Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Seeking the Living Water
In Jeremiah 2:13, the prophet Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord, saying, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and they have dug their own cisterns, cisterns that cannot hold water.”
As I was preparing this message, two images from the natural world came to me. The first is of dead trees filled with salt in Alaska.
I was born and raised in Alaska, and so was my mother, and so were her parents. That place is deep in my bones. There are certain colors and smells and images that I associate with it, and when I see them or smell them, I know that I am home.
One of the most haunting images of my childhood was of these dead trees. They are a result of the 1964 earthquake. That earthquake was 9.2 and lasted for four minutes. My grandparents and my mother thought that it was the end of the world. They ran outside as their house fell off its foundation. The destruction was incredible.
In one part of Alaska, the ground sank below sea level, and the trees’ root systems filled with salt water. Decades later, you could drive by and see these ghost trees, standing exactly as they stood during the earthquake. It is a haunting image and one that seemed like it would last forever.
This was a natural reaction to a natural disaster. The water that killed those trees had been living water, but it was no longer life-giving for those trees.
Sometimes when we encounter God, it feels a little like that: overwhelming.
There is a story in the Bible where Jesus takes three of his disciples up onto a mountain to pray, and while they are there, they have an encounter with the living God. As Jesus was praying, his face was transformed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightening. (Luke 9:29)
This story is like another story in the Bible, where Moses also went up a mountain to encounter God. After he did, his face also glowed. His face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. (Exodus 34:29)
But the first time Moses went down from the mountain, he found that the people had built a golden calf and were worshiping it. (Exodus 32:5-6)
The question that people always ask is, How could the Israelites do that? They had just had an incredible encounter with the living God; God had just rescued them from slavery in Egypt and performed miracle after miracle. But I think it is not in spite of that encounter with God that the Israelites built the golden calf, but because of it.
A phrase you often hear Quaker ministers say to each other is, “Watch what you fill up on.” When we encounter the living God, that experience changes us, inside and out, and others can see it. We feel different and we look and sound different.
Afterward, there is a strong impulse to recreate the experience, to fill the hole that was so recently filled by the presence of God.
And, in the story of Jesus on the mountain, this is what Peter wanted to do. He saw Jesus’ radiant face and the two men with him and said, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters―one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The Bible says that he did not know what he was saying. (Luke 9:33)
But Peter knew that he had encountered the living God. He wanted to mark the experience and hold on to it by making a tabernacle, but the spirit of God had moved on.
I began with Jeremiah 2:13, a passage that has been important to me. But when I was in North Carolina a couple years ago, a Friend from Ohio Yearly Meeting reminded me of another passage about water. Proverbs 5:15 instructs us to “drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.”
The context of this verse is faithfulness to one’s spouse, but I think it works for the Religious Society as Friends as well. We are all here because we have found something, we have encountered the living God, we have found the living water here among Friends. Where have we found it? Where have we abandoned it? Where do we find it now?
Even if we have abandoned the living water or we have set up monuments to the past, there is always hope. Even those ghost trees that haunted my childhood won’t last forever. When I was a teenager, an artist began to make salt and pepper shakers out of the trees.
The second image from the natural world that came to me is of a place that I used to pass by in Salem, Oregon when I would take walks on my lunch break. It was a place that had been a concrete driveway, but the concrete had been taken away and there was grass growing where it had been. After a while, you couldn’t even see where the concrete had been, it was just grass.
Concrete seems permanent. It is heavy and it seems like it will last forever, but it doesn’t. It is possible for grass to grow where there was once concrete.
Transformation is always possible.