Growing up, my family made many summer pilgrimages from the plains of the Midwest to the hiking trails of the Rocky Mountains. Every peak seemed like a challenge to me, as if, once I reached the top I would be able to see the whole world. But the funny thing about a mountain range is the higher you get the taller they look, till you reach the summit and realize another peak is towering over you, as if to say “not there yet.” I have been reflecting lately about such climbs and how we humans doggedly pursue the prizes we believe will finally allow us to rest on our laurels. We go persistently on, like the hiker who wrongly believes he will reach his goal at every false summit. At the core we are all, as Harrold Abrams says in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, striving for something “to justify my whole existence.”
I work in the Indie 500 of rat races-politics. At every meeting, fundraiser, and reception I’ve attended, people casually wear their resume on their sleeve, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who can relax in the peace of having achieved lasting fulfillment. We crave acclaim, control, security, prosperity, and we are terrified of being unknown, powerless, vulnerable, destitute. And it’s not just politicos. Writer and speaker Kathy Caprino conducted a survey of 700 people, asking them what they wanted more of in their life. The top ten responses included fulfillment, happiness, peace and money. The tantalizing notion that an Instagram-perfect life, a startup that catches fire, or a successful cause will provide a stable source of fulfillment hangs before our human nature like a mirage in the desert.
In Jeremiah, God reprimands the Children of Israel for metaphorically digging cisterns to satisfy their need for water when he is a fresh spring, saying “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” The powerful imagery in this verse is of people, desperate for a stable source of water to quench their thirst in an arid land, hacking away at the rock with their pickaxe to collect precious rainwater. Having a cistern, a constant supply of thirst quenching water, was a luxury that took time and resources to create. God says to his people “you’ve made a mistake in your search for satisfaction in life, you’ve turned your back on my fresh bubbling spring, preferring to toil for your own sources of water, thinking that once the rain comes you will always be able to return there and satisfy your thirst. Then after all your labor and waiting for rain, you return expecting to find the fulfillment of your need safely waiting for you, and instead you find a bone dry hole, because your cisterns are broken.”
The Children of Israel were not alone in their cistern-digging tendencies; we are all cistern diggers. We shoulder our pickaxe and dash off to hack away at a career or relationship, certain that by the time we are finished we will have a secure reserve source of satisfaction. So we dig and dig and dig and wait for rain to fill our cistern, and finally when we have achieved our goals we think, “whenever I am dissatisfied with life, I will come to this cistern and have a nice satisfying drink of my own accomplishments.” We choose the job, friendship, retirement plan, or community we think will satisfy us and we dig in: putting in the overtime, showing up at all the group events–we are the ones controlling our success. There is nothing we desire more as humans than the ability to ensure our own happiness.
In John’s Gospel we read of a woman who had turned to men’s affections over and over desperately hoping it will become her cistern. The Samaritan Woman makes a remarkable mirror if you will look at her. We meet her going to draw water in the heat of the day. Alone. Thirsty. And there’s Jesus, sitting on the well, waiting for her–us–to come draw water hoping to satisfy our souls. He tells us “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4).” He says, “stop digging cisterns, stop trying to make your career satisfy you, stop putting your worth in relationships, breaking your back to prove your importance to yourself. I’ve been here all the time, a fresh, cold spring. You can’t dig for the satisfaction that comes from me. All you can do is drink.”