Summary: We are all thirsty, but some are digging their own cisterns while others are drinking from the Spring of Living Water.
When our girls were young, we moved to a new church with an old parsonage in the country. Shortly after moving in I noticed a large metal plate on the floor of the aging double-car garage. Being the naturally curious person I am, I took the screws out of the plate and slid it to the side. It exposed a three foot square hole in the concrete floor, and when I stuck my head down the hole I saw that under the entire floor of the garage someone had built a cistern. It wasn’t any water I wanted to drink, because it smelled and was filled with all kinds of things. The drainpipes from the garage roof had, at one time, ran into the cistern. It was kind of spooky down there, but it used to be someone’s only source of water.
Most of you who are older have seen cisterns or actually used them. We recently had to fill in an old broken cistern under the church parking lot because it was creating a sink hole. A house used to sit where our parking lot now is and the cistern supplied the family’s water. Before city water and pipelines, it was common for people to try and catch rainwater from their roofs and collect it in cisterns. But there are problems with cisterns. First, if it doesn’t rain you have no water. Second, even if you have enough water, the cistern may leak. Cisterns were especially important in Israel during Jeremiah’s day. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of them. The land was arid and the rains were infrequent. The people in those days would dig their cisterns, line them with bricks and plaster them to hold the water, but they would often break and were not able to hold the water. If you were able to collect a little water it was important that you did not lose it because of a broken cistern. But even then the water was stagnant and the supply was inadequate.
In the passage that we have read together today, Jeremiah says, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). He is painting a picture on the minds of the people to whom he is talking. He uses a familiar metaphor and mixes it with the ridiculous. He is painting the familiar picture of cisterns, but the absurd part of the picture is people relying on old, broken cisterns which they have made, while right beside their cistern there is a continuous spring of living water. It was a laughable scene: people trying to fill broken cisterns, and scooping out the little bit of stagnant water in the bottom, while refusing to drink from the fresh spring water which was flowing right next to them.
But the farcical picture drove home the point of Jeremiah. It was a picture of the people of Israel. When they laughed at Jeremiah’s metaphor they were laughing at themselves, because they had rejected the true God who was called “the spring of living water,” and relied on their own efforts to satisfy the deep longings of their lives. They had wandered from the One the psalmist called “the fountain of life,” and gone after other gods (Psalm 36:9). They had tried to find satisfaction in various sins and other futile attempts to fill their lives. But their attempts were like trying to fill broken cisterns. Whatever they did accumulate became stagnant, and they were not able to hold on to much of what they found. They were constantly running after life, but it was running through their fingers. They were trying to accumulate things, but they had nothing of real value. There was a stench and an emptiness inside, but they were unwilling to turn to the true God whose supply of life was endless and effervescent. They were not sure they could trust the Lord to satisfy their thirst.
The first truth that I see in this passage from Jeremiah is: We all are thirsty. In other words, there are legitimate deep thirsts and longings in our lives that are placed there by God. We long for our lives to have meaning. We are searching for a legitimate purpose in which we can invest our lives. We are looking for love and intimacy. We pursue joy and happiness. We desire peace. We yearn for freedom. All of these longings are a part of what makes us human. We are created in the likeness of God, and these are the things that he wants for us as well. He has made us with these hungers and thirsts, but the question is how will we fulfill these longings. It is not a sin to be thirsty, but satisfying that thirst in misdirected ways may be. It is not a sin to desire love, but how you decide to meet your need for love may be. It is not a sin to want meaning and purpose in your life, but when your life’s central purpose and meaning does not line up with God’s will for you, it is wrong. It is not a sin to desire freedom, unless you are wanting to be free from God and all moral restraints. It is not a sin to want to be happy, but trying to meet your longing for happiness outside the will of God is not only wrong, it is destructive. It is like drinking smelly, stagnant, diseased water at the bottom of a broken cistern.