By Nikko Wheeler
Water has been essential throughout most of my life.
As a kid, my dad was in the Navy. He was stationed in Panama City Beach, working at the Experimental Diving Unit. When he wasn’t working, we’d go to the base pool, where we spent much of our time submerged underwater, practicing holding our breath. After he left the Navy, we moved to Iowa, where I spent the rest of my childhood and teenage years doing other various activities on the water. I’d spend summers fishing and gigging frogs at my grandparent’s pond. Or sometimes friends and I would go kayaking and tubing down different rivers and creeks at night. Or we’d sneak into other quarries and jump off 60-foot cliffs into the water below. And when I was able, I got a job as a lifeguard working at my local pool.
So, when I joined the Navy, those who knew me weren’t surprised. But my experience with water in the Navy was drastically different from those in my childhood. Like my father, I enlisted for a Navy special operations job. All were competitive and required highly selective training courses. But, contrary to my previous experiences with water, these courses tended to use water to challenge individuals and ensure they were durable enough for the rigors of the job.
There were times they tested us by putting us in a pool and wrapping our wrists behind our backs so that we couldn’t use our arms for swimming. Instead, we would have to draw enough air into our lungs to be sufficiently buoyant and position our body so that we would stay afloat and gulp for air when needed. Other times, they would have us tread in the water for an undetermined length of time, sometimes with fins, sometimes with shoes and sometimes with a 35-pound sandbag over our heads. And then, there were the times they used cold water to test us. They would put us in sub-60°F water until we were hypothermic and then take us out for a bit to warm up. Then they’d put us back in again and repeat a few more times for good measure.
After all the trials and tribulations, I could enjoy the water again. As a byproduct of being in the Navy, you get stationed on bases close to different coasts, so I’d been able to live on beaches and dive in waters all around the world, including the U.S., Spain, Romania, Iceland and even Egypt. I had learned water had a capacity for both delights and challenges. As a result, I left the Navy with a newfound respect and appreciation for water.
But I was still blind to water’s true significance. At that time, I had not yet been to Israel. And I was not yet a Christian.
Some of these things rushed through my head as I sat down on a knee-high boulder. I looked out across the uniquely dark pebble beach towards the horizon of the Sea of Galilee, unable to differentiate where the sea ended and the sky began because of the fog blending the two. It was Day four of the Passages trip at the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter in Tabgha, Israel. Most of my friends and peers were down at the shoreline, taking their shoes off, wading into the sea and leisurely skipping rocks. I took one last sip of my coffee—which I would later get scolded for having by the Franciscan monk on the grounds—and walked down towards the water to join them.
“Hey, do you want a picture?” one of my friends asked me.
“Sure, I’d love one, thank you.” I waded a bit further out into the water.
The pebbles were sharp and shifted beneath my feet, making it awkward to walk barefoot. But the water was refreshing, and I stepped out just far enough to get my jeans wet. I faced the sun as my friend positioned himself to take a photo. The lighting was uncanny, and the images taken appropriately reflected the supernaturality of the context. To be in Israel, on the Sea of Galilee, was surreal.
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.'” – Matt. 4:19
And there I was in Israel, doing my best to do what Jesus had asked of Peter. On the Passages trip, we were doing just that, following Jesus’s path. And I, a relatively new Christian as of six months ago, was soaking it all in, learning as much as I could to follow His Word.
“Okay, I’m done taking photos,” my friend called out.
I waded back through the water towards the shoreline.
“But when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.'” – Mk. 6:49-50
From the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, our group traveled south along the coastline of the Sea of Galilee through Ginosar and Magdala, eventually stopping in Tiberias. We then made our way towards a dock, where we loaded a boat and set sail into the Sea of Galilee.
As we drifted further away from land, Tiberias and its surrounding towns began to open to us, showing the picturesque landscape and architecture. As one friend and I joked, “this is likely a location where James Bond would go to get away after succeeding at yet another world-saving mission.” The irony that this land was where the world was saved, rather than where one went after saving the world, is not lost upon me.
As we turned out towards the Sea of Galilee, the eeriness of the lingering fog was striking. A member of the group suggested the ghostliness was contextually perfect for when Jesus surprised the disciples walking on the water.
We spent the rest of our time on the sea worshiping and taking pictures, and as the boat turned around to take us back to shore, I began to get nervous. We had one more stop for that day, and I had prepared for it all night the night before.
A few hours later, our bus pulled up to the Yardenit, a baptismal site on the Jordan River. This stop was especially significant for me: I was finally getting baptized, at the very location where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
I had turned down and missed baptism opportunities many times before in my life. Most notable of those times was out by a pond near my hometown of Gilmore City, Iowa, with my grandpa, a local pastor, and my brother. My brother and I grew up visiting him and staying over at his place often, where he would sometimes ardently teach us about scripture or the biblical narrative. But, more typically, he showed us his faith by being a living example of what a good Christian should be.
