She stood in the water before him. It had been a hot summer so far, but the water was cooler than she’d expected. It was also not as clear as she’d have liked. She couldn’t see anything below the surface, although once or twice she’d felt something brush against her leg. Maybe it was a fish. Maybe it was a weed. Maybe it was something bigger, it certainly wasn’t unknown in these parts. She felt a little wary, and stupid. This had seemed like a good idea, despite the trip. Once the thought had got stuck in her head it didn’t seem to shift, and now she was here.

He was dark. The sun had turned his skin the colour of dried dates, and his hair was bleached fair. Even in the river she could smell the muskiness of his scent. His eyes were deep and alive.

“What’s your name?”
“Do you renounce your former life and confess your sins?”
“And what are your sins Miriam?”
She looked down at the water, avoiding his eyes. “I worked on the Sabbath. The thong on my sandal broke and I didn’t have another pair. I had to repair it”

He looked at her intently, deeply, and repeated the question.

“And what are your sins Miriam?”
“I bought a used scarf from the bazaar. It was a gift, and I didn’t have the money for a new one.”

“And what are your sins Miriam?”
“I told my husband I was niddah so I wouldn’t have to travel to the temple”

“And what are your sins Miriam?”
She hesitated a moment. Hadn’t she given him enough?
“I was unfaithful to my husband.”

He waited, as if there should be more. What more did he want? This wasn’t what she’d expected. Despite the crowd on the shore she felt vulnerable in the presence of this stranger. What had she been thinking? She felt confused, as if he was using words she didn’t understand. What did he want? She’d told him her sins. Wasn’t this about forgiveness?

He repeated the question. Gently. Inviting.
“What are your sins Miriam?”

She looked up at him, and looking into his eyes she felt herself held in depths far deeper and far stronger than the river. He gently smiled at her. Or, it might have been the way the sun fell on his face, highlighting his mouth. She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t tear her gaze away.

Her mouth opened and words spilled out, words that she didn’t realise were her own. Words that she hadn’t wanted to speak, things that she hadn’t wanted to share with anyone, especially this raw, unsettling man. They were dragged from her, or perhaps escaped from her as a prisoner escapes a cell.

“I don’t know if I believe in God. Or, if I do, I don’t understand. Nothing makes any sense, despite what they say. I try my best, but I fail, all the time. If God’s there, I don’t think he cares. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. I see it all the time. God should care, but he doesn’t seem to. And I don’t know if giving money to the temple makes any difference, or even if sacrificing does. Someone said they sell the meat, get rich. They give the fat to God. That can’t be right either. And none of it’s fair. And I don’t really know why I’m here. Except I’m here because I don’t know what else to do, and it’s just not fair”

She was rambling. In the middle of the river all her frustration poured out. But her questions swept away into the river as she spoke. There were no answers, or at least not answers she could accept.

His eyes were gentle, accepting, and understanding. He nodded.

“Are you ready to start again Miriam?”

And in the midst of her confusion, amidst all the questions and uncertainty, she suddenly realised that she was. A weight lifted and she felt lighter and free. She nodded to him.

He took her in his arms and she let herself go. She closed her eyes and felt herself sink into the depths of the river. Strong arms held her beneath the water, and then, just as quickly, she was breaking free of the surface into the world once more.

He said “Go Miriam, and sin no more.”

And for the first time in her life she understood what sin was, and she wasn’t afraid. There was a peace, a joy, a grace; and she was known, and she was loved.

As someone helped her make her way up the bank of the river she realised that she still didn’t have any answers, but that it was OK. Her life wasn’t her own and it was never going to be the same again. In ways she couldn’t begin to explain, she was now free. 

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Mark 1:4-5

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