First United Methodist Church
August 28, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Caring for Creation: Cracked Cisterns Can't Hold Water
Do you remember the song, “There’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza”? It’s a pretty long song – we’re not going to sing it today. But this is what I want you to think about.
The song begins by stating a fact – there is a hole in the bucket. And then the song continues as a conversation between Henry and Liza on how to fix the hole. First they need straw, and then they need to cut the straw, and then the axe isn’t sharp enough, and then they need a stone to sharpen the axe, but the stone is too dry so they need to wet the stone, so they need water, which they need to carry, so they need a bucket, and thus the song circles around to the original point – the bucket has a hole in it!
Quite the dilemma. But knowing what the problem is and not being able to resolve it is essentially what we are being warned about in our Scripture this morning.
Water is life. Since the Neolithic age, humans have utilized cisterns, or reservoirs, or water towers, to hold water from rainfall and runoff. Capturing the water and holding it for later use offers a guarantee and security that the people would survive times of drought. Jeremiah’s prophecy this week uses this analogy to speak of the dangers of not paying attention to the things that can sustain life for the long-haul in favor of things that are of less worth.
In ancient Israel, as well as in all dry primitive cultures, it became imperative that water be saved. The average rainfall in the southern deserts of Israel and on down to Cairo is less than a half inch per year. Therefore, it was crucial to figure out a system that could save and store water. The simplest way was to dig a hole in the ground, but this was a very poor solution to the problem. Water moves to the lowest level; so, most of it would seep right into the soil.
After a lot of experimenting, they discovered that they could use limestone to seal the soil and prevent the loss of some of the water. Unfortunately, no matter how well a pool was sealed with limestone, leaks would still occur. Water has its way of discovering cracks. The cisterns required continuous attention and repair. This is the reality that Jeremiah speaks of when he claims that humanity has forsaken God and dug cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
What Jeremiah is alluding to, of course, is that we, when faced with our vast human problems, tend to lack humility. Today’s passage draws the people’s attention back to their exodus from slavery in Egypt to salvation, the defining event for the Hebrew people. In those days, God’s daily provision of manna sustained the people as they journeyed to the Promised Land, “a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.” Years after arriving, the scripture says, “you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination” (2:7). “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are not gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit,” God says through Jeremiah. Though the tradition recalled God’s love and care for God’s people, the people were now attracted to the practices introduced by their Assyrian overlords. God’s people devalued the gift of God’s liberation and protection when they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves’ (2:5). “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?” God asks through the prophet. When we turn from God, we snub the Creator and the blessings we have received.
Later in Jeremiah, the prophet describes how the people turned 180 degrees from God’s way. They “take over the goods of others” (v. 5:26); “they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy” (v. 5:28). What humans tend to value—status, power, money—is worthless in the realm of God. Perhaps the people wanted to fit in with the invading culture and its pagan religion, or had their heads turned by something new, or allowed themselves to be tempted by selfishness and greed; we can only speculate. Yahweh had demonstrated to the people and their ancestors the divine care for the good of the whole nation, and any promises of the Assyrian gods were worthless. But rather than enjoy God’s “fountain of living water” (v. 13), the people dug their own cisterns for themselves, which eventually cracked and ran dry.
We can observe the same factors at work today in terms of our turning our backs on God in favor of materialism and short-term gain. A good example of this are the floods and wildfires caused by climate change. The mass destruction of trees for building roads and the construction of new housing developments sacrifices the long-term benefits of keeping the trees in place.
In addition to causing wildfires and contributing to global warming and its attendant problems, the reduction in the number of trees causes drought. Trees actually have two processes. They don’t simply provide the world with oxygen; they also drill water into the ground. They funnel water into the underground aquifers where it is stored to supply rivers during drought, and they also hold soil in place. When we remove the trees for short-term purposes, we cause all kinds of long-term problems, and we find that our cisterns are drying up and cracking.
Think about this:
God is on our side—until we’re not. What exactly does that mean? God is on our side, but sometimes we wander away. Sometimes we are off track. That’s what sin means, being off track. All the shouting in our text today is because folks don’t know that they are off track. This isn’t anger or wrath. This is God calling God’s people back. They’ve wandered off. Worse, they think all that they have received is due to their own efforts rather than a gift from God. They’ve forgotten to be grateful. All their gratitude has leaked out.
Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us to be humble, to not take the seat that gives us the most honor. We also are in danger of forgetting to be grateful. When we take the highest seat as if it is our right rather than an invitation, we begin to feel powerful and have the potential to become corrupt.
That’s the image that Jeremiah offers. We leak. We can’t hold the grace of God, the water of life. We receive it, we fill up, week by week, but it leaks out. And if we don’t return to be filled again, we’re going to go dry. We’re going to be running on empty. We need to return to the source. No one, Jeremiah reminds us in this text, thought to ask about the author of all the goodness the people enjoy. No one thought to wonder where God is in the business of their lives.
God can’t be pleased at where we are in these moments. God can’t be pleased with ill treatment of those seeking refuge. God can’t be pleased with the hatred of people because of their color. God can’t be pleased with people not caring for the sick. God can’t be pleased with increasing poverty and decreasing opportunities for people to change their destiny. God can’t be pleased with a people who have displaced him with other gods, like bureaucracy, Christian nationalism, exclusivity, self-righteousness, greed, and religious abandonment of mission and service. There is still a plumbline hanging from the wall. There is still a vineyard with only wild grapes.
We are far less likely to build cracked cisterns if we open ourselves to the wisdom of God. When we chase after other gods, disaster results. If we follow Jeremiah’s story, as we will over the next few weeks, we will see that God can lead us from our waywardness to repentance to renewal. When we keep our trust in God, we have the potential to become prophets too. The world needs more prophets. Let us pray…
Merciful God, we find it hard to see in ourselves the trappings our society so admires and serves—power, wealth, and access that forget mutual love. We don’t always see our allegiance to these dangerous gods—rushing for places of honor, scorning the humble and lowly, supporting systems that survive on
greed and abuse. Forgive us when we are fearful that there is not enough. Remind us that you are enough. Teach us your generosity. Teach us your world-changing humility. Teach us your expansive love. Transform us and heal our lives. Amen.