These stories are sign posts that have immediate, obvious relevance, and provide a deep well of possibility of resonance, if not for comprehension now, then for later, and for generations to come. They testify to a continuous presence of the divine in our lives. Their central and ever recurring theme is the need for us, people and leaders alike, to take responsibility for our beliefs and actions.
Preferring Our Delusions
Jeremiah 2:4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus 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? 6They 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?” 7I 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. 8The 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.
9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. 11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. 12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for 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.
What would it mean if we spent this time in communal self-reflection and contemplate the message of Jeremiah 2 focusing on self-evaluation regarding the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own day?
Here is Israel’s lament: “I once was a slave in the narrow straits of Egypt. I stood at Sinai and received Revelation in a moment of glorious quiet. I entered the Promised Land with Joshua to build a nation. I lived in Jerusalem when King Solomon built the richly hued Temple. I heard the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah preach. (And alas! I didn’t believe a word they said!) I witnessed the destruction of the First Temple, and then the Second Temple. I knew the desolation borne of disobedience.”
Extended into the Christian era wouldn’t include leaning over a stable railing to witness the birth of Jesus. Being present as he was dedicated and later astounding the priests with his wisdom as a youth. Would the lamentor not have witnessed the Spirit anointing Jesus as he came up from the river. I ate fish and bread and heard him tell us how to care for one another (And alas! I only memorized those beatitudes and never thought to live by them) I stood silent as I witnessed his trial and crucifixion and ran with Mary to tell the disciples the wondrous news of his resurrection. I was there when he departed this world with a promise which half heartedly I have taken for granted.”
In every generation these stories have pumped through the arteries of our faith, infused our spiritual lungs with freshness. It is as though through them I have lived each moment of our religious history. These stories are sign posts that have immediate, obvious relevance, and provide a deep well of possibility of resonance, if not for comprehension now, then for later, and for generations to come. They testify to a continuous presence of the divine in our lives. Their central and ever recurring theme is the need for us, people and leaders alike, to take responsibility for our beliefs and actions.
This story, one of the first voiced by the Prophet Jeremiah, relates us how we, forgetful of God’s beneficence and despite warnings of dire consequences, abandoned God’s ways. Recalling the blackest historical moments which our religious tradition endured stirs us to return from wrongdoing toward responsibility to others and God, with a redemptive promise inherent in such a return. The good news, established in the grace of God, is that after darkness—there is light. Following the preface to tragedy, and catastrophe itself, there is consolation. But not yet.
Ancient Israel selected this text to represent prophetic visions of the sins of the Hebrews that led to captivity and the destruction of the Temple. It deals with every aspect of religious disloyalty and the incapacity of the people to hear, understand, and accept responsibility. Put another way: God cannot comprehend why the people would follow other gods. God knows what God has done for the people; why do they not understand, appreciate, and turn only to God?
This idea is expressed in God’s inquiry: What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded?
The prophet makes a list of what the people never asked themselves, a series of questions that should have reminded them of all the saving acts God performed. The list begins with the redemption from Egypt and concludes with God bringing the people to a “country of farm land to enjoy its fruit and bounty”. It’s a “rebuke” detailing the defilement of the land, the failings of priests, guardians of the essential ethic by the rulers, and prophets—in short, all who disappointed God by turning away from their relationship with God. Only at the end does the prophet offer “consolation,” that if the people truly repent and swear, in sincerity, justice, and righteousness,” the nations will bless themselves through Israel. But not yet.
Next the prophet makes the accusation that the people have simply forgotten that God was present leading them out of Egypt, through their time in the wilderness described as a place of drought and darkness, a land where no one ever passes through or lives, and then into the Promised Land. And in forgetting that they defiled the land once they got there. Verse 8 is a scathing condemnation of empty, fraudulent leadership–priests who fail to call on God, judges making judgments from the law without knowing the spirit of the Law’s author. This verse comes close to home for those who, from time to time, sense that we are just “going through the motions.”
