(Lectionary for August 28, 2016)
“Without doubt my people have committed two evils: they have abandoned me,the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13).
I have been commenting on texts from the Hebrew Bible for nearly 50 years, much of that commentary oral through preaching and teaching, and over the past few years, much of it written through the good offices of Patheos.com. For the first five years for this expansive and expanding website, I wrote a weekly column, “Opening the Old Testament,” and over the past months a blog, “The Peripatetic Preacher.” As I have grown older, and am now long retired from my regular seminary teaching post, my opportunities for preaching and teaching have diminished, hence these columns have been life-giving for me, nothing less than a spiritual discipline. I am always grateful for those of you who read my offerings.
Of course, my musings are necessarily read by religious types with, I imagine, very few exceptions. There may be an atheist or agnostic or two who drop by on occasion, but I am certain that the vast bulk of my consumers are churchy, or at least biblically interested in one way or another. And because my former column appeared on the Progressive Christian Portal at Patheos, my audience was usually limited even more to those who in the main agreed with my general approach to things biblical. I can be completely certain that Jerry Falwell, Jr. is not a regular reader of my efforts, unless he is trolling the internet for examples of the latest blasphemies with which to lard his Sunday sermons. I am pretty much preaching to the choir, and I admit to finding that somewhat sad, as inevitable as it must necessarily be.
Jeremiah, too, was preaching to the religious choirs of 7th and 6th century BCE Judah, however off-key he found the choruses to be. He, using the prophetic, divine “I” of the prophets, accused Judah of two separate evils: abandoning YHWH, the only possible builder of solid water cisterns, and building their own useless cisterns, cracked vessels by definition, and then watching the precious water dribble out through the cracks and onto the thirsty ground, leaving Judah perpetually thirsty and dying. Jeremiah, and I also, wish that this memorable metaphor of good and bad water cisterns could be heard by those rather less religious than we are, or even by those who are not the slightest bit religious, imagining that the Bible is merely an ancient old thing that has caused far more mayhem in the world than it has brought joy and peace. So, this piece may be for any of you readers who have stumbled here by mistake, and normally break out in hives when anyone mentions the Bible or anything having to do with it. Of course, the rest of you chorus members may join in as usual if you would like.
First, just what is this metaphor of the cisterns? In ancient Israel, as well as in all dry primitive cultures all over the world, it became imperative that water be saved. The average rainfall in the southern deserts of Israel and on down to the vast city of Cairo is less than a half inch per year. It is not unusual for Cairo to receive no rain at all for upwards of two years. Hence, it was crucial that systems be devised whereby water can be saved and stored for those long dry spells. The simplest way was to dig a hole in the ground, and one can imagine that the very ancient inhabitants of that part of the world did just that. It was, as any fool could see, a very poor solution to the problem. Water has this way of moving to the lowest level, and without someway of stopping that movement, much of the precious liquid would and did seep right into the soil below the hole.
Some enterprising inventor soon began to experiment with various coverings over the soil of the hole to prevent the loss of some of the water. A kind of limestone became the material of choice, and throughout the Middle East there exist remains of limestone- covered cisterns that served the ancients in this way. One of the very largest of these can be found at ancient Gibeon, a huge vat in the ground, many meters across, that provided a large water source for the ancient city and for the surrounding countryside. Its origins are lost to the past, but it was operative for centuries, as the evidence of years of digging deeper and wider indicates. We know it was an active source of water at least as early as the writing of 2 Samuel 2:12-17 where the pool of Gibeon serves as the backdrop of a ritual battle gone bad, as the forces of David and the forces of Abner engage in a deadly struggle, leading to a large loss of life on both sides. We cannot be certain when this story was composed, but surely no later than 9th century BCE would be a reasonable guess.
He, and most of us, go immediately the religious route with the metaphor, and claim that it is only YHWH who can properly create and seal a cistern. We humans are doomed to build cisterns that will crack, because we have forgotten the God who makes sound cisterns only. However, could we not extend the metaphor in our increasingly secular and non-religious world to suggest that cracked cisterns are the result of reliance on limited human skill, arrogant convictions that we can do it all, our certainty that left to ourselves we can solve all of our problems on our own? Can we translate this overtly religious language to say that we lack humility when faced with our vast human problems? Can we further say that we have become so individualized that we imagine that only the lonely genius can save us from our ills? Our propensity to dig only cracked cisterns ought tell us that we cannot finally act alone, but must seek out others with which to confront the world’s pain.
I am struck again, as I have been struck over these past weeks, following the two national conventions to select Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as our choices for president, that there is at least one decided difference between the two candidates. Donald Trump has cast himself as the lone savior of those who feel afraid and threatened in a world of danger. Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan is “Better Together.” While Trump points to any number of individuals and groups that he proposes to eject from the country and to bar from entering altogether, Clinton has made inclusion the hallmark of her way of describing the greatness of the United States.
Of course, there is hardly a guarantee that an inclusive vision of the world will necessarily create cisterns that will always hold water; history too often speaks otherwise. Still, we must ask ourselves which vision is the more likely one to build a lasting cistern, a sole builder or a large group of builders whose task it is to watch the laying of the limestone with care, to look closely for the appearance of cracks, to offer help if a crack threatens to form? I think the better way is the inclusive way, and that choice has nothing necessarily to do with a reliance on one divine being or another. A single individual cannot possibly do what an engaged, committed, mutually supportive group can do. One more reason, if one more were needed, to vote appropriately this November.
Whoever wins this election, he/she will without doubt build a cracked cistern or two or three. Still, we are far less likely to build a myriad of them if we open ourselves to the wisdom and skill of an array of diverse and capable Americans, rather than relying on one only, no matter how brilliantly unmatchable, he claims to be. But for those religious among us, it is in fact YHWH alone who is the final builder of a cistern that can remain uncracked. And you non religious types, you have my permission to avoid that previous sentence, but to find hope in the one that precedes it.