As Advent and this Holy Land series draw to a close and the long awaited day of celebrating the birth of a most extraordinary baby draw near, I thought it timely to share the story of my own birthday, September 16, the final week of our travels. The realization of celebrating my birthday on this trip started off with anticipation, followed by a bit of disappointment, and then renewed anticipation, much like the mixed sentiments around Jesus’ birth.
My initial anticipation was ignited by my first glances at the itinerary. When I received it I immediately scanned the document to see what was planned on my birthday. I was astounded. I mean, it was enough that I was going to be traveling in the Holy Land on the 28th anniversary of my life, but it was even more euphoric to discover we were set to be in the holiest place in this land, doing some of the holiest of things! We were going to be in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The schedule had us beginning the day on the Mount of Olives and commencing from there down the traditional Palm Sunday route. That is, the way in which Jesus traveled into the heart of Jerusalem, the week before his crucifixion. (For more all Palm Sunday read Luke 19:28-44). Along the way down the mountain (glorified hill, really) we would stop in the Garden of Gethsemene. The prospect of this stop was actually the most exciting of all for me that day because it is the one place during my first visit in 2011 where I felt like I finally connected to the Biblical story. Until the garden I felt overwhelmed by and numb toward everything I was seeing in Jerusalem. I thought, what a special gift it is that God would bring me back here on my birthday! Following the Garden of Gethsemene we would head to Mount Zion, and then Solomon’s Pools the Jerusalem water source for thousands of years. We would then complete the day in Beit Sahour (the Shepherd’s Fields) and Bethlehem! I could not believe it! I was going to get to see my dear Palestinian friend, Ashraf and see the site of Jesus’ birth on my birthday! I could hardly contain my joy.
Then, the itinerary changed. My heart sank and I thought, why, God? Why get me all excited and then change it all?
Our itinerary had to be changed because of Yom Kippur. Our ability to travel through the city by any other mode than foot would be impossible on the 15th so in order to see all we needed and wanted to see we had to flip our dates in Galilee and Jerusalem.
So, I did not get to wander Jerusalem on my birthday, but I still got to wake up there and I still got to spend time in Palestine. In fact, as the day unfolded, with its numerous surprise, and I love surprises (well, except for surprise changes in itineraries), I was astounded by how wonderfully the day turned out!
As we left Jerusalem that morning, we passed the sprawling ancient wall of the old city and all the historical treasures held within. We made our way north to Galilee. Our first stop was in the region of Samaria in the Palestinian city of Shechem (or Sychar, now Nablus). Here, God told Abram some of the most powerful words in history, “To your descendants I give this land (Gen. 12.6-8).” Here, Jacob’s well resides–the location where generations of people gathered water for themselves and their flocks. People including Jesus. In fact, it is one of the few sites archeologists have been able to confirm is the actual well referred to in John 4 when Jesus had that infamous talk with the Samaritan woman. She said to him, ‘”I know the Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us (John 4:25).”‘ Here, to the Samaritan woman, God (Jesus) responded with one of the most powerful statements in all of history: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you, (John 4:26)”–the Messiah, the one who saves. What extraordinary events. What an extraordinary place… And, I realize as I write now this, how appropriate it is to remember this story at this time, as we are six days away from celebrating Jesus coming into the world to save us all.
Like most monuments in Holy Land, this, too, had a church build over/around it. Jacob’s Well church was absolutely gorgeous. We entered through its white, street level archway into an open courtyard draped in green vines and bright flowers. We descended down white steps to the courtyard floor decorated with a massive mosaic of the well. I took my time drinking in the beauty. It struck me as one of the most lovely, welcoming places we had visited so far.
Time seemed to stop here. Something jostled me back to reality and I realized this was not the case. I looked around and noticed my group had gone inside ahead of me and I was left alone, again. I caught the eye of a man in the doorway who appeared to be the groundskeeper and thought perhaps he was suggesting I needed to return to my group. So, I quickly finished my photos and rushed in. He noticed my hurried movement and said in a kind voice something to the effect of, “It’s okay, take your time.” He followed with, “Come see me when you are finished I have a present for you.” This was curious indeed, but I was too curious to pass it up.
In the mean time I cast my eyes upon the elegant Orthodox church. It truly was not gaudy like many others. It was elaborate and ornate with a three-tiered circular gold candelabra and a gold coffin-like piece of furniture on the right with candles. It was also very light inside (perhaps that’s why I liked it so much). The interior wasn’t cream or darkened stone, like so many churches we had visited, but it was painted bright white, mostly. There were also were also magnificent heaven-height, brilliant colored paintings adorning the walls.
We walked down some stairs near altar in the transept of the church into a small underground “cell”, of sorts. Here stood the well. No photos were allowed (hence the sketch). The square well still functioned so, naturally, we gave it a try. Andre, our guide, gave the challenge a go and began to turn the handle on the wheel holding the rope to let down the bucket. The wheel creaked with a high-pitched screech at each turn as the rope-dangling bucket descended down the millennia-old shaft to the water below. But, we were all willing to endure the sound for a site and, more importantly, a taste of the ancient source’s treasure. I was amazed the water still existed and moreover was still drinkable! After a bit of time, it was a 40 meter-deep well, and a bit of a work out, the bucket reemerged from the depths. We admired the clear liquid for a moment then each dipped our cupped hands in. It was cold, clean, and had a hint of sweetness. It was refreshing to my tongue and on my forehead as I placed the sign of the cross upon it with my finger.
When we returned to the sanctuary above I scanned the space for the sweet-faced groundskeeper. I found him and made my way over to him. When he saw me he beckoned me follow him to the little display of tourist trinkets and grabbed something from behind the counter. It was a small wooden piece, perhaps 2 in. x 2 in. with two little vials on either side of a drawing of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. On the bottom was scrolled “Jacob’s Well”. He explained, pointing first to the vial on the left, this is myrrh and this,” pointing to the right, “is water [from the well].” I received it with such joy and hugged him expressing my immense thanks. I felt like I had encountered an angel. This man had no idea it was my birthday, had no reason to single me out or show me kindness, but he did. I walked out held in awe and joy.
I still look back on that day with amazement. Isn’t that so like God? To let us conceive of a picture of who God is or what God does and then change it up on us only to gift us with something even more marvelous than we could have dreamed? And, in the smallest and greatest of ways. From the little details of how I, one of seven billion others of God’s people, would spend my birthday, to the greatest of world-changing events when God would choose to become like us, be born into the world like us, and change the course of history.
And this is just the beginning.