Anyone who has ever made the pilgrimage knows pretty much how it goes. Not the last day, but towards the end, after Masada and Qumran and En Gedi, the bus stops somewhere along the Dead Sea. Tired pilgrims stumble out of the bus with swim suits and towels in hand, and they head for the changing rooms.
I would call it a “swim,” but no one swims in the Dead Sea, not really.
After wading out farther than you might think necessary – to about hip deep – the strategy is to sit down in the water and – well – float. The mineral-rich water of the Dead Sea does most of the work.
It’s best not to swallow the water – or get any of it in the eyes.
For all of that it’s fun. Floating, paddling, and of course finishing up with the mud treatment. Even though I just returned today from my fifth visit to what American Christians like to call the “holy land,” I went into the water again. I go in every chance I get. Why? Well, did I mention that it was fun? At the lowest point on the face of the earth, I get to do something that has no particular educational value and no intellectual payoff. My preaching has never been enriched by this experience, at least not in ways I’m conscious of. I’m not even sure why it shows up on just about every holy land itinerary.
But here’s the thing: I was struck by how much laughter there was that day at the beach – not just from our group, but from groups up and down the beach. There were hundreds of people, maybe more, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and all of them were laughing, shouting, teasing, posing for pictures (see above), and playing. There were no children in sight, just a lot of adults acting like children, doing everything children do at the seashore.
And I loved it. Something seemed just right about it. After several days of lectures and presentations, learning about layer after layer of tradition (and dirt) in this part of the world, the bus stopped, we changed clothes, and the goal was nothing other than to have a good time. Other people might not have found the sights and sounds remarkable, but I did.
I don’t play much. And I need to do more of it. Play, though, is usually something I have to work at. What once came naturally to me, what I once spent hours and hours doing effortlessly, now requires a great deal of effort. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I’ve lost something precious.
I have friends who seem to know how to play, and over the years I have tended to gravitate to them, people who seem to do naturally what I have to put my mind to do.
Don’t get me wrong. My hard work over the years has paid off in some wonderful ways, but it has also hurt me in some ways too. And so, I would like to play again, like I did last Sunday afternoon. I would like to be able to play without thinking much about it, without having to fly 6000 miles and then take a bus ride to what feels like the end of the earth.
What a lesson to learn at the Dead Sea.
Tomorrow: A slightly more serious, less playful (of course), reflection on why people go the holy land. Hint: the Dead Sea doesn’t have much to do with it.
(Photo: I don’t know the guy on my left, but the two people on my right are members of my Fort Lauderdale church. Now that I’m 60, I’m more comfortable publishing swimsuit shots.)