Cracked Cisterns and Living Water

Robert S. Turner
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2016
Jeremiah 2:4–13

What is it that forms the identity of a person or a nation? For individuals, one could cite genetics, family upbringing, education, and so on as determining factors. For a nation, one could look at geography, natural resources, population, and the like. But one of the most essential factors in forming the identity of a person or a people may be memory.

Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, has said that a large part of our identity as Americans is linked to the past we have inherited. The history of our nation, the relative importance we place on different events in that history, and the stories we tell ourselves and our children to interpret those events go a long way to determine how we see ourselves as a people.

Some of our stories become myths, and just as in religion, the national myths we celebrate tell us who we are. The staunch faith and desire for freedom that led the Pilgrims across the ocean; the heroic work of our founders during the Revolutionary period; the titanic struggle over slavery and race that included the Civil War, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement; our “Manifest Destiny” to wrest control of the land from sea to shining sea; the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and 9/11—the stories and myths we tell about these events reveals a lot about who we think we are as a nation. In other words, the way we remember helps to form our identity.

So does what we forget. Pinsky says, “Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide what we are.” If we can decide to remember, we can also decide not to remember. Remember Manifest Destiny, but forget the slaughter and genocide of native peoples that made it possible. Remember the resiliency and grit people demonstrated in the face of the Great Depression, but forget the fatal flaws in the capitalist system that brought it about in the first place. Remember the glory of our country—that shining city on a hill and beacon of freedom to the world—but forget how many millions of our own citizens have been deprived of their own freedom and dignity along the way. Both what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget tell us who we are.

The prophet Jeremiah recognized this truth in regard to his own nation, and in chapter two of the book that bears his name, speaking in the voice of God, he takes them to task for the selective nature of their memory:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt…?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But … you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the LORD?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit (vv. 5–8).

The leaders—the priests, rulers, prophets, and those responsible for interpreting the law —come in for blame, but Jeremiah makes it clear that God holds everyone accountable. In verse 4, he declares that his message is for the “house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.” From the top of the society to the bottom, all have forgotten their heritage and forsaken their God. They have gone far from God to chase after worthless things, and as a result have become worthless themselves.

Hear the pathos in these words. Like a lover devastated by a breakup, God wonders, “What did I do wrong?” There is some defiance in these words—“What wrong did your ancestors find in me” can be read as an assertion of God’s innocence and Israel’s unreasonableness—but there is also genuine hurt. The savior who went to tremendous lengths to deliver the beloved from bondage is now cast aside like an old shoe as the beloved goes running after other lovers. In these verses we hear the heartbreaking plea of one who has given nothing but love and received nothing in return but scorn.

The historical background of this lament is the people’s religious promiscuity. Upon entering the land of Canaan and intermingling with its inhabitants, they began worshiping the fertility gods Asherah and Baal. Perhaps they thought that this God who apparently lived on a mountain in the Sinai peninsula would have less power in this new place. Perhaps they thought it a matter of etiquette and “best practices” to worship the local deities. When in Rome, and all that. Perhaps they liked worshiping gods they could see. God had these strange rules about not making images and remaining for all intents and purposes invisible, so it may have been comforting to have a sacred pole or statuette on which to focus their devotion. Perhaps the cult of Baal and Asherah was just more fun. It was a fertility cult, after all, and you know what goes on at their services, nudge nudge, wink wink.

Whatever the reasons for the people’s choosing to add the Canaanite deities to their pantheon, God interprets it as a betrayal. God does not have a very high opinion of these so-called rival gods, knowing that they have no real power to save or heal—or even bring fertility, their alleged specialty. For the people God has led by the hand all these years, keeping them alive during famine, drought, and war; freeing them from slavery in Egypt; and putting up with an entire generation’s worth of nonsense in the wilderness—for them to deliberately forget this heritage and instead give their worship to a pair of worthless idols must have been a terribly hurtful insult.

Many people think of God as impassive, an Unmoved Mover who is cool and aloof. But that’s not the picture the Bible paints of God, especially in the Old Testament. The biblical God is capable of anger, jealousy, generosity, hurt, passion, compassion, and a whole range of other complex emotions. God is profoundly involved in the life of the world. God makes and keeps covenants, enters into sometimes stormy relationships, and feels tenderness and frustration. It should come as no surprise that Jeremiah can depict God as forlorn and vulnerable because of the people’s unfaithfulness.

