Jeremiah (1) My cistern or God's fountain?

Jeremiah 2: 4-13; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

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’

For the past few years I have found myself preaching in early September and you have therefore found me full of the joys of Greenbelt. And this year you may, or indeed may not, be pleased to hear, is no exception. September 1 no less! And what a Greenbelt! It was hot, for a start! That’s not happened in a while. So hot that Nick and I narrowly avoided heatstroke on Tuesday morning packing up in temperatures of 30 degrees.

And it was the Greenbelt when the festival woke up to climate change activism – and Extinction Rebellion were in residence all weekend, together with the Christian group within Extinction Rebellion, Christian Climate Action. Nick has much more on that so do speak with him afterwards if you want to know more.

And it was also, for me certainly, the Greenbelt that saw a greater focus on inter-faith discussion and a more visible presence of our Muslim sisters and brothers – and their music!

And it was Emily and Justin’s first Greenbelt. So it was the Greenbelt where I discovered Drew’s capacity to find the single MOST DANGEROUS thing to climb on in a quarter mile radius and the festival where he introduced himself to more or less everyone there. There might just be one or two people he missed but there can’t be many. That child has a one person ministry to smile at the entire world and let them know they are wanted! Deeply valuable!

But, above all those wonderful things, it was the festival where, just before the Sunday morning service was due to start, Ali Marshall turned to me and said, ‘have you seen the camels?’ Camels??? There were camels at GB?? For reasons best known to someone on the committee it was a Christmas themed service so, of course, there were actually three camels walking around the site, ridden by three wise people, one of whom was the wonderful Rachel Mann who spoke here last year, and they were asking everyone they met if they’d seen a baby anywhere! So, not to worry the leadership and teaching and worship teams but at our next meetings to talk about OUR Christmas services I will be raising the necessity of getting hold of three camels. And preferably Rachel Mann as well!

But it was a wonderful festival. It was, even in these difficult times, the most hope filled, joy filled festival that I can remember. And I will return to that at the end, this morning. The importance of hope, the essential nature of joy in our lives.

Jeremiah is not usually seen as a joy filled prophet. This morning’s reading says, ‘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’ . Ok, first things first, in this context, what’s a cistern? It’s a container that is built, in this reference dug out of the ground, to catch rain water! That’s important. Human effort goes into building them. They fill up gradually. If it doesn’t rain they don’t fill up. Sometimes they leak! Hold those things in mind.

And what struck me first about this reading was the anguish of God, the desolation of God at what Israel had done. God feels abandoned by the people of God. And how often do we think of God as desolate? As anguished? Yet that is the image that Jeremiah presents to us. How many of our hymns have a God who weeps and longs for us, a God who shows vulnerability? One of the points I want to make this morning is the necessity of having multiple images of God. It is easy, we all find it easy, to get stuck in our image of God. God is a Father, a King, powerful, in control. Well, yes. Yes and no. And God is also a mother, and a midwife and even a hen. God is more than our images of him. God is more than our images of her.

Richard Rohr says we should abandon our images of God completely at least once every three years. Which is easy to say and hard to do. It is even painful to do.

I have spoken about my joy in GB. But GB has not always been joy filled for me. Important, yes, joy filled, no. I did 4 years in therapy for quite deep depression in my thirties and part of what I did in that time was look at and unpick and let go of my images of God. And I remember GB’s where I mourned, deeply, precisely because I had abandoned my images of God and I felt SO lonely and SO sad and I didn’t know whether anything, any faith, would ever come into fill that aching void. It was a time of waiting. And it hurt.

And also in that time, just as I let go of my images of God, I also, and I think they are linked, had to let go of my images of myself – images of myself that I had grown up with, as always fragile, always weak. I remember the morning, I remember the actual dream, when I realised that I had a fixed and limiting view of myself as weak, as needy, and that, actually, I was more than that. I had to let go of that limiting image and let myself also be strong and capable too.

And of course, being me, I then go to the other extreme. I then build a very convincing image of myself as always strong, always capable. Yes, I’ll get a PhD while running a business and training as an Alexander teacher, oh and I’ll run the toddler group and I’ll preach and I’ll offer myself for ordination.

So, returning now to those cisterns, MY cistern has been really well researched – I’ve read ALL the books on cistern building – in fact I’ve almost certainly done a course and passed an exam in cistern building and I’ll build multiple cisterns all at the same time and they’ll be really really good cisterns, better than most other people’s you can be sure of that!

Because the cistern is what we live our lives by – the story we tell ourselves, that we rely on to get us through life – and mine is one of achievement. If I work hard enough, if I get enough qualifications, then I will be valuable and valued, then I will be ok, then – really – I will be saved.

Bruggemann talks about the stories of secularism – the stories of consumerism. People who fill their cisterns with money – if I have enough money my life will have meaning. If I have enough things, I will be happy. If I am successful enough, I will be ok. Honestly, Christians are perhaps less likely to have obviously materialist cisterns – though we may sneak in an i cistern – sleeker and more expensive than the android cistern of him over there! But we may also be seduced by the cistern of trying to be nice to everyone – if I am kind enough, spiritual enough, ethical enough – if I only do fair trade coffee and believe the right things and pray hard enough – then I will be ok, then I will finally find that elusive life giving joy. But there is never enough. Because the cistern, remember, leaks.

In our gospel reading, Jesus’ notices those who build their lives on status – and calls on his listener’s to let go of needing to be important – to be given the place of honour.

And God looks on – bemused –distraught – because behind us – behind me – all the time I am busily digging away there is a fountain, a fountain that drenches, a fountain I don’t have to dig, I don’t need a qualification to step into – God says, for heaven’s sake woman put the spade down and come over here and just stand under the water, just be.

God is always more than our images of him. God is always more than our images of her. In some ways I think the essence of the spiritual life is letting go. Letting go of our fixed images of God. Letting go of our fixed images of ourselves. I have been ill this summer. I don’t usually DO ill – I do fit and going running and writing PhD’s before breakfast. But this summer I have had to let go of my image of myself as always strong, always capable. I have had to rest, to do less. I have had to admit that yes, sometimes I am vulnerable, sometimes I need help. I have HAD to put down the spade more often and been glad that there is that fountain over there though mostly I still forget to step into it.

And the fountain just flows. I didn’t have to dig it. It won’t dry up if I stop digging. It flows for everyone and it flows forever. One of the joys of GB is realising that we are part of a story of grace, of a fountain that has always been there, that flows now and will flow forever, a bigger story than Brexit, a story of promises made, and kept, not broken, a story of Good news, not fake news, a story where the poor are invited to the feast and not exploited, or mocked or vilified, a story of truth and faithfulness, not lies and betrayal, of peace and reconciliation not hate or polarisation, a story told in words and images, in bread and in wine. And that is our story. And it is a hope filled, joy filled story. And no spades are required!

Jenny Fox-Eades September 2019