“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
Occasionally we come across a portion of scripture that really captivates us. The last few years I have been trying to redress the imbalance between my Old and New Testament literacy, and whilst doing so some of the imagery I have come across in the poetic and prophetic books of the O.T. completely astound me. This is one such example.
This passage in Jeremiah involves water, and in the ancient middle-east water is an immensely evocative symbol. Water meant opportunity, growth, fruitfulness and above all life itself. It was and is in any parched land a precious commodity. There is no obvious parallel symbol for the western world because for them water represented so much good. Having a reliable constant source of water is so fundamental that life can barely get going without one.
God calls himself a spring of living water, and in fact, he unapologetically tells Israel that he is the only spring of living water. A spring for the people that is fresh, available and unending. The implications are massive. He is saying that all good endeavours, growth, opportunity and even life itself rely on him in the same way a community relies on a water spring. He himself stands at the centre of the world sustaining life. He’s responsible for the food, plants, gardens, fruit, grass, animals. Without him everything becomes parched and quickly dies. You can take the image a step further and suggest that the farther away from the spring of water something lives the less healthy it is. We should all live our lives as close to the water source as possible (Psalm 1).
The terrible thing is that despite Gods’s centrality to all of life itself humanity chooses not to rely on God but instead on other things. These other things are often good things that were given to us by him and more often than not it was something he made for our pleasure. But instead of loving him, we have what Tim Keller calls an “over-love” for the things he gives. He says that these idols are at the very epicentre of our desire.
The prophet Hosea also spoke of this tragedy, having experienced it first hand when Gomer left him: “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” (Hosea 2:7-8)
This brings us to the next image represented. The image of the broken cistern. Cisterns were dug into the ground to store water. The image above is a surviving cistern in the Middle East. A broken cistern is one that obviously leaks, and cannot hold water, and this evocative image of a leaking well of water speaks volumes about the outcome of choosing anything else over God. Every other well runs dry, the water disappears. It isn’t even used up fruitfully. It disappears into the ground. It’s wasted, and must be replaced by more and more water. The well can never be filled, though we will constantly attempt to fill it, even pouring our very selves into it if necessary.
Doesn’t that proclaim a stark truth that we often miss? Isn’t it the perfect diagnosis of addiction? The drug user must fill his body with more and increasingly heavy drugs to keep a sense of being filled. The more a person craves and accumulates money, the less one is satisfied with each coin. The alcoholic’s thirst can only be quenched by more and more booze. The lonely people who crave nothing more than attention and human interaction, tragically, become pushier and pushier until they push potential friends away. The casual use of pornography becomes an addiction that requires increasingly hardcore material.
An over-love for anything but God, is idolatry, and idolatry always looks like addiction. Like every addiction idolatry grows and grows until it destroys us. Each step in the process requires a little more sacrifice than before. Eventually, what we treasure will require us to die for it. We’ll have nothing but ourselves to throw into the well. When everything about a persons life becomes fixated on the attainment of a single thing, the process is complete and very difficult to redress. They have ceased to fully live, and are simply existing. In a non-literal, but very real sense, they are dying.
Jesus Christ is the only God who says instead “I died for you”. He threw himself into the well, so we don’t have to. He poured himself out, figuratively and literally in greater and greater ways until the cost demanded was his very life. And as we saw earlier, he doesn’t just save us from bondage to idols, he promises us himself, the spring of living water. I’m reminded on the story in the Narnia tale “The Silver Chair”. Jill, a nervous young girl meets Aslan for the first time by a stream, and is terrified of being eaten by the lion. Desperate for a drink, but too scared to approach the lion’s stream she says “Oh dear, I shall have to find another stream”.
“There is no other stream” The lion says.
Let us not try to fill up our cisterns any more. Let’s trust in God for the water that brings life. Let us drink from Gods spring, after all, it’s the only one.