The evangelists tell us that Jesus crisscrossed borders bringing his message about God’s love for all, compassion and forgiveness at an individual level, peace and justice in society, good will towards neighbours and attention to the lilies of the fields, birds of the air, and the waters from the wells. Jesus said, “whoever believes in me, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:38).
A small WMC delegation composed of the General Secretary, the Chair of the Inter Religious Relationships Standing Committee and the two Methodist Liaison Office in Jerusalem Team Members visited the Jordan River Valley in June 2017. Most of the visit was to the parts of the region where Jesus had his ministry: East and West of the Jordan River, the regions equivalent to the New Testament Perea, Decapolis, Samaria, Judea and Jerusalem.
John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, lived in the wilderness and deserts around the Jordan River. He challenged those who came to see him to share whatever they had extra with others who might have had less than themselves. He baptised people to mark a real change in their way of living. Jesus’ message was equally transformative. He preached conversion ‘because the Kingdom of God is near’, (Matthew 4:17). A message far reaching, from the individual to the political sphere, as Jesus announced a new being and a new political realm, a new Kingdom.
Could that message of real change for people and for their circumstances be the basis for inter-religious relationships? Could WMC inter-religious relationships be forged around the idea of bringing real change? This visit exploring issues of justice and peace was designed in that way, seeking to engage with other faiths around the effort to bring change.
The group was led by Rabbi Frank Dabba-Smith, as well as being a rabbi, he is also an artist-photographer and a member of the International Advisory Committee for Eco Peace Middle East. We went from Amman in Jordan, some 800 meters above sea level to the deepest point on Earth, the Jordan River Valley some 400 meters below sea level and back up again to Jerusalem, zigzagging from one country to the other, crossing borders as we visited the communities and projects around the Jordan River.
Water Justice could be a way of building peaceful relationships in the region. The challenge is to get those who have a surplus of water to share with those who are denied access to it. Also to convince those in power to return some of the water taken from the River Jordan back into it. We gathered around the wells and springs, rivers and creeks to see how water is unfairly used and distributed. Desalinisation makes Israel water rich and still water is taken away from Palestinians. In the West Bank we saw a spring totally dried up as water is drawn from the aquifer underneath the Palestinian and Bedouin villages and taken to the settlements.
At the place deemed as the location where John baptised people, even though the water is polluted, many people come to be baptised or to renew their baptismal vows. As we were listening to the Palestinian specialist on environmental issues explaining how important it is to save the Jordan River and redistribute water in the region, another young man, a settler with a gun in his belt and piercing blue eyes approached our group. It was difficult for him to accept the points made by the Palestinian specialist. We explained that we had seen the situation with our own eyes.
He put across the other argument which tried to justify what is a grossly an unfair situation. His point was that the settlers need the water for their farms and that they employ the Palestinians to work in their farms.
Should that be enough to respond to the fact that Palestinians are denied access to the River Jordan and to water? Of course not. This is a circular argument. The water is denied to the Palestinians in the first place, now the settlers help them by employing them in their well watered farms. This might explain why the Palestinian said to the settler in a calm voice: “this is not your country and you are not welcome here”.
Rabbi Frank pointed out that he was, like his people, full of fear. He never denied that. He was trying to convince us that their fear is justified. In doing that he showed himself unable to see that his/their fear is the result of their policies/attitude towards their neighbours.
I felt that that conversation by the Jordan River, in the place of baptism, shed a great deal of light on the relevance of Jesus’ message for today and for that context: a deep change of perspective a total reorientation towards a different realm. Otherwise, how could peace be achieved?
Peace Island at the confluence of the Jordan and the Yarmouk rivers, just south of Lake Galilee, is the best kept secret in the region. It is a small piece of land, on the Jordanian side, but under a peace treaty because of its history in achieving sharing and shared interests. The management of water on the Island allowed the generation of hydroelectric power and that electricity served the different countries. It is a potent symbol of how peace in the Jordan River could be achieved by shared interest. That is why the Island is called Peace Island.
How could Methodists support the work of peace in the region? It would be important that those visiting the Holy Land could engage with the present day situation in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. The WMC Jerusalem Office team is prepared and geared up to add that dimension to the experiences of pilgrims. They can bring an inter-religious and cross cultural, peace and justice oriented perspective to the visiting groups. They would help people to see and understand the situation today and relate that to the ministry of Jesus. The Jerusalem Office have the connections to allow groups to explore present day issues making a pilgrimage life changing in the baptismal sense. This trip reinforced those connections.
Let the Methodist and Wesleyan people have pilgrimages to the Holy Land that are about Jesus and his time as well as about the transforming power of his message for today. Like Jesus in the Gospels, crisscrossing the boundaries between countries, meeting people of different faiths, and those living on the edges would be essential to the pilgrims experience.
Meanwhile, we shall be exploring further, ways in which the World Methodist Council in collaboration with other groups in the region and beyond, could respond to the challenges we saw with our own eyes. Any Methodist/Wesleyan response towards peace for the River, water for the Valley, and justice for the people should be inter-Religious in nature, across countries, and always crisscrossing boundaries.