I’m not sure it’s still taught in school, but I remember –vaguely– learning about the various “ages”–the stone age, iron age, bronze age, all those ancient designations of hazy history, lost in the mists of time, challenging me to imagine exactly what or who we were talking about. Were these merely primitive, simple, quasi- human people, barely upright, carrying clubs and wearing rough animal skins, grunting out primitive communication? Or, as was popular when I was growing up, were they more like Fred and Wilma Flintstone, chatty, endearingly flawed, loving their children and pets, going about their daily work, using technology, which, though largely made of stone and metal, was still remarkably useful?
Since we’re talking about a period of time that spanned centuries, if not millenia, the truth is probably somewhere in between, or, honestly, probably never exactly like Fred and Wilma. Still, when we read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament which took place largely in what we call “the iron age,”–between 1200 and 500 BCE– we would do well not to underestimate the complexity, sophistication, and thoughtfulness of the writers and their communities, and to
listen to their questions, their fears, their wrestling with life in a way that might have something to teach us.
Take, for example, this passage from Jeremiah which Scott read for us, probably from the 6th century BCE– “O house of Jacob and all the families of Israel–thus says the Lord: what wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they turned far away from me and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? …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.”
In ancient Israel, and in all dry cultures, it is imperative to save water. Even today in the region of southern Israel and Egypt, the average rainfall is less than ½” a year–which means, of course, that some years it’s even less. Access to drinkable water, in fact, is one the primary sources of conflict, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere else. Even in Flint, MI and No. Bennington, VT.
Way back in the Iron Age, technologies for saving water were developed, and one of the main ways was in cisterns, usually made of limestone. Buried in the ground, bell-shaped, with a kind of grate or filter over the narrow top, these cisterns could hold gallons of water to see the people through the dry seasons…unless, of course, cracks developed in the limestone and went undetected or unrepaired. In which case, the precious water would leak out into the surrounding ground.
We know what happens to life when there is no water. It quickly becomes death. Of course, the residents of Louisiana know what happens when there is too much water in the places where human beings want to live, but no water in a desert is sure death. “Living water” though, fresh, pure, life-giving water, as Anathea Portier-Young writes, “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.” [workingpreacher.org, 8/28/16]
“They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,” God says through Jeremiah, “and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” They have gone after other gods, Jeremiah says, “prophesied by Baal,” defiled the land, forgotten what God has done.
Jeremiah is talking about idolatry here, the first of the 10 commandments–”You shall have no other gods before me.” But don’t be fooled. Idolatry isn’t just about worshiping gods like Baal in ancient Israel. The gods of idolatry have many names. “The tricky part [about idolatry, says Portier- Young] is often, when we’re doing it, it doesn’t seem like we’re worshiping false gods; or it seems like we’re pursuing good ends, that are pleasing to the true God; it seems like we’re doing what is necessary for our survival.” (Ibid.) Here’s one little visit to idolatry some of us have made– “I just want a place where my family can live comfortably, and you know with all the kids’ and our stuff, it has to be pretty big so that there’s room for everyone and everything…Not that we spend much time there, because we’re always working or running around to this or that practice or game or meeting, and honestly, we really can’t help with that community project because we’ve got to go shopping …and….” It’s a slippery slope. Good gifts–like family and friends–can become ends in themselves, more important than even the Giver of those gifts, who, in the midst of all those obligations and appointments and good things with which we fill our time, calls us to go beyond our comfort zones, to see not only our own good but the greater good, to go deeper, to the source of Living Water.
And it is so easy to let the cracks in those cisterns where Living Water can be found to go unnoticed, or to start as tiny little fractures that before we know it, have turned into big cracks, and then when we even notice that we’re thirsty, find that the cistern is empty. It has been a busy couple of weeks here at church–my post- vacation calendar for August has been full of meetings, people have stopped by the office to catch up or express concerns about something that’s going on, I’ve tried to get out to see folks whom I haven’t seen in a couple months now, all that sort of good and necessary stuff. When I remember, I try to take at least 20 minutes out at in the later part of the afternoons to sit quietly and just be, but that hasn’t always happened this week.
So, imagine my chagrin when I opened up the bulletin for this morning’s worship which Erin had faithfully run off and folded to find the “preparation for worship” and the “prayer of confession”…empty. Talk about becoming an object lesson for your sermon! I wish I could say it was intentional, but I’d be lying.
Now, emptiness is not always a bad thing. Too often we fill empty space with words or activity just to fill the space but it still is pretty empty. We’d be better off leaving that empty space for God to fill. In fact, that’s what Jesus did on the cross–emptied himself completely, so God could fill him up with resurrection life.
So what can we do to keep ourselves reasonably sound vessels or cisterns for the Holy One to fill, or preferably, for God, the Holy One, to flow through? How often it comes back to practices, to our habits, to those daily or weekly reminders that our ancestors in faith–even back in the Iron Age or in the first century of the Common Era–back to the ones they discovered helped them remember who they were and Whose they were. The letter to the Hebrews contains some good ones–”Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…
remember those who are in prison…” I can’t tell you the number of people who’ve told me when they’ve reached a certain point in their lives where the strength or agility of their bodies no longer allows them to do the things they used to do–”I feel so useless,” they say. “I can’t do anything.” Here’s some things you can do: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers…remember those who are in prison…” If you watch the news, mute the commercials and pray for the people whose distress you’ve just witnessed in the 2 minutes somebody’s trying to sell you something–remember those who are in prison or in famine or flood or earthquake…pray for them. Every one can do that, as well as actively loving and showing hospitality to strangers. “Let marriage be held in honor by all”–whatever marriage or life-long commitment you are involved in, if any. Explore what it means to honor that. “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you…” I beg for your prayers–obviously, I am in sore need of them–though I would caution you about “considering the outcome of my way of life and imitating my faith.” But pray also for our next pastoral leader, still an unknown, and for those who have taken on leadership positions in our church–the Pastoral Search Committee, our moderator and vice-moderator, those who serve on boards and committees, those who direct and sing and play in our choirs, and all the others who offer their skills and best efforts.
“Through Christ,” the writer of Hebrews says, “let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God…” Remember to give thanks even in the midst of or at the end of the most hectic day. You know I’m a fan of gratitude journals. And maybe at the beginning of each day, as you take your last sip of coffee or tea for the morning, say our commission to yourself, to remind yourself how you are to be as you set out.
Finally, “do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Take care of the cisterns. Don’t let your life dribble out in empty gestures, words, and activities that will ultimately not quench your thirst. Pay attention. So we can say with confidence, with the writer of Hebrews: God will never leave us or forsake us. “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark