The Well in the Desert

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Have you ever experienced rejection?

If you’ve ever been a sixth-grader at a school dance, chances are you have.

“Eww, I’m not gonna dance with you, you dweeb!”

It’s a hard thing to go through, especially when you’re a kid. Those painful memories stay with you forever. Those of us who have kids of our own or care for other people’s kids know that crestfallen look in their eyes when they come home from school. We remember what it was like to be that age and experience rejection. It’s like our body still remembers the feeling of that knot in the stomach. We didn’t know how to fix it then and we don’t know how to fix it now. The best that any of us can say is that, by the grace of God, we got through it. So, when we see the kids we care about going through it right now, our heart goes out to them. Knowing that we don’t have any way to fix it (or even answers as to why it’s happening), all we can do when we see that look in their eyes is put our arms around them and say, “I’m so sorry.” We know that it’s just puppy love, but it’s real to the puppy. We know that our love for them can’t take away the shame of rejection, but we hope that somehow, it will help them get through it.

If we’re honest, we grown-ups can admit that we still feel that same pain sometimes. It might not come from the same sources (e.g. a twelve-year-old calling me a dweeb today will not phase me much), but there are certain things that other people can say or do that take us right back to feeling like that sixth grader at the middle school dance. It’s like the worst kind of time-travel. People can say things to us like: “I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with you… We don’t feel like you are a good fit for this position… Not tonight, I have a headache.”

It hurts, doesn’t it? And even though we are now adults facing adult situations, the pain we feel is still rooted in that childhood experience of rejection. Our brains may know the difference, but our bodies and our hearts do not. That old pain is still with us: the pain of not being chosen or wanted.

In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, two of the Bible’s most famous underdogs. They were two people who understood better than most what rejection feels like; what it feels like to be “not chosen” in ways that really matter.

Hagar and Ishmael are not “main characters” in the biblical story by any stretch of the imagination. They are the supporting cast, they are “extras” in someone else’s story. In this part of the book of Genesis, Sarah and Abraham are the main characters; they are God’s “chosen people.” God appeared to Abraham and said to him, “You shall be called the father of many nations. I will bless you and make you a blessing to all the nations of the world.”

Now, there was a problem with this arrangement because Abraham and his wife Sarah were already too old to have kids. And Sarah, being a very rational and practical person, came up with a solution: “I have this slave-girl, Hagar. She’s young enough to bear children. Here, Abraham, you go ahead and have a baby with her, so that God’s promise can come true.”

And this is where things get complicated. At this point, the biblical story almost starts to look like a “reality TV” show. Jealousy and rivalry set in quickly. Hagar and Sarah never seem to get along after this point.

First, Hagar does have a baby with Abraham and names him Ishmael. And Sarah is jealous of Hagar for this. Later on, after Sarah does have a baby against all conceivable odds, she decides that she doesn’t need Hagar anymore, so she tells Abraham to break up with Hagar and send her packing.

It’s interesting to note that Hagar never has a say in anything that happens to her. She is Sarah’s slave: an object who just gets passed around and used like a piece of property that can then be disposed of when she is no longer needed. Sarah and Abraham were the chosen people, but Hagar and Ishmael were leftovers… afterthoughts.

Sarah comes across as pretty heartless in this passage. Abraham fares a little better, but not much. The text says that he is “distressed” (we might say “stressed out”) by Sarah’s demands. After all, Ishmael is his firstborn son. He loads them up with as many supplies as they can carry, but it’s not much: a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. And then he sends them out into the desert, knowing that he will never see them again and they will most likely die there.

Out in the desert, Hagar’s water runs out pretty quickly. And here she is: all alone in the desert with a baby and no water. She’s been used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of her.

She keeps going for a little while: as long as she can, which is obviously not long in a place like that. But eventually her strength gives out. She knows what will happen next: she and her son will die out here and their bones will probably never be found.

If there is anyone in this story who is lower-down and worse off than Hagar, it’s Ishmael. He is just a baby at this point. He owes his very existence to this twisted situation. He didn’t ask for any of this. You could say that he never even had a decent shot at life. The playing field of opportunity was never really level for him. And now, because Sarah and Abraham, God’s chosen people, were acting so petty and hard-hearted, he was going to die.

This is where Hagar reaches her breaking point. She can’t go on, so she gives up and throws in the towel. Above all, she can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she abandons him: she sets him down under a bush and walks away. She can hear him crying behind her, but she won’t turn around. It’s too late for them. It’s over.

And then… in that moment… the moment after all hope is lost, hope finally begins to dawn. That’s when God finally decides to show up in this morbid scene: not alongside the chosen people, but with the rejected ones; not in the city or the camp, but out in the desert; not with the rugged, faithful, positive-thinking overcomers who soldier on no matter what, but with those who have given up and given in to the worst parts of their humanity. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is only for those who hold on for ten minutes after all hope is gone that hope begins to dawn.”