Even so, and despite my young age, I had been primarily out of the Christian faith for various reasons, typically unanswered questions; however, my questioning was not without concentrated efforts to find answers. I remember being in Canada with my brother and grandpa, listening to Psalms 91:1-8 repeatedly on my iPod down by the lakeside. Somehow, to this day, I have it memorized, even after I departed from Christianity for years.
But when my grandpa, brother and I were down by that pond near my hometown that day, I did not consider myself a Christian. So, when my grandpa sat us down, talked about baptism and what it meant, and asked if we wanted to be baptized, I said no. My brother said yes. My grandpa took my brother down into the pond, and I waited up the hill on the shoreline, away from the water. My grandpa has since passed away, so the fact that I was going to get baptized in the Jordan River felt redemptive in more ways than one.
We stepped out of the bus onto the Yardenit Baptismal Site, and my pastor led me to the changing room to don the white robe garment. I changed, stepped out, walked down to the Jordan River in front of my peers and friends, and gave my testimony. One part of the testimony is particularly noticeable to me now as I look over it:
“By choosing to live my life as a Christian, the path has become very direct and straightforward in many facets. But although living through Jesus Christ has brought me forms of peace and simplicity; it is not easy. And I don’t think it is intended to be. Christians are meant to bear greater personal and social challenges. We are meant to face life’s [challenges and] temptations. But we are also meant to face these challenges and temptations through Jesus Christ, and only through him do we overcome them. We carry a higher responsibility towards ourselves and others. We openly and happily bear the burdens of being a Christian, so that we may appropriately represent the church community and Christianity as a whole. But through God, all things are possible.”
I had turned down and missed baptism opportunities many times before in my life. Now was not that time. As Peter wrote:
“And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” – 1 Peter 3:21
I was submerged and brought out from underneath the water. I had finally been baptized.
A few days later, we left Jerusalem and departed for Masada, located in the northern part of the Jordan Valley. Whereas I’d learned water’s physical uses and capabilities throughout my youth, and the first half of the trip—alongside my baptism—had taught me its spiritual importance, Masada brought an entirely new perspective. As we walked atop the mountain and through the ruins that were left behind, our tour guide told us its history, illuminating the significance of water during this geopolitical conflict.
King Herod built Masada in the first century B.C. Then, around 73 A.D., a group of Jewish rebels called the Sicarii left Masada, fleeing from an army of the Roman Empire. The Romans attempted to infiltrate Masada, but the Sicarii could defend Masada for a relatively long time because of its sheer cliffs, barren environment, and other factors, making it a unique stronghold.
One of these factors that lent to the Sicarii’s ability to hold out for so long was its cisterns. Cisterns are waterproof chambers used to store water for various purposes. Carved out from the cliff sides of Masada were several aqueducts leading to cisterns located all around the structure of the mountaintop. But there’s a reason these cisterns were so advantageous for the Sicarii relative to the Roman troops camped out around Masada: the land it lies on only receives about two inches of rainfall annually. So, whereas the Sicarii were collecting and storing all the rain falling on its surface, the Roman army was left to gather their water 13 miles away in Ein Gedi.
As our tour guide told us, the Sicarii would pour water onto Roman troops below as they would scale the cliffside in attempts to penetrate the fortress. They didn’t pour water on them to hurt them. Nor did they use it to make them slip while climbing. But instead, they were flaunting how dispensable water was to them as a means of psychological warfare in contrast to the harsh conditions both were living. However, the Romans were eventually able to break through the Sicarii’s defenses, and rather than become slaves, the Sicarii chose to commit mass suicide. This incident eventually became a symbol of Jewish resistance to oppression. There is no doubt that water played a meaningful role in that resistance.
I wandered into some leftover ruins closer to the cliff’s edge and looked toward the Dead Sea. Days prior, I had been baptized, the water symbolizing me being saved through Jesus Christ. Now I was learning how water had played a role in what has become a crucial but dark moment in Israel’s history. It was a stark contrast. I briefly considered what other geopolitical situations in water might play a critical role. That may be an endless list. Even within my job in the Navy, EOD—Explosive Ordnance Disposal—water serves a wide range of purposes as a means of accomplishing geopolitical goals. On the one hand, it can be utilized to safely neutralize an improvised explosive device or rinse a toxic chemical off equipment. On the other hand, due to its incompressibility, water is used to amplify the explosive effect of different underwater weapons, such as limpets or mines.
The complexities that water brings to most geopolitical and strategic situations have not escaped the world, let alone Israel. With Israel being a naturally water-scarce territory, access to water has continued to be a central contention point in their geopolitical dealings. Equal water distribution has been a significant talking point in negotiating peace with their neighboring countries. The country has also relied on different conservation methods, such as its massive desalination industry and efficient water reuse practices. Because of the importance of this industry to Israel, their water management and conservation expertise have led them to become a leader in this field among other countries.
After spending a few hours up on Masada, we eventually—thankfully—took the cable car back down. As everyone else began loading the bus, I stopped by the water fountain and filled up my bottle. I had been thirsty just from being up there for a few hours. I quickly ran back to the bus, and we carried on to the rest of our tour for that day, coasting north along the Dead Sea.
Many days later, on our last day in Israel, we traveled to ancient Jaffa, known for its association with some of the biblical stories of Jonah and Peter. The events we covered in Jaffa appropriately summarized my Christian journey from the beginning and through this passage to Israel.
The bus pulled up just within view of the Mediterranean Sea. We hurriedly scattered off onto the sidewalk amidst honks from cars in line behind us, simultaneously surrounding a statue of an oddly shaped fish. The statue symbolizes the story of Jonah, where Jonah was punished by a great storm for disobeying God’s command, subsequently being thrown overboard and swallowed by a giant fish for three days and nights. It wasn’t until Jonah repented and asked for deliverance from the depths of the sea that God delivered Jonah out of the belly of the fish and onto dry land. My journey out of darkness and into Christianity was not much different.
“Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me… I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit” – Jonah 2:2-6
As a group, we left the statue on its own and began sidewinding through the alleys of Jaffa. We eventually exited the pathways and back onto a street with a church and the shoreline back in view. The church was St. Peter’s Church, and we stopped and sat on the stairs of what would be one of our last stops of the entire trip. As our tour guide would explain, coincidentally, where our Passages Israel tour now ended is where some see Christianity as having begun. I had just found myself drowning in my own personal depths a short while ago. Now, I was in a tropical coastal town as a newly baptized Christian, learning about the origins of Christianity in the location it was purported to have occurred. It was hard to believe how quickly my life had changed. Our tour guide then proceeded to elaborate on the importance of Acts 10 to us.
In Acts 10, Peter receives a vision where he is told that nothing made by God should be considered unclean because, traditionally, Judaic law prohibited the eating of certain animals and foods. Peter is then called to Cornelius’s house by Cornelius, a Roman centurion, at the request of an angel. Peter goes to the household, begins preaching the gospel to them, and while speaking, the Holy Spirit falls on those listening to Peter. It was at this point that Christianity as a religion began to take place and separate from Judaic practices. Whereas before this point, only Jewish Christians would be baptized, Gentiles—non-Jews—had received the Holy Spirit. And so:
“Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” – Acts 10:46-48
And thus, where Christianity began, our Passages Israel trip ended in tandem with my Christian pilgrimage. On a hill above the scenic Mediterranean water, in Israel, next to a church.
The stories behind these pictures are just a few examples of the ubiquity of water throughout Israel.
In Magdala, our tour guide briefed us on the significance of mikvahs—baths in which Jewish ritual purifications are performed—while showing us multiple archaeological examples throughout our trip. On our visit to West Bank, we learned many houses had water storage tanks on their roofs because the Israeli government would only allow the water system to work at certain times. As we drove from Jerusalem, past Jericho and Qumran, towards Masada, we were told that much of the water that hydrated and helped to cultivate the dates of the desert palm tree—a critical export commodity for the Palestinian economy—was simply run-off from Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem, we learned about the strategic significance of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a water tunnel carved out beneath the ancient City of David, used to fortify the city against invading forces without losing control of its primary water supply. These examples are without mentioning the pools of Bethesda, the pool of Siloam, the importance of the Dead Sea itself, and the list goes on.
Throughout the Passages Israel trip, I shed many tears, whether from the heaviness of our experiences, the realization of what had occurred in this land, or simply the beauty of what these events meant. Even now, in writing this, I’ve teared up thinking about the significance of it all.
Regarding earthly potential, it is a severe understatement to say that water is vital for life. It is a necessary means for the survival and growth of all living organisms. It is a critical component of many biological processes. It is where many creatures—and a large abundance of our food supply—live. It is a means of cleaning. It is a factor in geopolitics around the world. And it is even a medium for both children and adults to exercise and have fun. But it can also be destructive. Natural disasters have historically caused damage and loss of life around the world. It is withheld to manipulate people, places, and even entire countries. It is used for challenging and testing individuals and even for torture. Water permeates nearly every narrative of life.
But what is more important than the physical capacities water holds is what it represents symbolically. Because of what I have learned in Israel and throughout my Christian journey, water has taken on a new meaning. Water has shown its potential not only for enjoyment and challenges but also for life. And at times, delivering that life through the death of brokenness and sin so that good can continue to flourish. This truth is displayed in a literal sense in both the story of the flood and in the exodus of Israel from Egypt, where water serves as a physical tool of salvation for some, and as a force of destruction for others.
However, in baptisms, water serves as a symbol rather than a physical tool. Baptisms symbolize death and resurrection in Christ, spiritual purity, and deliverance into moral righteousness through the public declaration to follow Christ, his truth, and his way of life.
With our modern technologies and capabilities, we are able to use water in ways that people 2,000 years ago could never have imagined. We use water as a physical tool to save lives, but we also yet use it as a force of destruction towards others. Where humanity fails is in discernment of these use cases of water. In this way, humanity has foolishly attempted to emulate God to catastrophic results.
Without committing to Jesus Christ’s way of life—as baptism symbolizes—humanity will never be able to apply the moral righteousness provided to us by God through his sacrifice. We will never be capable of using such a potent force as water for solely the good of human flourishing. Without that wisdom, we are as good as dead in the water.