The south of France, where Kim and I were on holiday, is dotted with what are called ‘bastide towns’. These mediaeval towns aren’t necessarily very big but they are all fortresses, surrounded by town walls and (usually) set on the top of very steep hills. In temperatures that didn’t fall below 38 degrees climbing up to them takes some doing. Tourists usually have to leave their cars at the bottom of the hill but these places are still populated so residents find ingenious places to park their cars in the tiny side streets, driving through the narrow streets like Nicole in the Renault Clio adverts.
Being so high up I wondered how these places managed for water. Nowadays water from the great French rivers is, of course, pumped around the country. But in mediaeval towns at the top of hills? Wells, presumably? – though digging deep enough and raising water from depth would be hard. More likely these places relied on cisterns: great masonry containers (usually a little way underground) beneath properties, that collect rainwater, feed it through a sand filter and can then draw on it when needed. But if the cistern is cracked…?
‘My people’ says the Lord in our Old Testament reading, ‘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.’
Our Old Testament readings through the summer have pretty well all been about judgement. Amos has held up his plumb line and found the people of God’s ways are crooked. He has seen the decline of nation in a basket of summer fruit on the turn: ‘it will rot’ he knows. Hosea has given voice to the heart of God that knows His people deserve judgement but which cannot stop loving them: ‘How can I give you up O Israel?’, he cried. And now Jeremiah. These words from chapter 2 are set in a great long passage where God sets his goodness alongside the people’s repeated tendency to ignore Him, to wander from observing the covenant and fall from His good purposes for them.
The phrase in verse 12 is telling: ‘Be appalled O heavens, be shocked, be utterly desolate’ This suggests that the mess the nation is in leaves the whole heavenly realm confused, unable to comprehend why the people don’t embrace the worship of God and follow His leading. ‘Desolation’ in the heavens, in the heart of God- as the nation sinks further and further into chaos God Himself feels destroyed, bereft. He is so close to His people that He feels their pain even when that pain is self-inflicted. As they say of parents: ‘you are only as happy as your least happy child.’
God wonders whether He Himself was at fault, did he fail the people in any way? ‘What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me?’ He can’t get His head around the fact that those who should have known better don’t make any reference to Him in the way they live or in how they guide the nation. The priests did not say ‘Where is the Lord?’ Nor did those who administered the law…or the rulers…or the prophets. None of them! Instead of seeking Him they have relied on their own strength, and on their own wisdom. Spiritually they have refused to seek out the ‘living water’ He offers and have tried to provide for themselves …and now the well is dry, the cisterns are cracked…soon there will be nothing but dust.
Where do we go with this reading? What do we hear all these centuries after these words were first spoken? We could slide Jeremiah’s appeal to the nation across into a call to our own nation to rediscover the old ways even as the Big Story of God’s goodness in Creation, our fall from grace and His restoration of men and women to bear his image in the world through Jesus’ ministry and the gift of His Spirit slips out of our nation’s self-understanding, the Truth of the story no longer recognised by succeeding generations.
But perhaps that ‘big appeal’ to the nation needs to start with the church…with you and I this morning? Israel and Judah (Jeremiah appeals to all the families of the house of Israel – reaching beyond the division of the nation that had taken place centuries before) …Israel and Judah in the Old Testament story are ‘the people of God’. They are a people chosen especially to be ‘a blessing to the world’. God’s distress and confusion in our reading may well be, in part, because he had hoped that this little nation would act as a light to the nations, would be the ‘salt and the light’, the ‘leaven in the lump’ that would bring transformation and renewal to the world in His name. Their choosing to go their own way means that the long project of restoring God’s image in men and women and renewing the face of the earth is derailed, unable to progress.
In Christian understanding you and I are the new Israel. You and I, (we – the people of God in this place – alongside the people of God in every other place) now carry this vocation. So how are we doing? We can beat ourselves up – we’re good at that – we can highlight our many failures as individuals and as ‘church’ to pray enough, to give ourselves in worship and service, to seek God’s guidance and rely on His strength rather than our own. Or we can turn this reading around and find the good news within it.
Which is what? It is this. Ours is a loving and compassionate God who has blessed us in the past and wishes to bless us in the future. This God wishes to renew, refresh, strengthen, encourage and support us, His children, as we seek to honour Him and reflect His goodness in this place. He gives us responsibility – as the parish church here we are called to serve everyone in this parish and to ‘Celebrate God’s Love’ as we do so. But he offers Himself to us to empower us: there is ‘Living water’ available to us from a fountain of loving kindness that will never run dry. Churches, like people, need to drink. We must never forget to attend to the way God leads and renews us – through proper attention to scripture and deep attention to one another and what is going on around us, making room to hear His Word, creating space for Him to work within and around us. We cannot serve Him in our own strength but He does not expect us to. Instead He invites us each day to be ‘filled with His Spirit’: why then would we refuse Him?
Ho, everyone who thirsts (said Isaiah), come to the waters.
He refreshes my soul: said the Psalmist
Those who drink of the water that I give (says Jesus) will never be thirsty. I will give them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
Get more updates and engage with the church community on our Facebook page
St. Mary’s is open for private prayer each weekday from 10.00am – 4.00pm