Sermon on Jeremiah 2:10-13 and John 4:7-14. Delivered 27 July 2014 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. (The first line or two did not get recorded.)
Like most of the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah had to warn God's people about things they really should have known already. For instance, the people of ancient Judah should have known that God is “the fountain of living waters”. They should have known that there's no one else worth turning to, nothing else worth turning to. But instead, in Jeremiah's day, the people of Judah had chosen a trade. They took the glory of God, a glory he offered freely among their presence, and they considered it worth bartering away at the local flea market. They traded glory for shame. They traded truth for lies. They traded the uncreated for the created. They traded the divine for the mundane.
Paul picks up these same themes centuries later in Romans 1, where he talks about how Gentile humanity traded uncreated truth for man-made deception; and naturally they went on to trade God's design of human love for rebellious reversals of God's intention. They traded nature's clear witness to God's plan in exchange for voluntary blindness. They traded faithful struggle against our human brokenness in exchange for a defiant celebration of human sin. Paul focuses there on a fruit that most perfectly illustrates the absurdity of the root, and even today, the church has to constantly point back to God's design, reminding an unwilling people not to trade the godly struggle for the sinful surrender.
Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah focused in on that same root: the stubborn quest to barter God away for something of our own making. Jeremiah calls God the “fountain of living waters”: he continually flows, he never runs out, he is pure, he is the source for life. But the people of Judah traded him for “empty cisterns”, things that do not flow, things that do run out, things that are easily polluted, things that are no source at all. Judah didn't just find these; they made them themselves. They “hewed them out” personally. That is, the people of ancient Judah turned away from the uncreated God, and instead they created God-substitutes and focused on those to sustain them, to satisfy them, and to refresh them.
Now, it's easy to point the finger at ancient Judah. Prophets like Jeremiah see things so clearly. Prophets like Jeremiah – and apostles like Paul – tell it like it is, with no mincing of words, with no fuzziness to cloud what's at stake. They see exactly what is going on here. But Judah is not alone, and the Gentiles of Romans 1 are not alone. They may be extreme, but they're not alone. Idolatry in its various forms is a longstanding human problem, and as crazy as it is, it's an easy trap.
See, we often take things in our lives – some bad things, some decent things, even some wonderful things – and we turn them into God-substitutes. Even when we give lipservice to God, as I'm sure the people of Judah did, we look elsewhere when it comes to quenching our thirst and keeping us going. We may look to the work we do, the accomplishments of our minds and our hands. We may trust in our financial savings for security, thinking that if we just had a bit more in the bank, we'd have some breathing room to find peace. Or, maybe we rely on our social status in our community. We may look to our family and friends to satisfy us, or to other relationships in our lives. We may turn to our own passions and desires. We may turn to our 'tribe', our patriotic heritage as Americans. We may turn to our local, state, or federal government to sustain us, to satisfy us, and to refresh us.
Most of those things aren't bad in themselves – when we hold them loosely. But when we build an idol and cling tightly to its feet, we're in trouble. Because we are made in the image of the glorious true God, yet we sell ourselves into slavery to the images of non-gods. And we reflect what we worship. We reflect what we trust in. When we turn to the God who's a fountain of living waters, who bubbles forever with life, we become lively, we're restored to his image, we become what we were meant to be. When we turn to even the second-best thing, which reflects God imperfectly at best, then we pattern ourselves after a funhouse mirror that catches God at an angle. And instead of growing healthy, God-centered, more human, we become distorted, twisted, dehumanized.
All those other things we might trust – when we idolize them, we make them into broken cisterns. They aren't the fountain of living waters. Not all the wishful thinking in heaven and earth can make them that. Broken cisterns hold no water – at least, not for long. What puddles do form are brackish, teeming with parasites. Sipping from them poisons us from the inside-out. They're stagnant. And they will run dry.
Maybe we see them run dry tomorrow. Maybe it takes a week, maybe it takes months, maybe it takes years or even decades of running from cistern to cistern, trying desperately to satisfy ourselves. But one thing we can know for sure: in the Day of the Lord, when all this story gets wrapped up and becomes the prologue to the new creation, those cisterns will be dry as dust – every last one. They will not sustain life. God, the fountain of living waters, will clearly stand alone. The all-too-familiar “double evil” of turning from him and trusting other things will leave many people high and dry. Charles Wesley was struck by this passage from Jeremiah, so he turned it into a prayer (Poetical Works 10:3):
Ah! Lord, with late regret I own,
I have the double evil done,
Forsook the Spring of life and peace,
And toil'd for earthly happiness:
But what in them I sought with pain,
I could not from the creatures gain,
The cisterns which my folly hew'd
They would not hold one drop of good.
Now for my double sin I grieve,
Again the broken cisterns leave;
Again I after Thee would go,
And gasp Thy only love to know:
Fountain of true felicity,
Eternal God, spring up in me,
And fill'd with life, and love, and power,
My heart shall never wander more.
In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, we see Jesus meet a woman next to a cistern. In her life, she's hewn many broken cisterns, and now she's trapped in her defeat and in her brokenness. She's gone from husband to husband, and now to a man who's not her husband. She tries to deflect, but Jesus gently probes to the heart of her situation and brings it out of the darkness into the light. He points out that, no matter which cistern she tries, she'll always be thirsty. She'll always need to grasp after something new – unless she accepts living water from him. Jesus, God in the flesh, presents himself to this Samaritan woman as the fountain of living waters. He promises that if she takes the refreshment, the sustenance, and the satisfaction that he offers, she'll need nothing more.
Jesus offers the same to us. He offers the same to our friends and our neighbors. He offers the same to our state and our nation, if we'll listen. He offers the same living waters to Ukrainians and Russians, to Israelis and Palestinians, to dreamers of peace and to dealers of death – come to Jesus and find life, true life, healing life. Only he can offer living water to soothe every hurt, to quench every thirst. No other prophet or philosopher brings it, unless they point to Jesus. We can't wrestle it into our lives with the force of guns and tanks. We can't vote ourselves into it through democracy. We can't charge it to our credit cards. It takes humble faith: just go back to the one fountain, the only fountain.
Only Jesus offers these living waters: the presence of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, bubbling up forever fresh in human life. In the coming Day of the Lord, all cisterns will be dry as dust, but this fountain will not fail. This fountain will flow and flow eternally, suppling the river that runs from the throne of God and waters the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations. This fountain will sustain life eternally in the world to come. And Jesus offers it right now, today, to me and to you. The people of Judah turned away in a “double sin”, the pagan Gentiles traded their Creator for man-made idols, but we can cling to the fountain of living waters. We don't have to be anxious about trusting in that fountain. We don't have to keep up our exhausted sprint from cistern to cistern, lapping up a puddle here and a puddle there.
Come to the fountain! Drink deep! Jesus is the Fountain of God's Spirit, and if we cling to Jesus in faith, hope, and love, he promises that his Spirit will irrigate our lives, satisfy our deepest longings, refresh us when we wear out, and sustain us to live in the kingdom of God eternally. Praise God for a fountain like that! Praise God for such a Savior!