Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. – Isaiah 55:1-2
The beginning of Isaiah 55 been one of my favorite passages in the Bible since I wandered into an eclectic Christian bookstore in Athens, Georgia in late 1980. Playing in the background as I browsed was the beautifully contemplative music of the Saint Louis Jesuits. The music helped changed the direction of my spiritual life and my Christian walk. One of the songs that deeply touched me was Come to the Water, written by John Foley, SJ. Written to be sung during celebrations of the Eucharist, the first stanza draws its language from Isaiah 55.
O let all who thirst, let them come to the water.
And let all who have nothing, let them come to the Lord:
without money, without price.
Why should you pay the price, except for the Lord?
On occasion, the song brings me to tears. It helped heal me at times I needed healing. Over the years, this liturgical music has ingrained itself in my inward being. I can’t read the words of the prophet without also hearing Foley’s hymn.
So, first of all, for me Isaiah 55:1-2 is a deeply personal invitation. It speaks to my soul. The triune God invites me to turn from the things of this world in which I invest so much of my life, but which do not satisfy. Instead, he invites me to come to him, especially in the waters of baptism and the supper of the Lord, tokens of the feast to come in the messianic age.
Of course the prophet wasn’t thinking about Jesus, Christian baptism or the Lord’s Supper when he wrote these words. What he was thinking about, however, finds its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.
The latter part of the book of Isaiah concerns the exile of the people of Jerusalem in Babylon and their promised return. The Judean exiles were now landless, no longer even able to provide for their own sustenance. They couldn’t grow their own crops or raise their own livestock on the land God gave them. They were reduced to buying food on slave wages from their captors.
In Isaiah 55, God promises to fulfill the longing of his people to return to their homeland. The Lord casts his promise in the language of eating and drinking. He provides water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. To those who knew Israel’s history, Isaiah’s message recalls how God gave food and drink to his people in the wilderness during their sojourn from Egypt to the promised land. He gave them water from the rock and fed them with heavenly manna. The language of Isaiah 55 looks back to the first Exodus and promises the exiles that a new Exodus is coming.
Isaiah 55 also recalls the language of an earlier portion of the Book of Isaiah.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. Isaiah 25:6-8
With its invitation to the Lord’s banquet, Isaiah’s words look forward to the messianic feast in the age to come.
The prophet’s message is rooted in the past and looks forward to the future. It also has a more immediate impact on the hearer. The Lord invites his people to come to the waters, now. He invites his people to eat the food he gives, now. In the words of the old communion ritual, he invites the hearers to turn to God and to “feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving.”
The food that will satisfy God’s people is both historical/external and spiritual/internal. On both counts, the gods of this world will prove disappointing. Babylon’s bread will not satisfy.
Living in Babylon, the people were tempted to adopt Babylonian practices, values and beliefs. Isaiah’s audience was surrounded with pagan culture. Even apart from the idolatrous influence of their neighbors, however, God’s people throughout history have demonstrated an inexhaustible capacity to look in the wrong place for their salvation. The prophet reminds his listeners: only the God who established his covenants with Abraham, Moses and David can provide the food that satisfies. As a Chrisitan, I believe that it is in Jesus of Nazareth, the heir to all of God’s promises, that we find the bread of life and the living water.
I’ve come to see Isaiah’s words, not as an abstract symbol, but as a concrete reality in the life of the church. The language of metaphor becomes concrete at the baptismal font and the Lord’s table. God has given us the gift of baptism; those who are plunged beneath its waters need never thirst. He has given us wine and bread at his table to nourish our souls.
Come to the waters of baptism and be united to the one in whom all God’s promises are coming to their fulfillment. Come to the fountain of life, who satisfies the deepest longings of both human history and the human soul. Come to the table and eat the bread you cannot buy with money; it is given for you, at the cost of Jesus’ life. Come take the heavenly manna that nourishes Christ’s church on its journey through the wilderness. Come drink from the cup that is a foretaste of home.
Come to the waters. Come to the table. Come to the Lord. Amen.