Sunday 1 September 2019
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22C
We were recently in England for the 18th International Conference on Patristic Studies in Oxford. I gave a paper on Clement of Alexandria and his reading of the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Thank you so much for support while I was away.
While we were there, we visited the town of Bath. Bath is known for its Georgian architecture and for the ruins of an ancient Roman bath. The reconstructed baths are really quite impressive.
The baths in Bath are quite special, though, because they are powered by a natural hot spring. Long before the Romans arrived, the hot springs were already a place of pilgrimage. Archaeological evidence suggests that for at least 10,000 years, people have been coming to the waters of Bath.
And it wasn’t just for a spa treatment. The ancients didn’t just think that the hot springs were therapeutic, they thought the waters were sacred. When they came to the ancient spring, that would not only bathe, they would bring offerings for the goddess who dwelled there. The Celts called the goddess Sulis. So when the Romans arrived, they called the place Aquae Sulis, the waters of Sulis. But they also merged the Celtic goddess with one of their own goddesses: Minerva, known to Greeks as Athena. Minerva was associated with wisdom, medicine, and poetry.
The Romans built a giant complex at the site of the springs. They used their engineering know-how to build several different baths at different temperatures, along with steam rooms, exercise rooms, rooms for massage. But they also built altars and temples. The site of the sacred spring remained a sacred site. And at the center was the temple of Sulis Minerva, the goddess wisdom, the goddess of the healing waters. There was something about that natural spring, that hot water bubbling up from the earth. For centuries, across cultures, people saw it as not just a useful, natural phenomenon, but as something supernatural, something sacred, something holy.
In the ancient world, water was a very valuable resource. We forget that sometimes. We live in a place that has an abundance of good, clean, fresh water. We live among lakes and rivers and waterfalls. And even in the parts of the country that aren’t surrounded by major bodies of water, we have technology that brings water just about anywhere. In just about any house in the United States, you can turn on a faucet and have cool, clean water come out. In Las Vegas, a city of more than half a million people in the middle of the desert, you can turn on the tap and have clean, cool water come out. Water is free at any restaurant in the nation. Even when we go camping, there are a huge number of campsites that have individual faucets for each site, and many more that have water easily accessible at a very short distance. The idea of not having easy access to drinkable water is almost completely foreign to us.
But that was nowhere near true in the ancient world. Access to clean water was a major struggle for many people. For much of premodern history, it simply was not accessible to many people. And the water that was available might not have been safe to drink.
This was certainly true in many parts of ancient Palestine. The Mediterranean is salt water. So is the Dead Sea. The Jordan River was a source of fresh water for many, but it’s pretty small. In this part of the world, we probably wouldn’t even call it a river. Having a well nearby would be highly valuable.
Do remember in the story of Jesus and the woman at the well? She makes a big deal about the well, and how the well had been dug by Jacob back in ancient times. The fact that he was able to provide a well for them seemed like an almost God-like power. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well?” She asks Jesus, incredulously. The ability to provide water was not at all trivial. It was a highly valuable resource.
Because, of course, water is essential for life. If you’re going to grow crops, you need water. If you’re going to raise animals, you need water.
More importantly, we humans need water to survive. Seventy-five percent of our body weight comes from water. Every cell, tissue, and organ needs water in order to function. Water aids in digestion, carries nutrients and oxygen to cells, regulates body temperature, and helps the body dispose of waste. Dehydration is the number one trigger for daytime fatigue. Even mild dehydration can cause trouble with brain function and concentration. We need water to live. And we need water in order to function at our best. The body can function for weeks without food, but only for three or four days without water. Water is absolutely essential for life.
In the Hebrew Bible reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah narrates God’s frustration with the nation of Israel. God is upset that they have turned away from God. God is the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, the one who led them through the wilderness and provided for them, the one who brought them to the promised land and established them as a nation.
And yet, over time, the people drifted away. They no longer saw their need of God. They forgot God’s commandments and leadership. They set off on their own. They tried to live without God, or to replace God with that which is not God.
God says that it is time to take Israel to court. God has a grievance against the people. God has saved and established them. God has provided for them. God has been faithful to them. And yet, they have not remained faithful to God. They have drifted away from God.
And while God is presenting a case to this imaginary court, God says, “Cross the coasts of Cypress and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are not gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” God is saying that nowhere in the world has a people ever changed gods from one to another. And yet, the people of Israel are trying to replace the one, true and living God with something else.
God continues with the charges: “My people have committed two crimes: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water. And they have dug wells, broken wells that can’t hold water.”
That is the image I want to focus on this morning. The people have forsaken the spring of living water and have instead dug broken wells that can’t even hold water.
Like we said, water was a highly valuable resource in the ancient world. A natural spring that consistently bubbled up fresh water from the ground was an unusual resource. In most places, wells had to be dug in order to access fresh water. A spring of living water—that is, a self-sustaining natural spring of healthy, flowing water—would be a luxury. Like the springs in Bath, it would be considered not only useful, but also sacred.
God is like that spring of living water. God is a never-ending source of life. We don’t have to pay for it. We don’t have to work for it. It is just there, flowing freely and readily available. Cool and clean. Refreshing and replenishing.
But without access to God, without access to that living spring, we start to die. Our health suffers, as we become spiritually dehydrated. And just like regular dehydration, a shortage of God can have negative effects in our bodies, in our minds, and in our spirits.
God says that instead of coming to the spring of living water, the people tried to make their own sources of water by digging broken wells. The Hebrew word, bor, might refer to a well or to a cistern. At best, it is an unreliable source of water. At worst, it is stagnant and even poisonous. And yet the people have chosen to come to these broken wells instead of coming to God’s spring of living water.
And that sounds like something we might be able to relate to. God is readily available to us. We can pray whenever we want. We can read the word whenever we want. And yet, so much of the time, we choose not to.
Instead, we try to do it on our own. We look to other sources for our spiritual refreshment. We take other things, that are not God, and we put them in the place of God at the center of our lives. We dig broken wells; we build broken cisterns. Instead of looking to God, we look to money. Or we look to drugs and alcohol. We look to our own egos. We look to our accomplishments or our possessions. We look to any number of things that are God. And we suffer because of it.
And yet, God continues to be right there for us, whenever we look. We just have to take the time. To praise God for our joys and come to God with our troubles. To read and reflect on the story of God and God’s people. To give thanks for our meals. To be mindful of God’s presence in our natural world. To seek God’s guidance when we face choices. To find God alive in our friends, neighbors, and strangers.
God is right there, all the time. The spring of living water is bubbling up, right in front of us. We don’t need to look anywhere else. All we need do is come, drink, and be refreshed. All we need do is accept God’s invitation. All we need do is come to the water of life.