The Fountain and the Cistern

Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2022 || Proper 17C || Jeremiah 2:4-13

This is a sermon about idolatry. I want to plant that concept in your minds now because I’m going to talk about something else for a few minutes, and I don’t want you wondering where I’m going. Okay? This sermon is about idolatry.

When I was in Israel back in 2019 – it feels like a lifetime ago – I kept noticing something on the roofs of buildings that my American brain couldn’t quantify. They were these big black containers set up on metal stands and hooked up to pipes, cords, and a big solar panel. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what these containers were for. Then when someone told me, the answer was so obvious, I felt pretty silly that I hadn’t worked it out for myself. The containers were cisterns for water storage. In that arid part of the world, such a system was pretty important for maximizing what little rains came.

These big water storage tanks came back to me this week when I read our lesson from the Prophet Jeremiah. The last line of the reading has been living rent free in my head all week.

…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.

That last bit is so important for our lives of faith. Here it is again:

My people…have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

What good would those big black containers be if they had cracks in them? They’d be utterly worthless. They would stand there empty all the time, failing to complete the one job they were designed for. In the ancient world, cisterns were (and still are) an important tool for water storage. Many were dug underground – we visited an enormous one in the ruins of Herod’s palace. (Later in his book, the Prophet Jeremiah actually gets thrown in one as a punishment for telling the truth.) 

Cisterns collected scarce water where there were no wells or springs, and a cracked cistern was not just useless; a cracked cistern could lead to death if you relied on it as your only source of water. Just imagine – we who feel inconvenienced if there’s a water main break and our taps go dry for a couple hours – just imagine having every drop of water you saved just gone, just leaked out into the thirsty ground. That’s what a cracked cistern would do.

Notice how God compares what God’s people have chosen over what God so yearns for them to choose. God’s fountain of living water is right there for the taking, a spring that will never ever run out. In John 4, when Jesus is talking to the woman by the well, he offers her, in an echo of this passage from Jeremiah, “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Not just a trickling well that yields a few ounces of muddy water, but a geyser. Instead of this abundance, Jeremiah contends, God’s people chose not just a cistern, but one that can’t even hold water.

Are you seeing yet why this is a sermon about idolatry?

Novelist David Foster Wallace, in a 2005 commencement address to graduates of Kenyon College, said this: 

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life… There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Wallace goes on to give a few example:

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will… never feel you have enough… Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay.

The truth is, Wallace reminds us, everybody worships something. The question is, will we worship the fountain of living water or will we dig for ourselves cracked cisterns?

There’s a reason the first two commandments are all about idolatry: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Deuteronomy 5:6-8). The reason is, without the proper alignment of our priorities, without honoring this higher power that so desires to free us from our own self-centeredness, then whatever we set up as our god – as the thing we worship – will always lead us down dead end streets. We will seek and search and grub and grumble, hurting ourselves and others along the way, and never will there be any water in that cracked cistern.

But the fountain of living water never stops flowing. When we worship God, when we bend towards this One that is both beyond and within, we are able to get out of our own ways. And I mean that twice. We get out of our own ways so that we don’t trip and stumble down those dead end streets. And we get out of our own ways by adopting a different Way, the Way of Love, the Way of Jesus, who calls each of us to give up our self-centered selves and embrace new, abundant life following his lead.

Back in January 2009, I was just coming off my second Christmas season as a priest, and I was bone tired. I had just finished a noon communion service in which I forgot to put wine in the chalice, an apt metaphor for how I was feeling. I had nothing left in the tank – or to use the prophet’s language, my cistern was cracked and dry. My dear friend Ruby had another, similar image, and she took me aside after the service, sat me down, and had a “come to Jesus” meeting with me. “Adam,” she said. “I love you, but you need to hear this. You can’t water the garden with the hose turned off.”

She had diagnosed my idolatry perfectly. I was bone tired because I worshiped my own ability to get things done – without help, without partners, without God. “You can’t water the garden with the hose turned off.” The hose was that fountain of living water gushing up to eternal life. And there I was, trying to scrape a drop or two out of the mud of my cracked cistern. To this day, this is still my cistern, my idol. And sometimes, thanks be to God, sometimes I find the fountain and drink.

This week, I invite you to pray about your own cracked cistern. What are you trying to scrape a drop of water from when the fountain of God’s living water is overflowing so close by? The good news is this: no matter how often we ignore or reject that fountain, the water never stops flowing. It’s the hose, the spring, the geyser. It’s the wrenched open fire hydrant on the hot day in the city, rainbows forming in the mist, and the sound of children splashing and laughing in the fountain’s refreshing rush.

Season 5, Episode 7
“Toxic Charity”

In this episode we’re talking about toxic charity, colonialism, and white saviors.. We’re also continuing our book club, reading Becky Chambers’s award-winning sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

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