God shows up in the least likely places. In this story, there is a definite hierarchy among characters: At the top there is Sarah, who just doesn’t care. Next you have Abraham, who is caught in the middle of his two wives and sons. The text tells us that he is “distressed” by what is happening. After that, you have Hagar, who is rejected, abandoned, and heartbroken. And finally, at the very bottom, there is Ishmael, who never asked for any of this. This baby is going to die because God’s chosen people are too hard-hearted to see past their own petty issues. (Sounds like the Church sometimes, doesn’t it?)

And where is God in all this? Sitting on heaven’s throne, objectively evaluating the situation? Does God make excuses for the chosen people, justifying their selfishness, no matter what the cost?

Whose voice does God listen to in the end? Not Sarah’s, not Abraham’s, not the chosen people’s, not even poor Hagar’s. Genesis tells us that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Ishmael. The voice that mattered least. The voice that no one else wanted to hear (not even his own mother, in the end). Ishmael was the least of the least in this situation, the one who even the rejects rejected. He didn’t even have words to form, much less a theology for calling out to God and arranging salvation. The only thing that came out of him was the wordless wail of a child who has just been abandoned by his mother.

Rejection. Ultimate rejection which, in his case, meant certain death. And God heard the voice of the boy. God shows up where the pain is greatest and the hope is gone. In spite of the sacred covenant established with Abraham and continued through Isaac and Sarah, God cannot help but reach out to be with these forgotten folk, particularly this baby boy.

God speaks to Hagar his mother and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m listening. Go, pick up your son and hold him close, because this kid has a future. I will make a great nation of him.”

And then, according to the text of Genesis, God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw something: a well of water in the desert. Not just a bottle, like Abraham had given her, but a full-on well where she and her son could drink and drink to their hearts’ content.

According to the text and history, God made good on that promise to Hagar and Ishmael. They learned how to survive out in the desert. They made a life for themselves. Ishmael grew up, got married, and became a great bow-hunter.

He even became “a great nation,” as God promised he would: our Muslim neighbors trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, just as Jews and Christians trace their lineage through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah.

What I take away from this story is God’s special love for the least of the least of the least. God really does seem to have a thing for underdogs. Church teaching has historically referred to this as “the preferential option for the poor.”

God is not neutral or objective when it comes to injustice. God sides with the poor and powerless people of the earth in their suffering. It’s not that God loves some people more than others; it’s that some people need God’s love more than others. God stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world, therefore we, as God’s people are called to do the same.

I believe the Church is called to be a safe haven for our outcast sisters and brothers. We’ve all heard stories of faith communities rejecting certain people, sending them packing, or kicking them out for one reason or another, perhaps sending them off with a single bottle of water to sustain their faith in the spiritual deserts of this world…

I believe the Church’s call in those moments is to be present with those rejected people, like Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Rather than turning our heads and walking away because we can’t bear to see their suffering, I believe we are called to hold each other close in the darkest hours, to open the eyes that are blind, and inspire our hurting neighbors to believe in a future for themselves that they would not even dare to imagine.

We are not meant to pass out little bottles of water and then send people on their way. We care called to be that well in the desert, where exhausted travelers and fellow rejects can find rest and build a new life together out of the ashes of their rejection.

This is the kind of ministry that North Church has been doing for over a generation. We are the well in the desert. We stand together today, poised at the brink of an unknown-but-promising future, facing new challenges, ready to pursue new opportunities, and certain of this: that God is with us. We know this because we are the poor, we are the homeless, we are the addicts, we are the disabled, we are the mentally ill, we are often overlooked and outcast, we are the freaks and the geeks, we are the queer, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are the rejected ones: and that’s where God lives. Amen.

4 thoughts on “The Well in the Desert

  1. carrien

    This was a lovely sermon. Of course, Ishmael was no where near being a baby when Abraham sent him and Hagar away. I’m a little surprised that you don’t appear to know that.

    Genesis 16:16 “Now Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael.” Genesis 17:24-25 “Now Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised; his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when circumcised.”
    Genesis 21:5 “(Now Abraham was 100 years old when his son Isaac was born to him.)”
    Which would mean Ishmael was 14 years old, if you’re doing the math…

    Gen 21:8 “The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking. Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.”
    The minimum age of weaning would have likely been two, but since Sarah had no other children, and no reason to early wean her only son, he could have been as old as 7, which is more traditionally the age of weaning in Jewish culture. This would make Ishmael at least 16 years old at the time of his banishment, and possibly as old as 21. Also, the banishment comes from his own actions in mocking his younger half brother, something an infant is incapable of doing. The bible here refers to him a a lad, or a youth, depending on your translation.

    Hagar leaves him lying in the shade of a bush because he’s too heavy for her to carry when he lacks the strength to walk.

    So it’s not the cry of an abandoned infant that God responds to, but the prayer of a young man, well into the years of reason. I don’t know about you, but I think that makes it a much more poignant story. Ishmael prays to the God of his father for deliverance from this situation that he is in, and had a role to play in arriving there. And God responds to the young man’s plea and preserves him and his descendants, as he promised Hager he would do the first time she ran into the desert when pregnant with him.

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