Audrey McAvoy, AP
U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin speaks to the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011.

I was motoring down the freeway through California’s high desert when, from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a tiny cross in the wasteland.

The cross was attached to a steeple, which was attached to small white church.

There was nothing else around for miles.

From a distance, the church looked like a matchbox carelessly discarded in some kid’s sandpile.

I took the next exit and doubled back to have a second look.

It was a Baptist church, white with pink trim. The insides had been hollowed out and turned into storage space. It was on private property now, with a wire fence and a little notice about dogs.

Nobody was around.

So I stood and marveled at it for a while.

Had it been one of those “Field of Dreams” dreams? You know, “Build it and they will come?”

If so, apparently not many folks showed up.

Forcing people to search for God is always an iffy proposition. It’s not that they can’t find him. They seldom bother to even look.

I wondered how many Sunday sermons the minister had preached to just his family — or maybe just the spiders and flies?

Did he preach as hard for one person as he did for 50?

As I stood there, I made up my own little mythology about the place.

The preacher hadn’t given up, or even given out.

He’d died with his boots on, issuing altar calls and waving Bible ribbons about the room.

He died as he had lived — faithfully looking for lost souls in the desert.

And when he died, no one had the heart to tear down his tiny church.

They left it alone.

I thought of a poem by W.S. Merwin, a poem that compares a church house to a well that plunges deep into the ground.

Churches may indeed reach up, but they also reach down, looking to tap into the cool, hidden springs beneath the sand.

A well in the desert is a wondrous thing.

A well of Living Water in the desert — like that like Baptist church — was even more so.

Perhaps that’s why it had been left standing.

You don’t cap a well when people are dying of thirst — even when it runs dry.

You let it be, hoping some silent shifting of things will one day send water bubbling back to the surface.

Until that day, I assumed that little church would be left standing — waiting for another pastor to come along with a vision of bringing refreshment and fresh life to a withered land.