Stories of Living Water
September 1, 2019
Sometimes we believe stories that aren’t true. As young children we have the perfect mix of naiveté and imagination to believe most things, no matter how absurd they may be. Here are some stories shared by adults about what they believed when they were younger:
Jamie says: “I believed that if I played with my belly button I would pop open. I thought that is where we were sewn together.”
Kyle says: “I believed that school buses ate the little kids that got on them every morning. I always saw them get picked up, but was never there when they got dropped off.”
Dustin shared: “I believed that lightning came from the flash of a huge camera in the sky. So, every time I saw lighting I would smile really big.”
Brook shared: “I believed that if the ice cream truck was playing music, it meant that it was out of ice cream. Thanks, Mom.”
Tyler says: “I believed that if I ate a lot of carrots I would be able to see in the dark.”
My favorite – Clint shared: “I believed that if I prayed into the light beam of a flashlight while looking at the stars, my prayers would reach God and people in heaven faster.”
Most of us have probably grown out of the wildly imaginative stories we believed as kids (most of us). From the time we’re born, we’re shaped by the stories we’re told and by the stories that we tell about ourselves. The stories we believe and tell often determine the ways we choose to live. If you believe carrots help you see in the dark, then you’re gonna eat as many carrots as you can get your hands on. If you believe that school buses eat little kids, then you’re probably gonna do whatever you can to make sure your parents let you walk to school.
Stories shape our reality and guide us in how we should live – stories teach us about what we should value. The most powerful stories we tell are about ourselves – stories that tell about who we are and why we’re here. From a young age we grow up being inundated with different stories from various authorities that tell us who we are or who we are supposed to be, what we’re supposed to value.
In the affluent United States, a predominant story we’re told is that we are what we possess. We are only as good as how much money we make; our worth is in how nice of a car we drive; we know we’ve arrived and succeeded at life when we make “X” amount of money and can afford a second home, a second boat, a vacation anywhere in the world we could dream of.
Another predominant story we’re told from a young age is that we are what we do. When you meet someone for the first time, what is one of the first questions you ask them? “What do you do?” “What’s your job/function?” Our culture is quite adept at reducing us to our function. We become just another gear in the machine; we are only as good as what we can offer to our company or our society. We spend our entire lives playing the game and trying to climb the ladders to success. We are only as good as our next promotion, our next production. We enjoy moments of reveling in our successes before we must put our nose back to the grindstone to prove ourselves and produce once again.
These stories about who we are, are powerful stories. From a young age we were inculcated with these stories about how we are what we possess and we are what we do. They shape our lives more than we realize. These stories work for us until they stop working. And one day we find ourselves waking up, wondering: is this all there is to life? To work, to climb the ladders of success and to make money? We’ve all had these moments of quiet and anxious self-reflection. We spend so much of our life anxiously hurrying around, drowning in busyness in order to prove ourselves, to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the day.
And then something happens. We lose our job. Our spouse dies. Illness hits and we are no longer able to do what we once did. We retire. We grow old. And in these moments, the stories that we have always told ourselves about who we are no longer satisfy. We realize that we have been anxiously filling our life with possessions and productivity in vain; our possessions, our sense of purpose and meaning we create for ourselves based on what we do, it all falters and leaks when crisis hits.
We realize that we have been busying ourselves to a schizophrenic degree so that we never have to slow down long enough to wonder if all that we fill our time and our houses with is really worth it. If who we are is really determined by what we possess and by what we do, then all of the sudden our life is turned upside down when we no longer have control over these areas of our life. Money and possessions can only buy happiness for a little while; success and status can only give our life meaning in the short term; but they fail to fill that void in our souls that we notice is there only long enough to try to cover it up again.
And sometimes we have these moments of clarity, moments when I believe God’s Spirit is stirring our hearts, moments when we wonder whether this is really all life has to offer. Our hearts yearn for more; our spirits feel parched. We wonder if who we are is not actually tied to what we possess or what we do. We wonder if perhaps we believed the wrong stories about who we are and what our purpose in life is.
