Jeremiah 2:4-13 NRSV
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?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord,
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered 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[a] transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
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 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,
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,
that can hold no water.
My daughter loves being in the water. She loves bathtime and the pool and absolutely refused to leave the water park we went to over the summer. Often for bathtime, she’ll bring these stackable plastic cups into the water, and she loves to try and drink out of them. Unfortunately for her, they are baby-safe, so they all have small holes cut into the bottom of them, often meaning all the water has drained out of the cup before she can bring it to her lips to drink. She keeps going back again and again, gamely trying to scoop up the water which keeps spilling out the bottom. Leaky vessels do not hold water very well, and the prophet Jeremiah compares God’s people to cracked cisterns this week, no better able to hold water than my daughter’s plastic cup. You see, we leak. Week after week, we receive the grace of God, the living water, only for it to slip out bit by bit through the week until we fill up again. If we get off track, forgetting to refill, we start to go dry and start running on empty. What can we do? Is there a way to leak less? Jeremiah offers us a clue this week about what might be needed to help patch the cracks so that we might retain more of God’s grace to better carry us through to our next chance to refill.
Today marks our second week with Jeremiah, and last week the prophet’s own call assured us of God’s constant presence and support. Great news, God is on our side - until we are not. While God is always there, sometimes we wander off. Pulling away, we sometimes find ourselves off track, missing the mark. We call this sin, which means to be off the mark, off-track. How can this be? If God is always with us, how can we ever get off track? Jeremiah does not provide many answers here, as God seems just as confused, saying “‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?’” It would be one thing if God had let them down, but instead, the LORD delivered them from slavery, guided them through deserts, and brought them to a land of good things and abundance. Instead of thanking God, they turned away.
While this seems astounding, is it really so different from many of us today? We can often get the most off track when things are going well. When do we pray the most? When do people seem to become very religious all of the sudden? Is it in times of plenty and abundance that we see this change or in times of trouble and hardship? It seems that when things are going well, we quickly turn from praising God to praising ourselves, going to a place where all our blessings and all that we have surely has come from our own efforts rather than from our God. We are cracked vessels, needing the constant refilling from our LORD to stay full. When we turn from the source of our gratitude, our thankfulness spills out through our cracks until all is left is the emptiness of self-importance.
Back in Judah, water like gratitude today is a precious but tenuous resource. I think out here in the West, we understand this better than most, as things like drought and western water rights make each drop precious and vital. Unsure about abundant water, these ancient people built cisterns. You would crave these huge chambers into rock, covering them with plaster to make them leakproof, and then fill them with water to supply you when rivers and streams ran dry. Now, this kind of water reminds me of the house I grew up in out in the countryside of Pennsylvania, and like most homes outside town, we had well water. This water while wet and cool did pick up some unpleasant odors of sulfur from the surrounding earth so that every time we turned on the tap, a bouquet of rotten eggs flowed out with the water. Not very pleasant sounding is it? I say this because cistern water was emergency water because when you have a bunch of H2O sitting around stagnant, it does not smell or even taste that fresh.
God through Jeremiah describes himself as “‘the fountain of living water,’” making plain the LORD’s confusion: if you have fresh flowing water, why would you drink stagnant water instead? If you could stay by the spring, why would you go off to carve cisterns, for here’s an important fact to know about cisterns, even ones carved out of rock, can and will leak… The same is true of you and me, we leak. Like my daughter going into the bath, we bring our cups each and every Sunday to be filled from God’s spring of everlasting grace, only to find them empty as all has spilled out through our cracks.
Let me tell this another way. How many of us have had one of those Sundays, one of those worship services, where everything felt right. From the songs to the prayers to the message, all of them left us feeling lifted up and filled with God’s presence and grace. We may even leave the experience with Alleuias and Amens on our lips. Now, how long did that last? Did it last past our first pothole? Did it last past the first argument or first stressor or the first bit of bad news? How quickly did the grace run out when we wandered out into the world aways from our Sunday spring? By week’s end we are desparate to fill ourselves with anything, and we do. The Judean people did the same, when the living water ran out of them, they sought worthless gods and empty idols to try and fill the space that only God should fill. It lead them further off track, forced them further off the mark, cracking them further and further until they could not even remember the LORD.
Now, in our reading from Jeremiah, God shouts loudly at the people, hoping to get their attention over what’s gone wrong. We are not often aware that we are off track and off the mark because it has become normal. We can get so used to our dry and empty cracked vessels that we need to be reminded how good grace tastes! We can get so used to being off track, that we even forget the way home! We can be impatient, critical, angry, hard, apathetic, greedy, exclusive, and self-righteous. In other words, we become dry and brittle, covered in cracks and devoid of any living water. We can accept this as normal and natural and just part of who we rather than seeing it as the warning sign that our supply of water has gone stagnant or has spilled out onto the ground through the mile wide gapes in our hearts.
It does not have to be this way! That is what God is saying, and that is what Jeremiah is trying to prophesy. We can be better vessels! We can depend upon the living water of God rather than finding yet more emptiness to pour into our souls. How do you stop an ancient cistern from leaking so badly? Well, rock helps but rocks always crack, so ancient people covered their cisterns in plaster to fill the cracks, to stop the leaking. To keep water fresh, it must be constantly replenished. Our reading this week, you see, is really an opportunity for spiritual disciplines. They stop up our leaks, carry the grace further into our weeks and into our lives until we can make it back to worship to the body to refill our souls with the living water of our grace-filled God. Have you found something to practice? When you are consistent with it, what have you noticed - perhaps some kind of change for the better?
It almost sounds like I am selling something too good to be true, but I mention spiritual disciplines again and again because we are often not great about practicing them consistently. Even if you plaster a cistern, without maintenance it will still leak again, and so it takes constant care to have good water to drink. These practices can be the obvious ones like prayer and reading scripture, but they can include giving thanks to God, serving the poor and marginalized, and even fasting and self-denial. No matter which spiritual disicipline it is, they all carry the same mark: pulling us out of ourselves to see where we have gone off track from the one to whom we owe all our gratitude and devotion, the living God. Like the cracked cisterns, we need to be consistent to patch our leaks to carry our grace further. With grace: love, patience, compassion, service, joy, mercy, charity, inclusivity, and humility will be the marks of a heart and a soul well watered by God’s spring.
Our spiritual disciplines contain the answer to God’s complaint against Judah, where the LORD says, “‘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.’” The first evil is when we go off track, when we forgot that God is present and the constant source of our abundance. Spiritual disciplines pull us back to God by helping us listen for God’s shout, that warning for those places in our lives where the water stagnates and where the cracks are forming. The second, those pesky cracked cisterns, yes, for we, apart from God, hold little, and when we try to fill ourselves with anything other than God, we make ourselves emptier still. It is only through our disciplines and our God that we can be something more than leaky vessels. Through our God and through these spiritual disciplines we can carry grace into our lives and into the lives of others, until all are nourished by the life giving spring that is our God. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman