To walk where Jesus walked. To pray where Jesus prayed. This is what Elizabeth Ann Melot dreamed of doing some day.
The Rev. Elizabeth Ann Melot has read about the Holy Land all her life. She studied at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio, graduating in 2000. She was ordained July 2000 and accepted the call to St. James Evangelical Church in Hobbie, Pa. She then accepted the call to Zion United Lutheran Church in Brodheadsville in 2004, where she now works and lives with Maisie, her St. Bernard, two cats and a pair of orange cheeked finches.
Finally, Pastor Ann, as she's known by her parishoners, walked where Jesus walked. She prayed where Jesus prayed. It was a dream come true when she visited the Holy Land last December where the Old Testament and the New Testament came alive for her.
On Dec. 27, she and a friend flew from Newark, N.J. to Munich, Germany and from there to Cairo, Egypt. They were met by a representative of Pilgrim Tours.
"When I travel, I like to rent a car and visit places on my own. But because of the cultural differences of the Middle East, we thought it would be best to tour in a group," says Pastor Ann.
She smiles when she talks about the Cairo traffic.
"I never saw anything like it. It was a big free-for-all. Our driver told us the traffic lanes are just suggestions."
The next morning was amazing as they had breakfast in the shadows of the Great Pyramids, ancient structures built by the hands of Israelite slaves for Egyptian pharoahs.
"It boggles the mind when you stand there looking at them and the Sphinx. To realize they were built so long ago and are still standing."
There was a visit to the Egyptian museum that houses the King Tut exhibit, mummies and an ancient basket, like the one that held the baby Moses in the river (Exodus 2: 1-10).
A 12-hour bus drive took them to Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 31:18). They were part of a convoy of vehicles that travel in packs for security reasons. An armed security guard traveled with them at all times.
They visited St. Catherine's monastery, over 17 centuries old, ("Just beautiful") a memorial site of where Moses saw the burning bush at the base of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:1-4).
They stood on the beach of the Red Sea, the one Moses parted so the Israelites could leave Egypt but once the Israelites passed safely, God had the sea come crashing down on the pursuing Egyptians (Exodus 14: 21-22).
"You can see Saudia Arabia, Jordan and Israel from that point," she says.
Each time they crossed a border into another country, they had to disembark one bus and board a different one with a new driver.
In Jordan, they saw Petra, the amazing capital city of the Nabataeans built around 312 BC with structures hewn into sandstone cliffs. It was there Pastor Ann rode a camel for the first time. And she says, for the last time.
"They're really really big and there's no graceful way to get on or off," she smiles at the memory.
She was entranced with the mosaic floor in St. George's sixth century Greek Orthodox cathedral in Madaba, Jordan.
Madaba is best known for its superb, historically significant Byzantine era mosaics, especially the mosaic map in St. George's Church. Unearthed in 1864, the mosaic was once a clear map with 157 captions (in Greek) of all major biblical sites from Lebanon to Egypt. The mosaic was constructed AD 560 and once contained more than two million pieces, only of the whole now survives.
The Madaba Map (also known as the Madaba Mosaic Map) is part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan. The Madaba Map is a map of the Middle East. Part of it contains the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem. It dates to the 6th century AD.
"Knowing that people walked on it for centuries, I could have spent hours there. We visited a mosaic workshop. The workers make the mosaics the same way as they were made centuries ago."
From there they visited the memorial site at Mt. Nebo where it is believed God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land which he could not enter before he died. He is believed to be buried there (Deuteronomy 34: 1).
Pastor Ann's first impression upon entering Israel was that it was more modern than Jordan and Egypt. Up until they entered Israel, they were told not to drink the water or eat any fresh fruit and vegetables.
"It was so good to finally be able to eat some fresh fruit," she says.
Her group visited Caesarea and traveled among the ruins of Herod's palace and viewed amazing antique carvings in the stone.
Then she was walking on the same paths that Jesus once walked.
In Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, they visited Nazareth Village.
"It's like Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm. People dressed as in the time of Jesus. We saw a first century olive press work, visited a carpenter shop and a tomb similar to what was used in Jesus's day for burials. It's a cave where a stone can be rolled in front of it."
She admits her vision of Israel had been that of rocky terrain and dry. But visiting Mt. Carmel (which means God's vineyard) was green rolling hills with lush trees heavy with fruit. It is where Elijah challenged 450 prophets of false gods to a contest at the altar to determine who was the one true God (1 Kings 18:17-40).
In Tiberius on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, she saw the remains of a 1st century fishing boat, probably just like the one used by his disciples (Matthew 4:18).
At Caesera Phillipi, they stood in an area where it is believed Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-16).
Capernaum was perhaps Pastor Ann's favorite spot.
"So much of the gospels takes place here. We visited an archeological site that might possibly be Peter's home." (Mark 2).
The Mt. of Beatitudes is a memorial site overlooking the sea. It is lush and green, a hill in northern Israel where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-3).
The tour took them to a spot on the Jordan River, where Jesus may have been baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-15).
"It is not very wide at the spot. It didn't look at all like I pictured it. It's a very brown, muddy river."
It was also heavily guarded by three armed Israeli soldiers.
"We know we were well protected, but it's disconcerting. It's just not something we're used to in our country," she says.
They took a tram ride up to the Masada mountain top fortress, an ancient fortification in southern Israel, on top of an isolated rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod the Great built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BC. The Siege of Masada by troops of the Roman Empire towards the end of the First Jewish - Roman War ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish rebels and their families holed up there. Masada is Israel's most popular paid tourist attraction.
She floated in the Dead Sea, saw the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and saw a papyrus scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of 972 texts discovered between 1946 and 1956 that consist of biblical manuscripts from what is now known as the Hebrew Bible and extra-biblical documents found on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea
The weather changed when they arrived in Jerusalem with heavy rains.
"They got more rain in three days thant they had in the last 20 years," says Pastor Ann.
She saw the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed the lame man, (John 5 1-15) where Stephen was stoned, making him the first Christian martyr, (Acts 6) and visited a holocaust museum ("a very jarring experience.")
Some of the other places she visited were Mount Moriah, where Abraham prepared to offer his son Isaac to God (Genesis 22:1-18) and where the Temple once stood that housed the Ark of the Covenant (1Kings 6).
Out of everything she saw and all the places she visited, Pastor Ann's two favorties were Capernaum and the Church of the Nativity.
"At Capernaum, it was seeing the ruins that made the gospel stories I studied and read about, real for me. Jesus walked these hills and spent much of his ministry here. And the Church of the Nativity...where it was believed the Christ Child was born. It was seeing the place of his birth, feeling the connection to the Christmas story. I could feel the story taking place."
She walked at the Garden of Gethsemane, (Matthew 26:36-46) where Jesus went to pray, the base of Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-46) and the Via Dolorosa (latin for "Way of Grief", "Way of Suffering" or simply "Painful Way"), the street within the Old City of Jerusalem believed to be the path that Jesus walked as he carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion; and a tomb, like the one where Jesus was laid to rest.
"The trip was overwhelming. I'm still absorbing all I've seen. It changes your picture of the stories we read in the Bible. Now when I read about one of these places, I can picture what it really was like in Jesus' day."
She observed how the people in the Middle East live in tight quarters, the herders in the hills live in makeshift tents and shacks, trying to scrabble together ways to feed their families. She became quite aware of our different cultures. She has also come to understand just how much freedom Americans really have and the amenities we enjoy.
Someday, she would love to be able to return. But until then, Pastor Ann's trip to the Holy Land will remain a once in a lifetime experience.