We’ve seen some dreadful scenes recently, haven’t we? The destruction of large parts of Ukraine, the killing of innocents – and refugees fleeing for safety in foreign lands. Their beautiful cities are in ruins. Deserted streets, once filled with cars and people. Many of those people have gone, some forcibly deported – but some will stay. They either won’t leave or can’t leave.
For times such as this the words of Lamentations cry out. Those words could have been written by someone in Kharkiv or Mariupol:
- 1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
- 1:7 When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was no one to help her, the foe looked on mocking over her downfall.
- 5:2-4 Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers… We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. We must pay for the water we drink…
- 1:11 All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.
Lamentations was written as Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and many of her people were killed, fled or taken into exile into Babylon. Those that stayed paid a price too. Lamentations reads like a contemporary news report. And possibly its verses came to mind for those in our New Testament reading today too – for those in Siloam or for the witnesses of Pilate’s atrocity.
We hope and pray that at some point – and God knows when that will be – that the displaced Ukrainian people will be able to return to their homeland and help those who stayed to rebuild it again. Perhaps it will be weeks or months. But it could be years.
And regardless of what kind of aid they get from other governments, you can imagine that the Ukrainian economy, their social structures and their way of life will be fragile for years to come. And, if we’re talking about decades, then there will very possibly be tension between those who stayed and those who return.
Poetry and hope
And for this we have the poetry and the hope from our passage in Isaiah today. This part of Isaiah is written to a people returning to Jerusalem to rebuild it after 50 years in exile. Cyrus the Persian has given them foreign aid money to help with the effort – but life is tough and on a knife edge. And there is conflict between the descendants of those who stayed and of those who were taken away.
Into this God provides spiritual humanitarian assistance. He speaks words of hope. Hope for Jerusalem then and Ukraine now:
55:1 Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Isaiah is like someone on Bury Market shouting out what’s on offer. But this time it’s free – there’s no charge! For people with little or no money, the free provision of life’s basic necessities would have been extremely welcome. Perhaps a matter of life and death, even after the fighting is long done.
Careful of choices
But Isaiah continues. He tells the people to listen, to seek the Lord and to be careful of the choices that they make as they rebuild. God appeals, cajoles, encourages, gives hope – but doesn’t give a command here. These verses in Isaiah focus on the choices that we make in life and that we are summoned by God through persuasion rather than being told what to do.
I said ‘we’ there, not ‘they’. The choices that we make in life. Because these verses aren’t just about the Israelites thousands of years ago. Or just about the people of Ukraine now. They are about us too. You and me. Because we too face times when certainties are gone, and we don’t always understand what’s going on, but we have to rebuild too – and we should be hope-full in doing so.
Water = God’s Holy Word
In the Hebrew Scriptures, water is often used as a symbol of the Torah, God’s Holy Word. The people are symbolically being invited to freely drink the water of God’s word, his law, his guide for life.
And at the beginning of the Gospel of John, the author equates that Word with Jesus. The Word was with God and the Word was God.
Jesus, the Word, has this to say when he’s speaking to the Samaritan woman by the water well in John 4:14: ‘… those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up into eternal life.’
Jesus is echoing our verses from Isaiah and taking them a step further. Jesus, who also knew what it was like to be a refugee, to flee from a country where genocide, the slaughter of innocents, was taking place.
Make a choice
So, God invites you and me to make a choice. At our times of indecision and uncertainty, he appeals, cajoles, encourages us, gives us hope: Come, drink, all you who are thirsty. For it will become in you a spring of water gushing into eternal life. Come, receive God’s love and care, with no obligation, no charge.
Because God’s economy is based on relationships. Relationships between people and between people and God. In God’s economy it’s love not money that resolves obligations, that pays the price.
For Israel thousands of years ago, for Ukraine today and for us too, there is the extra-ordinary, abundant, no-price-charged love of God.
And as we’ve seen in the response to Ukraine from everyday people in Poland, Germany, UK and other European countries – there is always enough of that love to go around. Amen
‘Ukraine – and the water of life’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s, Bury on March 20, 2022. It was based on Isaiah 55:1-9.