Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? […]
But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, 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.
Jer 2:4-5, 11b-13; excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday Sept 1, 2019: Jeremiah 2:4-13.
When first I looked at this text, I could not see myself in it. It was about other people. People who ‘defiled the land,’ who made it ‘an abomination.’ People who gave no thought for the morrow, for eternity, for true and lasting values, but sought to lose themselves in shallow pursuits, selfish pleasures. (Obviously, I am apt excuse my own shallow pre-occupations and quick to notice others’. And this text was about them.)
God’s people ‘went after worthless things and became worthless themselves’ (2:5). They went after vanity and became vain, as the old King James puts it. They went after delusion and were deluded, says the translation of the Jewish Publication Society. The Hebrew ‘hebel’ means vanity, futility, something transient as a morning fog, emptiness. God’s people went after emptiness and became empty. They became what they pursued.
Surely this is not I, Lord. I seek. I strive. I want to drink deep from you.
The I read the last verse. And was transfixed at the image of God’s people digging cisterns. Not garden spades turning over soft loamy earth. Axes and chisels taken to stone. Hard stone, non-porous, carved out to collect the precious water as it falls from heaven, and to store it for current and future need. This is no light task but an arduous labor. The hewing of pools. Reservoirs cut into bedrock. Back-breaking. Necessary.
I read, and I saw. The people are not lazy or hedonistic or inattentive to their true need — they know they need water, they know there’s a lack, and they are working so very hard to fix it. Desperately striving, pushing themselves to exhaustion, and past … We hew out our cisterns. And still we are parched — because the cracked cisterns won’t hold water.
The trouble is not that God’s people mistook their need but that they thought to fill it by themselves, from themselves, within themselves. As if they could hew out their cisterns, pour themselves in, drink themselves up, and be quenched. I read that last verse, then went back and re-read the whole. Stone emptinesses the people pursued, and they became as stone — hollowed out and empty and unable to hold water, broken and cracked as the cisterns they made. As some mornings, some days, some weeks am I …
Yet God had promised them — before ever they had even entered the land — God had promised the gift of cisterns they did not have to hew (Deut 6:10-12). What caused them to forget the promise, or to fear its failure? Why did they try so diligently, so desperately to lean upon themselves instead of the LORD?
There’s a question repeated twice in this passage. A question that was not asked. The people did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ (2:6). The priests did not say ‘Where is the LORD?’ (2:8). What if they had asked — and, asking, found? What if instead of going after emptinesses, they had gone after the living water? What if they had drunk deep of the LORD God? What would they have been then? What image would they have borne?
I’m aware of walking into a new season. Of explicit transition. Of ongoing discernment. And in a context that seems to be shifting all around me. So many needs; so many unknowns.
Now, as ever, I must remember to ask the question. Where is the LORD who brought me up out of Egypt? Where is the LORD who led me in the wilderness? Where is the LORD who planted me here, at this place and in this time, with these gifts and these needs? Where is the LORD, the fount of living water?
Look for the spring welling up in my life … rivulets rippling, sun-pennies glinting on the surface as it flows … waves growing greater.
The cistern I hew myself will always be inadequate, too small or cracked or otherwise insufficient. But the LORD is an overflowing stream, living water poured into my cup, into me, brimful and running over, so to flow out from my particular life.
Look for the LORD, present and gracious, playful and powerful as living water.
And worship. Wade into the water. Drink deep from the LORD God. Be continually filled and ultimately re-created in the image of living water. Playful. Powerful. Transforming all it touches.