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Proper 13A 1st Reading

Isaiah 55:1-5

Brooklin Soulia-Taylor

Verses 1-5 are a subversive cry of the poet to the people of God who still remain under Babylonian captivity: All who are thirsty, come for water. Even if you have no money, come and drink! This cry is twofold: First, the poet summons the captives to remember the centrality of the motif of water in their story, which culminates in the birthing water of identity that is Israel, the children of YHWH. In doing so, the poet cries out for the people of God to choose the generous, nourishing love of YHWH over the exploitative, quid pro quo system of Babylon. In the face of apathy or despair, all are invited to come to the water, to be nourished and to find newness. The only prerequisite is thirst.

Water is a fundamental element of life. The poet’s cry would have underscored this truth while also evoking the memory of Israel’s storied past and the reality of their covenanted God. YHWH formed the waters of newness at creation, constructed the walls of the Red Sea that birthed new freedom, and provided the nourishment of streams in the midst of Israel’s wandering. But the combination of their story-shaped identity and their exile highlights conflicting choices: come or stay. Come to the water of new covenant or remain in the oppressive structure of Babylonian captivity.

This choice may seem obvious but is, in fact, quite difficult. For those who choose to remain, there is either no thirst for new water or there is no belief in an existence of an alternative reality. These two motivations are more simply stated as apathy and despair. Surprisingly, apathy and despair overlap much more than one may think. The apathetic have been lulled into a sense of complacency through the dilution and dullness of perceived comfort in the wake of a seemingly inescapable captivity. The dangerous allure of comfort is that it enlists the apathetic in the structures of oppression at the root of despair. Those in despair have a more visceral experience of hopelessness. One can imagine the Israelites trying to conjure an image of Jerusalem in their mind but being unable to do so because the experience of numerous generations in Babylon, which were “exploitative, coercive, [and] oppressive” and “denie[d] dignity, freedom, and security” to the enslaved.[1] In this way, although the despairing had not been calloused by culpability in the status quo, they too failed to thirst for the quenching water because they had become convinced it no longer existed.

The way of YHWH gives life. The way of Babylon gives death. But, as the poet emphasizes, the water of life can only quench if the people diagnose their life-threatening thirst, thereby recognizing this water as a potential reality. In thirsting, John Goldingay sees “The community [as] longing for nourishment, for upbuilding, for the restoration of morale, for the conviction that it has a future.”[2]

The poet calls out for the people of God to choose to come to the water of newness. The result of drinking this water, according to the poet, is the alternative economy of YHWH, which demands the end of the commodification and privatization of resources by the powerful.[3] “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (v.2). Notice the present tense commands of the poet. No conditionality is assigned to the instruction to exit the predatory Babylonian economy. Even in the midst of captivity, Israel is instructed to live into a covenant of abundance for all. It could be said, especially with reference to growing geographic mobility in our current age, that the quenching of our thirst can only be found in another place. Far from a grass is greener scenario, the poet invites us to return to the story of Israel and be reminded that God makes springs burst forth in the dessert. After the diagnosis of life threatening thirst due to captivity, the water of newness breaks into the present tense reality, thereby bringing Jerusalem to Babylon, recognizing abundance in the face of scarcity. Paradoxically, it is this faithful digging of wells at the site of Israel’s captivity that the way home to Jerusalem is discovered. This water of newness undoes the Babylonian Public Water Works.