In our Scripture passage today, the prophet Jeremiah is writing to a people who have forgotten who they are and have believed the wrong stories. Jeremiah is delivering a lawsuit from God against the Israelites. The Israelites were supposed to be God’s chosen nation, but they weren’t living like it. You see, God and Israel had entered into a covenant at Mt. Sinai under Moses’ leadership. A covenant was a promise, an agreement. God entered into a covenant with Israel, promising to be their God and to bless them, and the Israelites promised to obey God in exchange for God’s blessings.
This was centuries ago. Now, as Jeremiah is writing, Israel has abandoned and forgotten their covenant with God. They have become like all the other nations. They offer sacrifices to idols, they do not care for the poor and the marginalized as their covenant law requires. The rich keep getting richer without regard for the poor; it’s every man and woman for themselves. Their priests assure them that they can live however they want as long as they appease God with some sacrifices. They have forgotten who they belong to.
Israel is on the brink of being stomped by either Assyria or Egypt, the superpower nations on their northern and southern doorsteps. They are in political turmoil. Their kings keep switching allegiances between Egypt and Assyria, siding with whichever nation is stronger at the moment. They fear for their lives and for the future of their nation. But they do not call upon God. Instead they strike deals with other nations and other kings for protection.
The Israelites have forgotten who they belong to. They have forgotten their covenant with God and trusted instead in their own ways of living. They believed the story that they alone control their destiny; they believed the story that they had to fend for themselves and they had to create a life of meaning on their own. And in the midst of these false stories that the Israelites told themselves about who they are, Jeremiah brings a word from the Lord. And it isn’t good news.
God’s message to the Israelites is basically this: “What did I ever do to you or to your fathers that made you walk away from me? Did you forget how I was the God who delivered you from the hands of the Egyptians once before? Do you forget how I brought you out of a land of drought and deep darkness, into a land that is plentiful, with its fruits and good things? I upheld my end of the covenant – I blessed you with a life beyond your wildest dreams. But you have not upheld your end of the covenant. You have believed the wrong stories. You preferred to be like the other nations rather than a nation that was supposed to stand apart, to be a light to the others. I gave you good things, but you ruined them.”
In our passage you can almost hear the tone of a father who is watching their child throw their life away; it’s a tone of lament/pain, and of broken trust. But why is God bringing this indictment upon Israel? Why does God bother to tell them what they’ve done wrong? Because according to covenant stipulations, Israel defaulted on their side of the agreement, so God is no longer bound to uphold God’s side of the agreement. God could ditch the Israelites and go find a different covenant partner; it was within God’s right to do so. But instead, God here is pleading with Israel to come back, to remember the terms of the covenant.
God has not given up on the Israelites, but calls them to something better. Calls them to remember who they are. Or more specifically, to remember whose they are. God declares that they have gone after worthlessness and that their lives have become worthless. The Hebrew word here is hevel (repeat after me). It literally means “nothingness; vanity; mist”. What the Israelites pursue is vanity, worth nothing; it is like mist or vapor – it appears to be there but it disappears once you try to grab onto it.
Jeremiah writes: “They have exchanged their glory for that which does not profit.” They were created for glory; created to be a blessing to the other nations; created to love mercy, to seek justice and to walk humbly with the Lord; but they exchanged this calling for a life of hevel. They sought their own glory—they sought wealth, prosperity, status among the other nations – and in doing so they believed the wrong story. They forgot the glory they were called to and created for; instead they believed the story that God was no longer with them and that they needed to create a life of meaning on their own; but it ended up as hevel.
God indicts them for committing two evils: they have cut themselves off from God, the fountain of living waters; and instead they have hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. In the ancient world, water was considered the source of life. If you don’t have access to water, you die. They were more dependent on rain and direct access to rivers or other water sources than we are. So in this metaphor, the Israelites would’ve understood that by cutting themselves off from God, the fountain of living water, they were cutting themselves off from life itself. Instead they had a leaky cistern full of hevel –nothingness, worthlessness, mist.
