Source or cisterns?

The opening lines of The First Letter of John have something like nine verbs in them:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.

Testimony is what we say when the truth is at stake. Testimony is a word we associate with a court room with judge and jury, attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant, and witnesses who testify. Around these parts, chances are the word also brings up, at least for some of us, memories of a hot revival tent with folding chairs, ladies with funeral parlor fans, an atmosphere saturated with anxiety and the promise of redemption, and the stories of the converted who testify.

Lynna Williams wrote a very funny short story called “Personal Testimony.” It’s about a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a fire-breathing preacher from west Texas, who is compelled every summer to spend a couple of weeks at a Bible camp for children in Oklahoma. During the day this Bible camp is very much like most other summer camps, with hiking, swimming, arts and crafts. But at night, every night, a revival meeting is held for the campers, with sweaty “come to Jesus” preaching and high pressure on the kids to surrender their lives to the Lord. The unwritten expectation is that at some point during the week, every camper will come forward to give a moving personal testimony. And the problem, of course, is that a good many of the kids simply don’t have the kind of testimony that’s come to be expected.

And that’s where the twelve-year-old preacher’s daughter comes into play. She figured out that she could make a little money by running a ghost-writing service for Jesus, composing for her fellow campers touching stories of conversion and spiritual break-through, stories they could share, amid tears and hallelujahs, at evening worship. For five dollars she wrote a wonderful testimony for Michael, about how in his old and sinful life he used to be very bad and would take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. Now that Jesus has come into his heart, though, his mouth is as pure as a crystal spring.

Michael’s testimony was a good one, no doubt, but her best piece of testimonial literature she wrote for Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in an almost fatal, and utterly fictitious pickup truck accident near Galveston, a near catastrophe in which Jesus himself seized the steering wheel and averted disaster. That one took some imagination, and she charged twenty-five dollars for it.[1]

Testimony is truth-telling, but in the pressure cooker of religious conformity little more than truthiness will rise to the surface; and the joy of testifying to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the joy of testifying is replaced by the desire to please authority figures or impress the audience.

Testimony is different. Say, your friend has been in the hospital for two weeks, losing weight and everybody knows why, but nobody wants to bring up the subject. One day you’re visiting and you’re a little worried because you don’t know what to say, and in a quiet moment he says,

I had a dream last night. I was in a boat, slowly drifting down the river, away from our home; Paula and the kids were sitting on the deck. I paddled hard against the current, but the boat kept moving the other way. I was naked and I was afraid, but then I noticed that the water carried me. I was no longer in the boat but floating on my back, the river carried me, and I felt a deep peace. I believe the dream was God’s way of telling me that everything would be alright.

Testimony is when we speak truth, when with an openness we never thought we would be capable of we name the river that carries us through life, through struggle and fear.

Jeremiah reminds us that in order to name that river of grace we must remember well. Jeremiah takes us to that other place where testimony is given, where witnesses promise to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Jeremiah takes us to court, and we overhear God’s indictment against Israel; we hear it suspecting that we are meant also, that we’re not just spectators up in the balcony: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

The plaintiff asks a question, but there’s no witness for the defendant; no one rises to give a statement. There’s silence in the court room, and the indictment continues. At this point you’d expect to hear an itemized list of things Israel, in breach of covenant agreements, did or did not do, but the focus is on what Israel did not say: “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, who brought us into a plentiful land to eat its fruit and its good things.’”

They failed to ask where the Lord was who had freed them from bondage, provided for them in the wilderness and brought them to a plentiful land. They failed to ask and so they failed to connect their everyday lives with the formative relationship that made them who they were: Exodus people. Promised land people. God’s people.

They didn’t ask and so they failed to remember. They didn’t ask and so they forgot that they were a people captured and kept by a liberating grace that drew them into relationship and made covenant with them. Distracted by comfort, boredom, anxiety, or ambition they stopped asking, and amnesia set in. And not just amnesia, according to the plaintiff’s indictment.

After they had entered the plentiful land of promise, they turned away from the One who had brought them there to consider other options; like shoppers they looked for the best bargain and the most promising power. The moment they stopped asking “where is the Lord who brought us up from Egypt” they started assuming that the question of who ultimately directs our lives and claims our allegiance is negotiable.[2]

There are, of course, impressive powers that promise us the good life, but they are idols that cannot deliver because life flows from the heart of God. In Jeremiah 2:18 the plaintiff asks, “What do you gain by going to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria, to drink the waters of the Euphrates?” Egypt and Assyria were the superpowers of the day, and some contemporaries of Jeremiah’s were thirsting for some superpower water, a sip of military might and just a little swallow of cultural dominance. We know the taste.

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate,” Jeremiah cries out on behalf of the Lord, “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.”

Cisterns are marvelous systems for the control and management of life-giving water, but they are not springs, they are not sources. All our technologies are marvelous tools of transformation, calculation, management and control, but if we forget to tell our stories with God as a central and foundational character, we break up with the Giver of life and we begin to proclaim our own manufactured idolatries as theologies of promise.

The line that stuck with me from our passage is, They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves. According to the prophet, we become what we pursue. If we pursue what is empty, we become empty. If we pursue vanity, we become vain. If we pursue darkness, we are assimilated into the darkness. We become what we go after. Except that going after success doesn’t make us necessarily successful; it only means that we will begin to define ourselves by our success or lack thereof. Going after popularity doesn’t make us popular, but we will judge ourselves by our popularity or lack thereof. Going after the perfect body won’t make us perfect, but it will distort our self-image as well as how we look at others.

They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves. Idols are worthless things and going after them will only leave us smaller, poorer, emptier, thirstier. But why look for water in cracked cisterns?

As the church, as followers of Jesus Christ, we understand ourselves as created, freed, and claimed by a gracious God who desires fullness of life for us. We understand ourselves as claimed not as a nation, but as a global polity, a worldwide household whose members know themselves and each other as kin and as covenant partners of God. We understand who we are by telling the mighty acts of God, by singing and speaking of God’s acts of liberation from slavery, from the bondage of sin and death, the captivity of guilt and shame, the oppressive weight of lovelessness.

We remember who we are by immersing ourselves in the testimony of our ancestors and of those who are on the journey with us, and we do it by testifying what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— without ghost writers. Testimony is what we say when the truth is at stake, when with an openness we never thought we would be capable of we name the river that carries us through life, through struggle and fear.

Jesus promised that those who drink of the water that he gives, will never be thirsty. And the water he gives will become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.[3] May we drink deeply.

[1] Lynna Williams, “Personal Testimony,” in Kay Cattarulla, ed., Texas Bound: 19 Texas Stories (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1994), 191-204.

[2] See Patrick Miller, Jeremiah (NIB), 608.

[3] See John 4:7-14

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