With the horrific news of the fires consuming large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, I found myself thinking back to my one solitary experience in that part of God’s creation. In high school I did a summer foreign exchange trip to Argentina for a month. At the beginning of our stay the group of American students that I travelled with and the group of American students that I travelled with took a trip to Iguaza Falls at the beginning of our stay. Iguaza Falls are right at the border between Argentina and Brazil, they are the largest system of waterfalls anywhere in the world. And they are absolutely breathtaking. We spent a day hiking around the falls, and everytime we turned a corner I saw the most impressive, and beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen. This most beautiful waterfall would then immediately be topped by the one I discovered around the next corner. It was like they never ended, just waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. So much beauty, and so much water. Everytime I see a waterfall I’m astounded by the sheer amount of water running through it. It doesn’t even have to be a big waterfall, just the fact that the water continues to fall, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The water never stops, it just keeps flowing. Its been almost 20 years since I visted the falls at Iguaza and watched them pour massive sheets of water over the edge of cliffs, and they are still doing it today. The water never runs out it just keeps coming.
In the literature of the Bible the Jordan river plays an outsize role. The Jordan is actually a fairly small river, especially when compared to the Nile or the Mississippi. However, the land surrounding the Jordan, the majority of the land of Israel in the sixth century BCE and even today, is desert. It is dry and arid and without much vegetation. Like all deserts, water can be hard to come by in Israel. In the dry and desert land of Israel, the flowing fresh waters of the Jordan are salvation; they are the source of life for the people there.
Yet not all in Israel live nearby the Jordan. Many towns and villages are simply too far away from the river’s banks to rely on it as their primary source of water. These folks had to set their minds on another way of getting water- one such method was to build cisterns to collect and store rain water. By digging bowls into the bedrock and guiding rainwater runoff to them, people created a source of water in their small villages away from the Jordan. As ingenious a move as this was, a cistern still can’t compare to running, living, water of the Jordan. There are several problems with cisterns- for one the water in them is stagnant and can easily become polluted and start to stink. The worst thing about cisterns though, is that they are temporary. They can only hold so much water, water that can’t be replenished until the next rain. In the meantime the water can evaporate, or it can seep out of cracks in the cistern. Cisterns are always running dry, running out of water, needing to be refilled. Although they are necessary in places with no access to running water, cisterns are still poor substitutes for the living water of a river.
It was the prophet Jeremiah who first applied the analogy of running, living water to God. In the passage Delilah read this morning, God is taking the people of Israel to court, God is trying them for their breach of covenant. Although God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, and led them through the treacherous wilderness, nevertheless Israel was not faithful to God. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” The leaders of the people especially are condemned for the ways they forgot or turned away from God- the priests who don’t inquire of God, the lawyers and judges who do not know God, the prophets prophesying for Baal. Despite the fact that God was good to them, freed them, saved them, and provided for them, despite all of this, the people still turned to other gods, to the gods of the neighboring nations.It was not only the ancestors who rejected God, but also their children and their children’s children. The people had given up their God, the one true living God, in exchange for no-gods, for idols, for that which 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. “ Though their God is powerful and merciful and perpetually generous, yet still these people abandoned the God of living water and chased after idols that cannot save them.
Oftentimes the Old Testament’s obsession with rejecting the worship of idols can appear to us as a relic of a past time; something that has little to no relevance for us today. There is a certain logic to this- I very rarely feel tempted to build a statue and begin worshipping it regularly. I imagine most of you are immune to this particular temptation as well. However, the problem with idolatry is not merely an objection to statuary, the problem of idolatry is coming to rely on, coming to trust, coming to have faith in something other than God. This is idolatry. And this is still very much a problem for our world, for the church, and for each one of us. We, as human beings have a tendency to trust in finite things, rather than the infinite. We have a tendency to believe that we can save ourselves, that we can find the answer to our problems apart from God.
What idols do we trust in today? For what are we willing to offer sacrifice? What about the right to bear arms? We trust in this right as part and parcel of a democratic society, we trust in it as part of our constitution, as an inalienable right. This trust, this faith in guns to provide safety and democracy, has led us to allow deadly weapons of war to be easily acquired by civilians, even teenagers. When these weapons of war take the lives of hundreds and thousands each year, vastly more than in any other place on the earth, we continue to trust in them. We view the slaughter of innocents as a required sacrifice at our altar to guns. And the more of these slaughters happen, the less safe we feel, and the more of us feel that we need to have a gun to protect us from all the other guns. The cistern is cracked, we have to perpetually pour more and more water into it, there never seem to be enough guns to keep us safe.
Our nation also spends the better half of all its resources on the military, more than all other countries combined. We trust that this huge military expenditure will make us safe, we have faith in it. Yet the wars and the threats never seem to end, or even to decline in frequency. Despite this, we pour more and more money into the Pentagon every year. It is a cracked cistern, it will always require more and more money.
Or how about growth? Economic growth is widely seen to be the panacea for all of our ills. Every nation needs to show a growing GDP, we need to produce more and more goods and services, we need our economy to continually grow so that we can all have enough. That such growth is exacting a terrible price on our environment, that it is leading to the burning of the Amazon, and the climate crisis, seems to be the sacrifice we are willing to make to the idol of growth.
These are just a few of our modern day idols, the cracked cisterns that we build to save ourselves. Just as the cracked cistern requires more and more water just to keep it level, so too do these idols require more and more of us, while providing less and less. The answer to this problem of cracked cisterns is to turn instead to the living water of God. If the Jordan and its limitless supply of clean, fresh water is right next to you, offering its grace, why on earth would you dig a cistern for yourself? It is God who saves. It is God alone whose love and care and provision never run out. It is God who requires nothing of us, but to surrender to Her. To give ourselves to the river, to the living water of God. The life that worship of idols brings about gets smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, more and more concerned with protecting what little you have to protect. That is a warped and awful way to live. The life that comes from worshipping God is open and expansive. If we can trust in God to provide we can truly live, opening ourselves to one another, being vulnerable before each other, and giving of ourselves to one another. This is the life that faith in God makes possible, a life of courage, trust, and generosity. May we foresake our idols, our cracked cisterns, and may we turn again to the living water of God. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast