This Lent we’re exploring wilderness experiences in our lives, especially our spiritual lives. We’re exploring “wilderness” in different senses of what that means.
Today we’ll will look at the experience of the kind of wildernesses that people are forced into.
This is not the kind of wilderness experience that comes from venturing into the wilds by our own choice, to follow a call or to seek God or to seek self-discovery or out of our livelihood or to find adventure or treasure or out of curiosity or exploration, and so on. That’s not the kind of wilderness we’ll explore this week. Some of that’ll be next week, and the week after.
This week will be the howling wilderness of those who have been cast out or forced to flee from the comforts of settled life.
So this’ll perhaps be more intense, fair warning.
It turns out that the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures, the central stories of our faith, are pervaded by this kind of wilderness.
There are many stories in the scriptures that are stories of how the divine has been made manifest to and in and through people who are well acquainted with desperate desert sojourns not of their choosing. It’s one reason why the Bible is hard to domesticate into just a kind of feel-good escape from the more troubling parts of being a human. God help us.
What do these stories have to teach us about God and the nature of God’s relationship with those who hold onto faith when we too may find ourselves cast out of home and into the unknown? What do these stories have to teach us about those times when we ourselves may not be in that kind of situation but we may have the opportunity to welcome someone else in from this kind of wilderness they have been journeying through?
The story for our consideration this morning is from the book of Genesis. I’ve chosen it because it makes the point in a direct and strong way, I think; and also because it’s a story that doesn’t often get its own attention.
It’s about Hagar.
Here’s what you need to know about Hagar:
Hagar was Egyptian. She was enslaved by Abraham and Sarah, who are the ancient patriarch and matriarch of the Hebrew people. Hagar was Sarah’s domestic slave.
Sarah was not able to bear a child, and she and Abraham wanted to have an heir. So, when they became quite old and remained childless, Sarah did something people did back then and more recently too, which is not at all to say it’s not deeply troubling and one of the many horrible things about slavery. She sent the enslaved Hagar to Abraham to bear his child. Which is what happened. She gave birth to Ishamael.
It turns out that a few years later, long story short, God granted Sarah the miracle of being able to bear her own child with Abraham.
(Maybe we already have lesson number one here: Sarah and Abraham’s exploitation of Hagar was due to them not trusting God – that God will provide what God will provide. Instead they forced their will on things and on people).
At any rate, as you can imagine, once Sarah gave birth to her child, Isaac, this put Hagar and her son into a very dicy situation.
This leads to our wilderness story, from the Book of Genesis:
The child Isaac grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, laughing. And she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slavegirl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” …
And Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulder, and he gave her the child, and sent her away.
She wandered through the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she flung the child under one of the bushes and went off and sat down at the distance, a bowshot away, for she thought, “Let me not see when the child dies.”
She sat at a distance and raised her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the lad and God’s messenger called out from the heavens and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the lad’s voice where he is. Rise, lift up the lad and hold him by the hand, for a great nation I will make him.”
And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad to drink. God was with the lad, and he grew up and dwelled in the wilderness, becoming a seasoned bowman. And he dwelled in the wilderness of Paran and his mother took him a wife from the land of Egypt.
Genesis 21:8-10, 14-21
This episode is in fact Hagar’s second experience of having the family she serves and on whom she depends forcing her out into the wilderness. And it is in fact Hagar’s second encounter with YHWH in that wilderness.
Hagar’s first experience in the wilderness is really important in understanding the significance here. It came when she was first pregnant with her son, by Abraham. It had been Sarah’s idea, but when it came down to it and Hagar became pregnant, Sarah accused her of coping an attitude around her. Sarah punished her and abused her so severely that Hagar fled into the wilderness.
In the desert she found a well. And it was by that well, that she had her first message from YHWH, which was this:
“God hears the cries of your suffering. When you give birth, name the child ‘Ishmael’- which means, God has heard.”
After hearing this, Hagar then was bold enough to responding by giving a name to YHWH: “El-roi” – which means, “The God who sees me.”
And the well she was at there in the desert came to be called “Beer-lahai-roi” – which means:
“The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.”
Hagar ends up going back to Sarah and Abraham, only to be driven out again, a couple years later, by Sarah, as we heard. There’s an abusive cycle here.
But this second time in the wilderness, when Hagar is now with her young child, Ishmael, she does not find a well. And, as we heard in this really moving, troubling story, once her water runs out, Hagar is in total despair.
We can hear in her cries the cries of migrants and refugees of any time or place fleeing for their lives through the deserts, be they the Sonoran or Syrian or Saharan.
The scripture says that when Hagar cries out she receives the sacred assurance that El-roi is here: The God-who-see-me sees her. The Holy One not only sees her but hears her, and hears the cries of suffering from her son, Ishmael – “God has heard.”
And then what happens – this is key – God opens her eyes and she sees to her surprise a source of sustenance in the desert. There before her is The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.
And the way the author of Genesis tells the story can make us wonder:
Had the well been there all along?
The scripture says “God opens her eyes” and she sees it. Perhaps it had been there all along but she couldn’t see it – perhaps her suffering, her desperation had constricted her vision. And it took the experience of being seen in her suffering, to open her and lift her gaze.
This sounds to me like there’s a teaching here for us, for when we find ourselves in desperate wilderness times, or when we are with others who are in desperate wilderness times. The importance of being seen and of truly seeing, of being heard and of truly hearing. The experience of being known and of knowing in our most vulnerable times helps us and helps others discover the sustenance we need – either to receive or to give.
“The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me” is here, by the grace of the God-Who-Sees-Me.
Someone recently shared with me the story of being in Lebanon when a whole lot of refugees from Syria first came in fleeing the civil war. This person was initially filled with prejudice and judgment against them, for various reasons. But as a Christian he joined efforts to give aid, and then came to see and hear people and their stories. The scales fell from his eyes and the hard judgment of his heart opened.
Now, let me step back, and say just how big of a deal, how revolutionary, this story from the Bible is about somebody like Hagar encountering God in the wilderness, within a story that is supposed to be about the great famous and blessed patriarchs and matriarchs of God’s chosen people.
Here is a young woman, a foreigner, enslaved, totally disposable, easily exploited, abused, cast out.
She is not the kind of person whose experiences of any kind are likely to be believed and honored, let alone written into scripture. She’s the wretched of the earth – cursed, not blessed. She is not the kind of person who is supposed to have revelations from God, let alone to be bold enough to give that God a name. Yet it is her story and her God, her “El-roi” – her “God-sees-me”– that has survived the rise and fall of kings and empires, outlasted religions and civilizations.
Hagar’s “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me” is the living water we find springing from Jesus, the life-saving, soul-saving force that has sustained sojourners and scapegoats of countless eras, those parts of humanity, those parts of ourselves that are outcast, queer.
This is the God who not only sees those in the margins, but identifies so fully that, “That which you do to the least of these you do unto me.” (Matthew 25)
It is for that God, The God-Who-Sees-Me, the God-Who-Sees-You, the God of Hagar and of Jesus, that I give my deepest thanks.
(Delivered Sunday, March 8, 2020, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)