Idolatry: Broken Wells (Living Water #2)

Idolatry: Broken Wells (Living Water #2)

In this second Living Water post we turn to the theme of idolatry. In Exodus 20, the first of the Ten commandments says: “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me” (v3). We might ask what are these other gods? God’s answer is: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (v4-5). That seems to include pretty much everything in our lives. The truth is that anything can become an idol, something we might define as anything that takes God’s rightful place of God in our lives. Tim Keller describes an idol in the following way:

“An idol is anything that absorbs our hearts and imagination more than God, anything we seek to give us what only God can give”

Tim Keller, Counterfeit gods

In Keller’s book Counterfeit gods, he says that the Bible often frames the concept of idolatry around three metaphors. First, there is the relational metaphor which revolves around the notion of what we love. When we come to love something above God, we are indulging in spiritual adultery. We are giving the love that only God deserves to someone or something else. That doesn’t mean that the things we love are not good things, but when they become ultimate loves, we have a problem! Second, there is the Saviour metaphor. In this sense idolatry can also be framed around our search for security and control. We search for these things in the wrong places, rather than in God, who is ultimately the only source of true satisfaction. Thirdly, there is the Lordship metaphor and the idea that whatever we love and trust, we will also serve. Whatever controls us, is the true Lord of our lives.

As we come to this second post on Living water, we are going to be developing this idea of idolatry. For this we will be dipping into some well known verses in the prophecy of Jeremiah before heading to Jesus’ encounter with the Woman at the well in John 4.

1. Forsaking the Spring of Living Water (Jeremiah 2):

God calls Jeremiah as a prophet to the nations (Jeremiah 1:5) and makes various promises to him about how he would stand against the leaders of Judah. God also promises that He would help him in this task and would rescue him:

17 “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. 18 Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 1:17-18

God was going to use Jeremiah to speak to the people of Judah in the period leading up to, and shortly after, they were taken into exile in Babylon. In one of the most striking verses of this prophecy, God declares that His people have committed two sins:

“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 (similar ideas also in 17:13)

It should be immediately clear why this verse is so pertinent for us. It describes God as the spring (NIV) or fountain (NLT) of living water. We must not miss the fact that God is described here as the source of this living water. Getting water in these times involved quite a lot of hard work. That is unless there was a spring or fountain of fresh water that brought it right to you. Spring water was referred to as living water because it seemed alive as it bubbled up from the ground. God being described as the spring of living water is really quite something.

God accuses His people of forsaking Him – they had abandoned and renounced their love for God in order to run after their idols. If we return to where we started, i.e. our definition of idolatry, this verse fits the relational metaphor. This theme runs right through the Bible. Since time began, God’s people have forsaken the one who made us, loves us and has given Himself repeatedly for us.

There is a second sin described here and from it comes the second part of our title: Broken Wells. Not only was God saying that they had forsaken Him, but they had also chased after other lovers. Specifically, God says that they had dug their own cisterns which were broken. They had exchanged the spring of living water for a substantially inferior source of water. These cisterns couldn’t even hold water. There is a massive difference between a constantly flowing spring which is fresh, living and active, and water held in a cistern, which is stale, stagnant & lifeless. Not only had they forsaken God but they had chased after idols which could in no way match up to the real deal – God Himself.

In the following verses, God continues to question their sin as He asks: “Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Nile? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the Euphrates? (v14). Many more illustrations are used in these verses to describe their idolatry for instance: “‘Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, “I will not serve you!” Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute” (v20).

The implication of what God is saying here is that only He can truly quench our thirst with His living water. Yet, we all know that we are also prone to finding ourselves forsaking Him and looking to things that can, and never will, satisfy. Perhaps it is worth taking some moments to search your hearts to see what things in your lives the Holy Spirit puts His finger on.

Photo by Carolina del Castillo on Unsplash

2. The Fountain Himself offers us Living Water (John 4:1-42):

John 4 is a long passage and we don’t have time to look at it in much detail. In this passage Jesus breaks social and religious conventions by travelling through Samaria rather than going the longer way round. It was also unusual for a Rabbi to approach a woman publicly and even more so to ask her for a drink (v7). And yet Jesus approaches her during the heat of the day, a time when most would avoid it. Perhaps this is why this woman with her colourful past, chose to visit the well out of the limelight. The woman herself is surprised because she was a Samaritan and Jews did not associate with them (v9). Amidst all of this context, it was a very unusual encounter and Jesus responds to the woman saying:

10 …‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’ 11 ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’ 13 Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ 15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’

John 4:10-15

Jesus tells her that if she knew who had asked her for a drink, then she should in fact have been asking Him for living water (v10). This is a truly remarkable turnaround because in coming to the well for water, she had actually encountered the fountain of Living Water Himself. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t really seem to get what Jesus was saying and questioned how He would get this living water, when he didn’t even having anything to draw water with (v11). Jesus continues, saying that whoever drinks the water He gives, will never thirst (v13). Moreover, Jesus explains that this water would become in her a spring of water welling up to eternal life (v14). Now she says that she desires this water, but once again, she still hasn’t quite understood because she is looking to a time when she no longer needed to come to the well to draw water.

This woman was an experienced builder of broken wells and in the following verses Jesus shows her this. He asks her to bring her husband but she responds saying that she has no husband. In fact she had given herself to five husbands and was now living with a sixth. She had been trying to quench her thirst through relationships, but now Jesus was confronting this sin in her life. She now had a choice to make regarding what she loved more: her sin or her Saviour. When Jesus offered her living water it changed her life. She drank deeply of it and in v28 we poignantly read that she even left her water jar behind in order to go and tell her friends. She told them “Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could this be the Messiah?” (v29). They too, went on to drink deeply of this living water, water that would become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

These passages are pretty hard hitting for us. All of us can relate at some level to the story of the woman at the well. We might not be chasing after relationships but there will be things that have assumed God’s rightful place in our hearts and lives. The challenge of the verse in Jeremiah is no less poignant for us. We may not bow down to golden calves and setup statues as gods, but we do have plenty of modern day idols to whom we give the worship that God alone deserves.

When we think it through why would we choose to forsake the spring of living water? Why would we settle for water from broken cisterns that cannot even hold water? Why would we not want the Living Water that only Jesus can give to us – water that will become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life?

See other posts in this series: 

  1. Invitation to the thirsty
  2. Idolatry: Broken Wells
  3. Sustenance: Drinking Deeply
  4. Suffering: Through the Waters
  5. Faith: Getting your Feet Wet
  6. River of Life

Cover Photo by Gary Meulemans on Unsplash

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