The tunnels echo with our voices – laughing, gasping, calling, even squealing. In pitch black, we reach out with words to confirm for ourselves the presence of our companions, the water splashing steadily beneath our feet. From farther ahead in the single-file line, a formless figure calls back to me with the guide’s instructions: Pause to read the inscription on the left-hand wall. The old carved Hebrew letters tell of men who called out to their fellow workers as they chiseled stone into waterways nearly three thousand years ago. I pause briefly and linger, scanning the foreign script with my flashlight before I have to walk on. Cold water now runs steadily up to my knees, and I feel it tingling with life.
We move in a single file line, enclosed by the tunnels King Hezekiah ordered to ensure his city’s water would be protected if the Assyrian king attacked Jerusalem. We now stand firm on the rock once carved by relentless workers who made space for flowing water to offer life. Someone strikes up a song, and gradually we join the tune all up and down the line. The modern hymn’s lyrics bounce off the narrow stone walls and envelop us in the dark: This Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm. My breath catches as I listen to our voices amplified, our words carrying almost tangible presence.
The words we sing are new; the walls are old, and we stand here within them in 2018 reciting lyrics that stem from centuries of church history, centuries of Christ’s history – centuries of Israel’s history. My mind races in search of what scattered pieces I can remember about Kings and Chronicles, and for the first time I feel ravenous to peruse those Old Testament books. Here, with Jerusalem’s temple barely out of sight, stories become connected for me. We are the church built on the history of this place. Whether I have ever noticed Hezekiah’s tunnels or not, they remain part of the foundation beneath my story – and now I am amazed wanting to find every last detail.
The words ground us, intransient, to grasp in our minds what we already feel beneath our feet: we are all part of the same story.
When all of us college kids from Houston leave those tunnels, we walk back into a technologically advanced twenty-first century city, yet we pass an active excavation site on our walk back to the bus, and then the towering walls of the ancient temple, embedded firmly in twenty-first century urban living.
As an American, I can quickly forget the value of longevity in a physical space. In our own nation, we have wiped out the stories of the people who inhabited North America before us and left few monuments. Hardly any of the physical structure in America goes back beyond three or four centuries. Ancient history is head knowledge, not holistic experience. Here in Israel, however, I cannot set aside the past with the same facility. It surrounds us from every angle: the ancient with the modern day. Human ingenuity has developed plumbing from tunnels to aqueducts to full modern pipes for running water. Wars still rage here and now, and the long, painful cycles of revenge have never stopped. What has happened here has impacted me. The Bible in my room binds me to my Passages group, and it also binds me to Israel’s story today.
So often the words in my Bible can feel like they belong to a fantasy land in a separate dimension with magic and miracles. When I had first arrived in the glistening Tel Aviv airport, I still felt that way: I had entered just another modern city, little different from the United States or Europe, and I would have to believe intellectually that Jesus walked here. With each day of our Passages journey, though, I have begun to see the Biblical history lodged in every direction within the terrain, not sterile like a museum, but entrenched in the land and stamped with written words: We have been here.
And now I find something startling: the presence of modernity is the most powerful aspect of all. As we fluidly move through past and present all in one, I linger on how Jesus spoke a promise to be with His disciples even to the end of the age. Jesus was here. Jesus is here. The history around me testifies to the truth of His words, and if His power is real here in Jerusalem today, then His power is equally real in Judea, Samaria, Nairobi, Berlin, Seoul, Bogota, New York, and Houston. With living water rippling over me, I hear words echoing loud from across history, my feet firm on solid rock: Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.