This lament of God’s has an edge of accusation to it, which becomes more pronounced in the next verses. Israel has taken the unprecedented step of exchanging their God for other gods, and God knows that choice will ultimately prove a self-defeating one. Even in God’s desolation and hurt, God still cares about these people. God wants the best for them, and knows they have made a disastrously poor choice. God says:

Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they Page 3 of 4 are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, … for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water (vv. 10–13).

In the land where Jeremiah and his people lived, as in so many places in the world today, access to water was a big deal. It could be a matter of life and death. The prophet here contrasts two types of water: living water and water collected in a cistern. Living water was running water from springs, rivers, and wadis, and it was much preferable to the other kind. Living water washes away impurity, delivers nutrients, grows plants, and keeps people alive. Still water, as in a well or cistern, stagnates, and stagnant water is a breeding ground for disease and death.

But cistern water was better than no water at all. The climate of the kingdom of Judah was defined by a rainy season in the winter and a dry season in the summer. Those who lived near a wadi or spring were in good shape. But those who did not have easy access to such living water had to find alternative solutions. One of the most common of these alternatives was the cistern.

Basically an underground water collection device, the cistern was a bell-shaped container carved from bedrock that would capture rainwater and runoff during the rainy season so that it would be available for drinking, cooking, and irrigation in the dry times. It was a way for the people to manipulate their harsh environment to make it more habitable and their lives there more sustainable. The naturally occurring living water of a spring or river was still optimal, but at least in its absence the people could survive.

Jeremiah compares the people’s apostasy to those who would move away from prime real estate next to a continually flowing spring to settle in an arid region where they would have to depend on a cistern for survival. As if that were not ridiculous enough, the cisterns they dig in that desert are cracked and will not hold water! It doesn’t make any sense, either to the prophet or to God.

Before we get to feeling superior to these pathetic losers, though, let us ask ourselves how many times we have done the same thing. The worship of actual idols—graven images representing deities—is not really a thing anymore, at least not in central Ohio, but idolatry is still rampant. Martin Luther once defined an idol as anything to which we give primary importance. Anything that usurps God’s rightful place in our lives.

The first of the Ten Commandments tells us to have no other gods before God. We are to give our primary allegiance to God, and for Christians that means the God made known to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are to “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength” (Mark 12:30). Anything less is unacceptable. To give any other person, thing, or idea the love that is God’s due is idolatry.

Like the Israelites who could hardly turn a corner without knocking their shins against an Asherah pole or running into a sacred prostitute from one of Baal’s temples, we are surrounded by temptations to give our allegiance to other gods. For some it’s sex. For others it’s romantic love—the need to be in a relationship to have any sense of selfworth. Some people make an idol of a political ideology, others do it with money, or knowledge, or career, or family, or sports. Next weekend a powerful thirteen-week-long temptation to idolatry will kick into high gear just down the street at that horseshoeshaped stadium.

Would it surprise you to hear that even religion can become an idol? When we are so wedded to our version of the faith that we no longer admit the possibility that God could say something new, our religion has become idolatrous. Some make an idol of the Bible, some do it with the Qur’an. And if you don’t think that’s serious, ask someone who lives in a region of Syria or Iraq controlled by the Islamic State.

Some people even make their own spiritual quest into an idol. Who here knows what SBNR stands for? Spiritual But Not Religious has become such a common response in surveys about religious practice that it has got its own acronym, and that’s when you know you’ve arrived, baby! It is very healthy to refuse to be satisfied with pat answers or stale rituals, but when one wears one’s uncertainty as a badge of honor, or considers oneself superior to all those brainless sheep baaing away inside “institutional religion,” or uses the SBNR label as a copout to avoid having to make commitments that might be inconvenient or uncomfortable, one has strayed into the land of—you guessed it— idolatry.

And what Jeremiah said about the idols of his day is still true of the idols that tempt us: they don’t hold water.

If all these other so-called gods are cracked cisterns from which all the hope and worship and devotion we try to store in them will leak away, where can we find the living water that will sustain us and never run dry? Jesus gives us the answer in two places in the gospel of John: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14); and “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. … Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37–38).

Jesus offers us living water. Those who make the decision to follow him; to mold their lives after his pattern; and to commit themselves to the advance of the reign of God through acts of justice, kindness, compassion, and radically inclusive love will not only receive living water but also become conduits that deliver that life-giving water to a world that is dying of thirst.

The choice is set before us today: will we put our trust in cracked cisterns that cannot hold water, or in the gushing spring of the living God, the fount of every blessing?