I’m grateful for modern plumbing and a municipal water system, because I once lived in a place that depended on cisterns.
In the Virgin Islands, as in most of the Caribbean, there is no real water table because the islands are so small. As soon as you begin to dig down into the ground, you reach salt water that cannot be used for drinking and as soon as you start watering crops with it, the salt kills them and poisons the land until it leaches back out again over a period of years. There are a few freshwater streams, but not enough to support a large population. In that kind of setting, you learn the value of water. Building codes in the islands require the construction of cisterns to gather runoff from every roof so that rainwater can be pumped back up again for washing and for general use, although it cannot really be used safely for drinking or cooking. These cisterns have to be maintained and resealed regularly, though, because they crack and the water runs out into the earth.
Another place that depended on cisterns was the ancient city of Jerusalem, where the water system had to be carefully protected as a matter of defense. Sometime not long after the year 900 B.C. a tunnel was dug to bring fresh water inside the city’s walls, and it was repeatedly strengthened and re-engineered to provide water for Jerusalem when it came under siege. Without that water, some of it kept in cisterns, the people inside the walls would have died of thirst. With that water, they could survive attack. If you let the cisterns go to ruin, you were ignoring your own safety.
Jeremiah had a chance to see at least one cistern of Jerusalem close up. He had been warning that the city, under siege by a Babylonian army, could only be saved by surrendering. That put him at odds with the army, and several officers threw him into a cistern to shut him up, with the intention of leaving him there to rot. [Jeremiah 38:4] If the cistern had been maintained properly, it would have been filled with water and he would have drowned. Since it was cracked, he found himself in mud instead and lived until his friends pulled him out. [Jeremiah 38:10] What a weird thought it must have been to realize that the only reason he survived was because the city really was unprepared, as he had said.
Surely that had something to do with his awareness that the people were unprepared for their time of difficulty because they had turned away from finding their security in God and God alone and had turned to idolatry of many types. As he put it,
“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.” [Jeremiah 2:13]
I think about that sometimes for our own times and circumstances, both as a people of faith and as individuals.
I worry that sometimes we have turned away from a God who is both powerful and loving, who describes himself as “a jealous God” [Exodus 20:5 and 34:14], whom the book of Job [38:1] pictures as speaking from a whirlwind, who is, as the book of Hebrews [12:29] says, “a consuming fire” and instead worship a god who is merely “nice”. Jeremiah saw trouble beginning when the people forgot about or willfully ignored the God whom they had known.
“Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” [Jeremiah 2:6]
A God who can do things like that is one that can be trusted, and doesn’t need to be replaced with idols and false gods that make claims that will never be fulfilled.
A God like that can even, in fact, lead his people into dangerous or unlikely territory, precisely because he can preserve and keep them. Think about the confusing world of Jesus’ parables.
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” [Luke 14:12-14]
That goes against all social convention. And if we don’t have a sense of the proper give-and-take of daily life, what is there? I mean, it’s one thing to invite people who cannot return the favor, but what’s all this about deliberately avoiding the people who can? But at least it’s consistent with a God who is more concerned about compassion than appearances. It’s more along the lines of a God who can and does watch over the troubled, which at some point in life is going to include everyone.
God may be confusing sometimes. Jeremiah saw his hand in history, but never in the most obvious ways. Certainly he confused and sometimes even frustrated Jeremiah, and he was not the last one. Teresa of Avila, one of the great Christian mystics, is reported to have said to God at one point in her life, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.” He does not spare us our struggles, but he sees us through them, and that is one of the ways that we know he is real, because he has never spared himself, either.
Real faith is faith in the God who himself suffered in the person of his Son, who has known what it is, like Jeremiah, to be condemned to death unjustly. Jeremiah had faith and God rescued him, lifting him from the mud of a cracked cistern. Jesus went one step further, even dying, and only then being raised back to life from the darkness of the grave. There is nothing that a God like that cannot do, and with faith in that God, there is no trouble or trial that can overwhelm you.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” [Luke 6:20-23]