God levels these several layered and interlocking accusations against a people who have not found it easy–or possible–to sustain faith in the mundane day-to-day world. The heart of the prosecution’s case is idolatry; God comes at the subject in three ways: the people have chased after worthless things (and in the process become worthless themselves); have “changed gods” (forsaking the one who made them what they are today); and have tried to draw strength from worthless sources (cracked cisterns).
No farmer or shepherd would abandon “living water” in favor of a cistern. A cistern is a last-choice rather than a first-choice option. Digging a cistern in rocky ground is a terrible chore––as is cleaning the cistern––as is using a bucket to draw water from the cistern. A farmer whose property includes “living water” might dig a cistern as insurance against drought, but would hope never to have to use it. But Jeremiah’s charge is that we have not only exchanged the Lord’s “living water” for cisterns, but embraced “broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” We have forsaken the living God for pieces of wood and stone carved into idols––idols that have no power––idols that cannot help. “Would anyone today be so foolish as to trade an artesian well for a cistern, much less a cistern that can’t hold water? Unfortunately, Jeremiah asserts, we have and do. Can you imagine what some of today’s ‘broken cisterns’ are? Our pursuits for wealth, power, fame, and pleasure.
We know that we take God and God’s providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits–looking for love in all the wrong places. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our preferred candidate or professional football team than sharing God’s action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom even as in worship we are reminded of our spiritual inheritance. We know all of that. But here is the greater perplexing mystery: God knows all of that also; God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knows it when God calls us.
So help me understand why God’s people have to struggle so hard to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. Help God understand why? We go after worthless things because their “worthlessness” is deferred; their immediate payoff is so satisfying. Yes, we love our god-given land, but as the hymn “This Is My Song” which we recently sang reminds us, “…other lands have sunlight, too, and clover…” Yes, God’s acts of deliverance were amazing! But the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea or of watching the Ark of the Covenant being danced into Jerusalem or seeing the Holy Spirit come with power on a people, belonged to people long since dead; to us those are now just stories. We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us.
God asks the people: What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded? The question is rhetorical. In fact the fathers found no wrong in God! In Jewish literature there is a parable regarding the theme “acceptance of responsibility”. It starts: “With whom may Adam be compared? With a sick man whom a physician was attending. The physician said: “Such-and-such you may eat and such-and-such you are not to eat.” But the sick man disregarded the physician’s instructions and so found himself on his deathbed. When his kin came in to him and asked him: “Would you say that the physician used bad judgment in this treatment of you?” he replied: “Certainly not. The physician gave me specific instructions . . . but when I disregarded his instructions I brought death upon myself.” God shows us how to fashion a living, a vibrant faith, even over the long haul, when mountaintop experiences are rare.
Israel is guilty of two evils. The first is that “they have forsaken me”––Yahweh––the Lord––the one who brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land––the one who provided for them miraculously in the wilderness so that they did not perish there––the one who has been there for them through thick and thin––the one who has time and again chastened them for their sins but has not destroyed them––the one who, in spite of everything, still calls them “my people.”
In verse 13 Jeremiah speaks of “the spring of living waters”. It is Yahweh who is “the spring of living waters.” Israel would have understood this phrase, “living water,” to mean flowing water, such as a stream or an artesian well.
In an arid land, water equals life. Every form of life, vegetable, animal, and human, requires water to survive. In an arid land, such as Israel, people would be especially aware of this reality. The farmer or shepherd who has a dependable stream or artesian well on his/her property is fortunate indeed. And from our perspective “the spring of living waters” refers to Christ’s ever-present care for us. Yahweh has been a dependable source of sustenance and life.
Jesus uses this phrase, “living water,” when speaking to the Samaritan woman. He will speak of “living water… a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:10, 14). In that context, as here, “living water” is a metaphor for spiritual life.
In John 4 the Evangelist tells us how Jesus is carrying on conversation at the source of living water at the very place to which Jeremiah pointed, a place long established in the Jewish mind as the source of living water long before the fashioning of the first Temple and before the diaspora. “So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?