel travelled all the way around the world and now to see Chinese come to the same spot and asked to be baptized,” Nathan shared.
We ended that night by surrounding Joani and laid our hands on her and blessed her.
Coming to Israel, I never knew that I would become “Jon the Chinese Baptist”. Indeed, God is amazing and works in ways beyond our “travel plans!”