Hitting bottom

Readings for the feast day of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist:

Psalm 97

Psalm 98 (Morning)

Psalm 145 (Evening)

Proverbs 8:22-30

or Isaiah 44:1-8

John 13:20-35

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, “I am the Lord’s,” another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, “The Lord’s,” and adopt the name of Israel. Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be. Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one. ~Isaiah 44:1-8 (NRSV)

To fully hear the depth of our reading in Isaiah, it’s important to know a little bit about tamarisk bushes. Tamarisks are pretty amazing, actually. They’re not exactly plants that would catch your attention right away–they are rather nondescript, willowy, and shrubby-looking. But they can grow in the most inhospitable places. Tamarisks can be found in the deserts of Albania, the rocky wasteland of the southwestern United States, and along coastlines of all sorts of temperature regions. They can thrive in places too salty for most plants–in fact, they merely slurp up salty, brackish water and spit the salt out, encrusting themselves in it, gaining the nickname “salt cedar.” When they are near a good water source, such as near a river, they drink like there’s no tomorrow, up to 200 gallons a day, yet they are drought resistant, with aggressive tap roots that can break rock. They can even be burned to a blackened stub and within weeks, green shoots will appear at their charred bases.

In short, they grow in places and situations where nothing should dare survive. Their mention in Isaiah portends new life from the impossible.

As we swing from Advent into Christmas, tamarisks are a reminder of what we heard a few weeks ago–that “nothing is impossible with God”–but that this new birth might well be in a very inhospitable environment. Although the bulk of our readings today are in the “praise and exultation” mode, today’s Gospel–the betrayal of Jesus by Judas–stands in sharp contrast. It seems an odd place for our Gospel reading–a betrayal in a season more associated with joy. Perhaps, though, it’s not so odd if we think about the tamarisk and its powers of renewal. Tamarisks survive because of their incredibly deep tap root and their ability to find the deepest possible source of water. They survive and thrive because they know just how far the bottom is, and how deep it has to go to get there.

Anyone who is an alcoholic, an addict, or a family member of one knows the full depth of what “hitting bottom” is all about, and that it is only in hitting bottom that the real recovery begins. We don’t seem to see that one when we are only heading to the bottom–we are too busy with the delusion we can slow our descent. It’s only when we hit that place where the breath is knocked out of us and we are lying flat that we ever really seem to address our addictions and codependencies. Even then, we may find ourselves drinking salt water for a spell.

Yet, there’s that crazy tamarisk–growing where it’s not supposed to grow, drinking what it’s not supposed to drink, and covering itself with a rind of salt, thumbing its figurative nose at the fates. Is it any different from the times we have felt the movement of God within us under the weight of our own encrusted tears? Even more important, when we hit bottom–and discover the flowing waters of our own baptism–are we ready to drink from it like there’s no tomorrow?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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