I came to the desert to wander.
Before I came to New Mexico, I expected a predictable landscape – flat, all sand, constantly hot temperatures. Instead, I found bulging mesas emerging from sandstone layers, shifting winds, forest fires, winding rivers. This region of the southwest embodies the unpredictable nature of wilderness. We are at the mercy of the living climate.
Take this example from the summer: during my first week, we were on waterfront during a training when, suddenly, the winds picked up and our boats were carried to unexpected shores. We had to battle the wind back, island hopping and pushing the boats with knees deep in mud and our group separated. I had two choices: to be afraid and tremble my way back to the shore, or to adventure with the water splashing my face and find peace in the physical challenge. My friend Jesse lifted my spirits with his adventurous willingness as we prayed and laughed through the craziness, and later our group processed the difficulty that came with unexpected challenges. I learned in that moment the power of the elements – and the importance of trusting God through storms.
In conjunction with the climate’s dynamic nature, the land of New Mexico is magnificent – in the sense that it magnifies what I am feeling. Someone told me once that the desert is hungry and it can consume you emotionally. The land confronts me with its emptiness and vastness, and my sheer powerlessness and aloneness. There is a reason that generations of spiritual seekers have come to the desert.
In the past few weeks, my wanderings have led me to sources of water. Here, water can be spotted immediately because it is often surrounded by lush greenery of rare tall trees and irrigated fields. Like veins coursing through dry skin, rivers are the life blood of the desert.
During my first week at Ghost Ranch, I remember feeling lost without a place to sit in silence. One morning when I walked out of my casita, my feet were called to wander on a different path to breakfast. I found a comfortable spot between two juniper trees and paused to write about my thirst to be healed of conflicting emotions. In that moment, I decided to take the name Willow for the summer, a healing tree that connects the land with God’s mercy. At the end of my prayer, I looked below me to see a stream directly below me. I then opened my devotional, and read this passage for the day:
“For I will pour water on the parched ground and cause streams to flow on the dry land.” (Isaiah 44:3)
Sometimes, coincidences can be explained by nothing more or less than divine.
At the end of my first week, I sought to celebrate my birthday in water – as is my typical ritual. I went cliff jumping off twenty foot high rocks into a chilling lake, and my body became incredibly alive in those moments of stepping into thin air. To trust is to fall, and to fall is to be free. I will never forget the taste of freshwater, the freedom filling my pores as I submerged myself in that lake.
But in truth, I was searching for a way to renew my baptism. I wanted a cleansing ritual slightly less adventurous and dramatic than cliff jumping. It didn’t happen on my birthday, but I trusted it would come..
.. and as divine timing works, it did.
The Sunday following my birthday, our group went to visit ancient cliff dwellings and then tour a pilgrimmage town named Chimayo. Initially I debated going on the trip after a long week of working with youth aged 3 to 10, but some Quaker friends visiting the Ranch encouraged me to see the sacred site. Santuario de Chimayo is the second largest pilgrimmage site in North America, and its spirit enveloped me as soon as we arrived. I sat and prayed to the Virgin Mary in the santuario (sanctuary) before touching the healing dirt to my forehead. I walked outside of the chapel feeling grounded and refreshed. But my journey was not over.
When I sat down at the tables, my friend Will came up to me with an urgent look in his eyes. “Have you done your baptism?” he asked me, to which I replied I hadn’t. He took me by the hand down past the santuario, past a courtyard, and my curiosity was building – until I saw her.
A willow tree by a river.
Immediately, I broke into joyful tears, knowing I had been led to this place. My mentor and dear friend Marissa blessed me with the sign of the cross as we waded in to our knees. I spent several minutes rejoicing in the cooling waters pouring through me. Before we left, my friend Caleb and I remembered our baptisms with the blessing of our community life coordinator, Chester. “Remember that you are a child of God, blessed in the Trinity,” he spoke to us.
For most of my life, I have denied living as a child of God. I have questioned God’s love for me, the person of Jesus, and his healing waters. I have been hesitant to truly enjoy life with the fullness of my being. In the past few weeks, however, I have encountered a wellspring of healing that cannot take me away from the love of God.
Everything came full circle when, this week, a brother in Christ from Brazil named Claudio was sent to Ghost Ranch for a week to explore the person of Jesus with youth. In our first day, we did a ceremonial rememberance of our baptism in conjunction with taking communion. The power of ritual captivated me immediately, and I felt transformed through witnessing our community partake in sacraments. The theme of the week, “Who do you say that I am?”, led me to see Jesus as the Living Waters for the soul.