The Israelites assumed that the life they could create for themselves was better than the life handed to them by God. But they believed the wrong story.
If we’re honest enough with ourselves, we might realize that we too, like the Israelites, continually exchange our glory for a life that does not profit. We cut ourselves off from God, the fountain of living water, as we hew out cisterns for ourselves, broken cisterns that can hold water for a little while, but eventually break and leak.
I spent much of my late teens and early twenties constructing an identity for myself around the sport I excelled at: ultimate Frisbee. For those of you who don’t know what ultimate Frisbee is, that’s ok – basically, it’s like soccer but played with a Frisbee. I wanted to be the best. And I actually was one of the top youth players in the nation at one time. I was selected to tryout for the U.S. youth national team and I was offered a contract to play for a professional team in Cincinnati.
I lived, slept and breathed ultimate. I was known as Frisbee Matt. The story I told myself was that my life and my self-worth revolved around excelling at ultimate; I needed to be the best. And for awhile, I thought I was the best. Until I tore my ACL and needed reconstructive surgery. My identity was shattered. The cistern I had hewed out for myself broke and was no longer able to hold water, the source of life.
I believed the wrong story about who I was. I believed that I was only as good as my skill and status in my athletic pursuits. But God wanted to remind me that I am fundamentally more than that; God was calling me to a life that was not disconnected from the fountain of living water – a life that was better than anything I could have created for myself.
God is calling us to remember who we are. We are not what we possess. We are not what we do or what we achieve. We are God’s craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for us. We belong to God; that is who we are. And nothing will change that. No matter how often we wander away from the fountain of living water, believing the wrong stories, no matter how extravagant of a cistern we build for ourselves, God will never stop pursuing us, calling us back to a better life – a life that is connected to the divine; a life of meaning that extends beyond ourselves and beyond the meaning we try to create on our own.
The cisterns we carve for ourselves, the identities and pleasures we pursue for our own gains appear to hold the promise of meaningfulness and fulfillment, but they do not deliver. The attraction of the self-devised cisterns we construct to sustain our lives is that we feel we can control them. And living in active relationship with the life-giving God brings obligations: the patiently quiet work of prayer and worship; working towards justice and acting compassionately.
As Sally Brown writes: “It is when we participate in the redemptive work of God—keeping promises, welcoming strangers, forgiving debts—that we drink from the fountain of the living God and discover a quality of life both sustaining and sustainable.” There is one true source of life, and that is God, the fountain of living water. God offers us incredible freedom from our anxious efforts to carve identities and purpose out for ourselves – God simply asks us rest in our adoption as children of God, set apart for a life of purpose found not in seizing our own blessings, but that is found in blessing others.
I’ll close with a story: “While walking through the forest one day, a man found a young eagle who had fallen out of his nest. He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a naturalist passed by the farm and asked why it was that the king of all birds should be confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens. The farmer replied that since he had given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaved as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.
“Still it has the heart of an eagle,” replied the naturalist, “and can surely be taught to fly.” He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, “You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again.
The naturalist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” But the eagle was afraid of his unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally the naturalist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the naturalist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a triumphant cry, soared away into the heavens.
It may be that the eagle still remembers the chickens with nostalgia. It may even be that he occasionally revisits the barnyard. But as far as anyone knows, he has never returned to lead the life of a chicken.”
God is calling you to leave your cozy barnyard-lifestyle and to soar with the wings you have been blessed with. God is calling you to remember who you are. You are not a chicken, destined to peck seed from the ground for the rest of its life. You are an eagle, created to soar in the open air.
You are not what you do or what you possess. You belong to God and are God’s craftsmanship, created for a life of blessing others. Which story will you believe? Which story will you allow to determine the course of your life? You belong to God. Let us drink deeply from the fountain of living water.