Running on Empty

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, August 28, 2022
Jeremiah 2:4-13

    After two years of college, I had finally saved enough money to buy my first car. In high school, my parents had bought me my first car, but it went to my younger brother when I graduated. Living in an area with better public transportation here in New York, you might not be aware of how tough it is to live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota without a car, but I did, for two years!  Admittedly, it was also painful to my pride.  Apart from going to school, it became my sole purpose working part-time around classes and during the summer to save enough money to buy that car.  It was a 1994 Plymouth Sundance Duster – a white two-door with hot pink checkered stripes on the side, oh yeah!  Nothing was automatic in that thing – no cruise control, roll-up windows, push-down, pull-up locks – except ironically it had this pretty cool automatic driver’s seatbelt that was more annoying than useful.  I was really proud of that car, my very own car bought with my own money, until ultimately, like most used college student cars will, it failed me.  Every time I stopped to get gas, I’d check the oil, and it would be way down – too far down.  I was going through a quart of oil or more every month to refill it.  Of course, when it finally broke down on me and I took it to the mechanic, they found a cracked oil tank – oil was leaking beyond repair and the engine was shot.  That was it for the Duster. I basically sold it for scrap metal.
    As we continue looking at the prophet Jeremiah’s words today, we have his first “oracle of judgment” to the people of Israel in chapter 2, which accuses even the priests of abandoning or neglecting God. It’s a harsh indictment.  The people have forsaken the Lord and “dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  Now, how many of you have a cistern or know what a cistern is?  It may not be the most relatable image for us today.  A cistern is like a well, but no water can flow in or out of it.  A common use for cisterns today is to collect rainwater, but water from a cistern is not suitable for drinking because it is not fresh or free from contaminants.  A cracked cistern will let water seep out into the ground until of course there is none left; it can’t do what it’s meant to do.  
To modernize Jeremiah’s language for us this morning, let’s go back to my cracked oil tank.  Many of us have oil and gas prices on our minds today.  We know the economic value of driving with a car that can hold its oil and gas!  A cracked tank can ruin the whole vehicle, not to mention cost a lot of money.  And of course, a cracked vessel, like my old oil tank, will slowly leak until there is no more liquid left.  We may be able to get by with a cracked tank for a little while, but eventually, we’ll literally be running on empty.  
It strikes me that a lot of us treat our relationship with God like a used car rather than recognizing a relationship with God is much more worthwhile and enduring!  Everlasting, in fact!  We go to God when we need him, but we otherwise neglect to tend to our spiritual lives.  We use and abuse God.  We approach God as if God is there to serve our purposes first, rather than asking how we might serve God.  And a lot of us know how it feels when we are spiritually dry, running on empty, because we’ve sought after other things and people to fill us up that ultimately are worthless things, that do not profit us.   
    Today’s reading from Jeremiah causes us to ask a few “why” questions.  Why do we neglect or overlook all of God’s blessings to us?  Why do we look elsewhere than to God for our life’s meaning and purpose?  This whole summer, the prophets have consistently been urging us to return to the Lord our God, but why?  Why is investing in priorities like worship, service, learning and prayer worth it?
    Well, Jeremiah would argue, there’s not really a good reason for why we neglect to follow the Lord.  Now, let’s admit that some people have some pretty good reasons for distancing themselves from the church.  People have been hurt by disagreements and conflicts in the church, by church people’s judgment and hypocrisy, by one-upmanship  - some of the things that Jesus actually describes in the gospel for today.  We as the church need to be cautious and aware of how we can be stumbling blocks to people knowing a life-giving relationship with God.  But we also unfairly replace the church for God.  The church, made up of ordinary sinners like you and me, is not perfect.  The church is still where God calls broken, cracked, empty people to be restored and renewed in a faith community.  The church, flawed as it is, is a vehicle for growing our relationship with God.  Many more people do not make their relationship with God a priority for no good reason, as Jeremiah suggests.  As long as things are going fine, we can get by pretty well on our own strength, but sooner or later, the gas runs out, the cistern is dry, we find ourselves spiritually empty.
    In our readings for today, Jeremiah and Jesus both offer an alternative to trying to go it alone by our own strength before we realize we’re running on empty.  God has blessed us in the past and God continues to bless us now:  the same Lord who freed those enslaved in Israel and led people back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity frees us from our sin in Jesus Christ.  The same Lord who brought the people into a land of plenty continues to bless us generously with all that we need and abundantly more for daily living.  God, the fountain of living water, is the eternal sustainer of our lives and offers us eternal life through his Son, Jesus.  When we start to give thanks to God for our blessings, we realize there are so many!  When we start to engage in a real relationship with God in prayer and worship and service, we begin to see how this relationship is something that will never fail, never crack, never run dry or leave us feeling empty.  
    You know, I’ve grown spiritually myself this summer in engaging the prophets because I’ve been reminded of how Jesus consistently in his preaching and teaching connects us to this Old Testament wisdom.  As we think about cracked cisterns and oil tanks and the Lord as the fountain of living water, let’s remember how in John 4 Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a well.  Jesus, in the flesh, tells this woman who is definitely running on empty that he can offer her living water so that anyone who drinks of it will never be thirsty again; “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  Those same words, which were true in Jeremiah’s time and for the Samaritan woman are true for us still today!
In a few years, maybe we’ll all be driving electric cars and we won’t have to worry about gas or oil prices.  But we’ll still have to charge the battery!  Many of us are fortunate to have upgraded to more reliable vehicles since our high school and college days.  Of course, Jesus never equated himself with a car that would never break down.  We may not understand cisterns but we certainly know what it’s like to be thirsty, and our need for living water remains the same – our bodies need it for life, our spirits need it for eternal life.  Like Jeremiah, our lives of faith will not always be easy.  However, God promises again and again in the Old Testament and in the New that we will never regret investing in our relationship with the Lord.  Come to him, the fountain of living water – receive and be filled, now and always.  Amen.