“As Scripture says, ‘Streams of living water will flow from deep within the person who believes in me.'” – John 7:38
Through Claudio’s prophetic message and the desert’s speaking, I have come to see Jesus as the one who quenches our thirst for connection. Jesus embodies the water that heals at the touch, the love that pours out over the least worthy and heals us of our fears. Just as Jesus gives water to the Samaritan woman at the well, he invites each of us to share with those we have been seperated from to become One. Jesus teaches us to surrender, to give our jars and let them be filled, to partake in the wellspring of joy that is true life.
Today, I found myself by the riverside, remembering how God has spoken into my life endlessly through these past few weeks. For the first time in my life, I feel no reason to be afraid. I am doing work that I love, with people that I love, in a place that has captured my heart. I am dancing, singing, writing poetry, playing with children in streams. I wrote:
Sitting by the Chama river flowing, the bird chirps peak to the wind’s melody through the trees. the moment is already a miracle. nothing I could do would be as cleansing as the gentle waters, swirling words that cleanse my longings. sweetly, the ripples speak the Lord’s presence to me. Willow tree, they say, come be with us. welcome what comes.
After that encounter, I knew it was time to enter the icy cold waters – so I eased myself into its flowing ways with mud covering my arms and face as my friend and I laughed our way in. It was a truly beautiful, serendipitous moment of bliss, floating – aliveness.
Sweet, sweet baptism, healing womb of new beginnings.
I came to the desert to wander. Jesus gives me water.
One week later:
In the past week, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 has come up again and again – until I realized it is time for me to listen more closely. The story of living waters makes perfect sense that it has come to me at this time. My mother prayed for me at the grotto of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the healing waters in Maryland. At a time of rebaptism and rebirth, God is speaking through scripture to reconnect me with truth.
The story opens with Jesus asking a woman for water – a woman who he should not speak to because she is a Samaritan. He asks for love from a stranger, as he is weary and needs water. For her to trust him, he reveals her past so that she may be healed and know he is a prophet. He then offers her living water so that she may never need to thirst again.
This morning, in worship, the service leader asked us to confront our cultural identities that keep us isolated from God. The Samaritan woman did not initially believe that Jesus would take a drink from her. What labels have I placed on my identity that keep me from emptying my cup and giving it to Jesus? How do I isolate myself from others by identity labels?
This morning, we also reflected upon drinking the water that our soul truly thirsts for – the deepest longings that only God can quench. What do I truly long for? The answer that always comes is agape: the Hebrew word meaning unconditional love. The message encouraged us to hear God calling us by our true name, to discover our true nature in light of God’s love. This calling emerges from somewhere unidentifiable within us that leads us to serve and love in new capacities previously unknown.
Through these four weeks of a journey, I have learned that this summer is a time to give my cup over to Jesus to be filled. The fears and desires that have held me captive – the desire to control, to be perfect – are poured out when God and I drink at the well together. I thirst for the freedom that comes from His love – and the magnificent joy that pours out! This week has shown me the pure joy that comes from reflecting on God’s love through service trips, high ropes adventures, sleeping under the stars, swimming in the early morning, sharing conversations about nature’s sacredness.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river
moving in you, a joy.” – Rumi
“The tree that is beside the running water is fresher and gives more fruit.” – St. Theresa de Avila
Just as the willow trees in the desert place their roots next to rivers, I am called to be nourished by the living waters. I leave you with this poem, inspired by the land of Ghost Ranch!
my life pours onward
until my feet are dust stained
by the desert’s heat
they thirst for an end
to this aloneness.
what is the Spirit
that speaks in sand canyons,
the shifting speculations
that spark wildfires?
what is the Word
that animates the waters
breaking open dust flesh
to birth carved stones?
what is the Presence
that towers above the mesas,
the grandmother’s faces
etching stories in the soul?
my feet wander to the place
where nothing, not even
the shifting sand, stirring arroyos, soaring cliffs
can contain the questions.
what do you fear?
my life pours onward
until my feet are kissed
by the taste of sweet dust
they revel to begin
the love feast.
how can they restrain
from the sound of cottonwood snow,
the smell of baking cookie dough,
the eight year old’s praying eyes,
the moon’s passing over sunlit skies,
the belly after swimming begging
to this, the willow tree
sways her branches in the windsong,
the one dance
all creation delights in.
what do you truly long for?
Image Source – the Chama river flowing near Ghost Ranch