Key words: mourn, hurt, fountain of tears, balm
I have relatives in a rural part of Ontario. When I was growing up, my family would visit them almost every year. For some reason, the tap water in the small town where my cousins lived looked murky and smelled terrible. As I child, I could not tolerate it, so I drank a lot of soda pop instead of water while we were there.
During one of these visits, my family took a short side trip to the little town of Komoka. At that time (probably the early 1970s), the town was known for its natural springs. We filled bottles with water that came right up out of rocks. With some trepidation, I took a small sip. Then I could not drink enough. It was clear, clean-tasting, and refreshing. I immediately felt better, probably due to proper hydration.
Water has healing and soothing properties. I have visited Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the Roman baths in the aptly named town of Bath, England. While Bath is now a World Heritage Site, and the Roman baths are essentially a museum (well worth visiting), the Arkansas city still has many bathing sites that use the water from the springs. While the health benefits of these baths are debated, the experience can be quite soothing. And soothing goes a long way toward healing.
There is a lot of suffering in the Jeremiah passage today. The people have realized that God was serious; if they made a choice to walk away from God, they would see what life was like without God. “Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?’” (v. 8:19).
Surely all of us have endured grief. We may have lost a loved one to death or a serious disagreement; undergone divorce or a painful breakup; or perhaps we received a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. We may have pursued our own self-interest and in the process hurt others. At times like this, we can wonder if we will ever feel happy again. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Gilead was known for medicinal herbs, so the people would have understood the reference.) Today, we might ask, Will I ever be healed of this heartache? Will our church ever recover from its conflict? Will God forgive us?
The United Methodist Book of Worship includes in its order of weekly worship a congregational prayer of confession. Some churches skip this, not wanting to impose more guilt on people who may already have been influenced to feel an excess of unnecessary guilt. It might be helpful to keep in mind that this is a corporate prayer that confesses where we as a church have fallen short. It also gives us a chance to remember our baptismal vows, acknowledge where we have failed to keep them, and then return to them and accept God’s forgiveness, which is always waiting for us if we are willing to return to the God who cares for us and blesses us to be a blessing.
A prayer of confession frequently used in United Methodist worship includes the acknowledgments that “we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.” It’s easy to see the connection to our baptismal vows, as well as echoes of the faithlessness of the Judeans to whom Jeremiah prophesied.
Some commentators suggest that the sorrow that Jeremiah expresses is felt by God as well. It is quite forlorn: “My joy is gone, my heart is sick” (v. 18); “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (v. 21). Even God can feel profound anguish. As dismaying as it has been to read about God’s anger and the destruction of creation, we learn here that God is tenderhearted as well.
As Terence Fretheim says: “God is not an executioner who can walk away from the judgment exacted, thinking: ‘I only did my duty.’ Nor is there any satisfaction, let alone celebration, that justice has now been done. . . . For God to mourn with those who mourn is to enter their situation; and where God is at work, mourning is not the end” (The Suffering of God, Fortress, 1984; 136).
Admitting when we are wrong, whether to God, family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors, can be difficult. And we sometimes think “repent” means to punish ourselves with self-loathing. What it requires is a willingness to be honest and acknowledge the truth. This is a part of reclaiming our integrity. The repentance that God seeks is that we “turn around”—turn from our selfish, hurtful ways, toward God, who loves and nourishes us like a mother.
Now the water of life that was mentioned in Jeremiah 2 has become bitter tears. “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (v. 9:1). There is something soothing about the water of these tears. Knowing God cries for us and with us reminds us that we are not alone; we may dare to hope for healing.
While every problem may not be solved or fixed, we are not abandoned. What the future may look like for us, we do not know. But we know that if we turn to God, God will embrace us. What we have with God is a relationship, not a transaction.
Questions for reflection:
- When has your church experienced sorrow or regret?
- How have your church people expressed sorrow? Are there practices that could help them express sorrow, anger, or joy in healthy ways?
- Steps eight and nine of Alcoholics Anonymous entail making a list of all people we have harmed and make amends to them all, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. How might “making amends” be part of conflict resolution among your church people?
Rev. Victoria Rebeck is a deacon and member of the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She has combined her theology and journalism background in appointments to The Christian Century magazine, United Methodist Publishing House, Minnesota Annual Conference, and the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Her ministry has focused on pointing the church to the world's needs for compassion and justice. She is a board member of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides quality legal assistance to immigrants, particularly those receiving lower incomes.