Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
August 28, 2016
Sermon Text - Jeremiah 2: 4-13
Something akin to magic happens first thing every morning in my house. Not long after waking, I walk over to a sink. I pull a lever and running water flows into my home. The water is clean, safe to drink, and 100% necessary for sustaining my life as a human being.
Of course, this isn’t the case everywhere. We know there are places where people do not have access to running water. Or they do and the water is not safe. I was thinking of these places two weeks ago when we had a boil order for about 48 hours.
I dutifully boiled water for our family and put it into clean jars in our refrigerator (more magic: a device that keeps food cool and preserves it so it’s safe to eat). Water boiled, I went about preparing a meal. Everything was going okay until I realized I needed to rinse my knife. And I had to really stop and think about how to do that safely since I wasn’t supposed to use the tap water. That’s when I really stopped and thought, “Gosh. Safe running water in my home is such a miracle. Something I take for granted every day. Something that generations of people have lived without….and something that far too many people STILL live without.” A daily miracle right here under my own roof.
When the boil order ended, I was awfully thankful. About as thankful as I had been a couple of weeks before that when my son brought me a hose with water spewing out of it. We had been out in the hot sun for about three hours, repainting an old play structure in our back yard. Covered in paint, sweat, dirt - I didn't want to go back inside to get a glass of water but I was parched. Maitland brought over the hose so we could start rinsing our brushes a bit and when I saw that hose with water just gushing out of it, I took a big gulp.
How long has it been since you’ve taken a long, cold drink of water from a hose? I'm embarrassed to admit it had been years for me. But my entire childhood came rushing back in an instant. The difficulty of drinking fast-spraying water without hurting your face or getting water in your eyes. The slightly sweet-metallic taste. And the sense that the water is never ending. Like you could just keep drinking forever and ever and ever and it would never run out.
A couple of weeks before that, I was in a similarly parched situation. We were on a family trip to Chicago and had spent the afternoon at the Field Museum. As we trekked back the mile or so to our bus stop to ride to our home-away-from-home, Ogden and I were both very thirsty. Sun beating down, hot pavement shining up. I was kicking myself for leaving our water bottles back at the apartment. And then suddenly - like a miracle, like an oasis in a dry land - I saw them. A man and a woman, sitting on a cooler in the middle of the sidewalk. A cooler that was, presumably, filled with ICE. They were playing makeshift drums and singing a song about how they were selling the best water in the world and I believed them. I think the water was $2, which seemed like a bargain to me, since I gladly would have paid much more in my condition.
Water is one of those things that we often take for granted. But when we need it - really NEED it - we suddenly become aware of just how critical it is.
The people of the ancient near east would have been much more aware of water. After all, the lived in a primarily agricultural society. So just like Kansas farmers, they thought about water daily. Not only did they need it to bathe and cook, but they needed it to fall from the sky. A drought meant no crops. No crops meant no food. No food could mean starvation. It’s fair to say that they thought about water a lot.
Anathea Portier-Young, professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity, says this about water, “Living water rains, runs, flows, and swirls. It washes away impurity, transports nutrients, constitutes leaf and stem, blood and bone. Where water flows, life abounds. Where water stagnates, disease takes hold. Where there is no water, life cannot even begin.” (SOURCE)
She goes on to explain that in ancient Israel there were many technological innovations that allowed for geographical expansion. Of of them, the cistern, is mentioned at the tail end of today’s passage from Jeremiah.
Jeremiah, the poor guy. Called to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” He protested this job description saying, “Sorry, God, but I can’t. I'm just a kid.” But God was insistent and Jeremiah became one of the most prolific prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. He is often called the Weeping Prophet because his life was so miserable. God may have called him to build and to plant, but he seems to have spent more of his time preaching about destruction and despair. The early chapters of Jeremiah are not particularly uplifting. He did the very hard world of scolding God’s beloved people in an attempt to help them see the error of their ways, turn to new life, and restore their relationship with God.
In today’s text Jeremiah makes this accusation on God’s behalf: “[the people] have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Cracked cisterns that hold no water. Cisterns were a technological innovation that allowed people in ancient Israel to live in new places, places that received less rainfall in the dry months. They hewed out these bell-shaped cisterns in the bedrock, directing water into these containers with dug-out channels. Extra water during the rainy season enabled them to store water for the drier months. The small opening at the top kept debris from contaminating the water and Portier-Young says some of them even had filtration systems. But all the filtration in the world won’t help you out much if your cisterns have cracks in the bottom. The water will just run right out.
God says, through Jeremiah, that the people have committed two evils: they have neglected to turn to God, their source, the One who is living water. Flowing water. Water that never runs out.
And since they don't have the running, flowing, eternal spring God provides they've turned to other sources (in this particular case, gods from other nations) to fill up their cups. But the cisterns that look so solid on the outside are flawed. The gods they worship cannot truly sustain them.
It’s a gloom and doom kind of passage. And we 21st century folks might be tempted to pat ourselves on the back saying, “Well, here’s a troubling little story about idolatry from a long-ago, far-away land. Good thing we don't worship Ba’al anymore.” Of course, to do that would be to fail to remember that we still have our other gods. They just go by different names: money, fame, power, fear, violence. Mine are different than yours. Yours are different than mine. But we all have things that compete for our allegiance. Things that whisper to us, “Trust me. Believe in me. I will take care of you. I will make you happy. I will keep you safe. I will make you feel loved.”
When we turn to those things again and again we run into the same problem the people of Jeremiah’s day faced. So busy building and filling up their cisterns, they didn't notice the cisterns themselves were flawed, cracked, unable to do what they were being asked to do.
(Jeremiah and I are speaking metaphorically, of course. I don't think there’s actually anything wrong with cisterns. They seem like a magnificent and necessary innovation.)
Jeremiah wanted people to notice, though, that the main thing is this: the cisterns aren't needed. Because the people have a reliable, unending source of fresh water, running water, living water right there in front of their faces. God. The one they called Yahweh.
In the midst of all the gloom and doom of this mostly-bad-news passage there’s a nugget of glimmering, shining good news: God is living water.
God is the font that springs eternal.
God is a fire hydrant cracked open and spraying hot children on a city street on a blistering hot day.
God is a bubbling spring of fresh water in the midst of a long hike when your hydration pack has run out.
God is the miracle of a hose, brought to you by a child in your backyard.
God is the delight of a hot shower when your muscles are aching from your work.
God is the joy of discovering two strangers sitting on top of a cooler, playing makeshift drums and singing a song about how their bottles of water are the best in the world.
And God is the underpaid government employee or nonprofit worker who loses sleep, working overtime to fix the water in Flint and other places where access to water is limited.
God is working constantly, deliberately, not only to freely give the gift of her own self to the world, but is also working to mend the broken cisterns in our world. God is tirelessly, relentlessly working to repair systems that impair. God weeps when prescription drugs that people need to live become unaffordable because of the greed of a few. God is angered when people are driven from their homelands only to find they have no other place to rest their heads. Surely God is shaking his head a bit as the government punishes protesters in North Dakota by hauling away their only source of water as they stand in 90 degree temps. (SOURCE)
God, the One who is named Living Water, is scheming and dreaming to find ways to heal all the broken systems in our midst - to bring justice and healing to all.
God is dripping, flowing, gushing, swirling, pouring out on the whole world.
God is living water. Even now.
Thanks be to God.