A Sermon for Covenant
“Seeing Through Tears”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
June 22, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
It was at least her second stint stranded in the desert. Once as a freshly pregnant young woman; now again as a single mother, and who knows how many other times between? Her relationship with Sarah had long been a bit testy, ever since she’d slept with Sarah’s husband, but to be fair to Hagar, the whole arrangement was Sarah’s idea, for Abraham to impregnate her slave-girl so Abraham could have a son at last.
You might expect Sarah would be opposed to passing women off to men who weren’t their husbands, seeing how she’d suffered the shame herself when she’d been briefly given to the Pharaoh of Egypt—her husband more willing to hand her over to another man than risk his own neck—but to be fair to Sarah, she’d been waiting a long time to have a child and it just wasn’t happening. So she took matters into her own hands. To use the womb of her servant was a common practice of the time.
But being a commonplace practice didn’t make it uncomplicated. Once Sarah’s plan worked, and Hagar was found with child, the relationship between mistress and slave-girl suddenly grew complex and resentful, and they were full of contempt for one another.
Hagar tried to run away from this (wilderness excursion number one), but for some reason, God told her to go back. There she was, trying to escape the mess, when God showed up and spoke to her. She named him El-roi, the God who sees, for God saw her affliction and promised to multiply her offspring. God made other promises concerning her son Ishmael (and I quote from my Bible here): “He shall be a wild ass of a man,” (which I’m sure is what every mother hopes for). Anyway, the point is: God saw Hagar in her distress, even though she was a slave-girl, even though she was lonely and alone and running away. She called God, El-roi, the God who sees, and she was the first person in Scripture to name God.
I wonder how much courage it took for her to go back and face Sarah? But she did it, and spent the years surviving the tension.
Sarah gets a bit of a bad rap in these stories. She wasn’t, after all, very nice to her servant, and her faith in God was shaky at best. She laughed at God’s promise. She tried to make her own way when God’s plan doesn’t seem to be working.
Still, I empathize with her. It was such a long wait. Ninety years old when she had her promised child. How many times did she laugh bitterly when her menstrual cycle came? It wasn’t just the years of waiting, but the months. Every month a red reminder—no life here, no promise fulfilled. One more month to wait and to want.
When Isaac finally came it had been years since the blood had dried up, the months had begun to blur into decades, and I imagine by that point she no longer daydreamed her afternoons away imagining his tiny toes and first wobbling steps. By the time she noticed the strange swelling of her belly, she was far too old to suspect anything.
How many times do you suppose Abraham agonized, thinking surely he must have heard God wrong because: still no baby? “It’s time to face reality,” his logically-minded friends must have told him, “You aren’t going to have a son, much less a nation.”
And then, as it so often does in the Bible, the impossible happened. Only, fulfillment did not make Sarah kind. When she finally got the son she wanted, then she really turned her back on Hagar. Hagar didn’t run this time. Sarah cast her out. For some reason I can’t understand, God let this happen. Told Abraham it was okay, even. “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you,” God advised, which I find perplexing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for God telling the men to do what the women say and all, but really, in this case, Sarah clearly wasn’t being the model of compassion and I don’t know why God let her get away with it, except that God often lets us get away with less-than-compassionate actions.
And this is how Hagar found herself stranded in the desert for a second time. Before long, their water ran out, and Hagar was so distraught she separated herself from her son so that she would not have to watch him die. That was when El-roi made his second appearance to Hagar, this time, not only as the God who sees, but the God who hears. An angel spoke to her, saying, “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.”
I wonder, if God were to make it clear to you: “I see you. I hear you where you are,” what difference might that make?
In Hagar’s case, it made a big difference because at that moment, her eyes were opened and she saw a well. She thought they were on the brink of death—no food, no water—but suddenly she saw there what she had not seen before: provision in her line of vision, as if God seeing her enabled her to see God, God in the form of water from a well. This isn’t the last time in the Bible a woman will encounter God at a well, catching her by surprise and exceeding her expectations, knowing her story intimately and offering her life.
When told in a certain light, the Abraham and Sarah story is a triumphant one—Isaac, after all those years, arrives, and a great nation is born. But told in another light, it is tragic. Receiving their promise results in them casting out a woman and her child.
Furthermore, while the birth of a child after extended barrenness is a cause for joy, waiting is never romantic in the moment. Only after the fact do these stories sound good. While you’re waiting, when you’re the one waiting, it is agony. It is torture. Waiting is hard. Why does God make so many of us wait and why for so long?
Why is the very beginning of the story of God’s people wrought with such messy relationships and poor human choices, long seasons of despair and desert wanderings? Why is this the way it all begins and why is this the way it continues? God’s people still endure messy and tense relationships, poor human choices, long (way too long) seasons of despair, and desert wanderings. The stuff of the beginning is the stuff of today: barrenness, bitterness, longing, agony, thirst. Single parents fending for themselves in harsh terrain.
These are the conditions in which we find ourselves, and it hardly seems fair. It isn’t what we asked for. It isn’t what we wanted. We are Hagar, vulnerable to the elements. We are Sarah, hearts crippled from the ache of want. We are Abraham, wondering how we ever misheard God. We are Ishmael, cast aside. We are Isaac, oblivious to the politics already at play before we enter the scene, but affected nonetheless.
It is so insanely messy. Like a wilderness, life is wild and harsh, and we are stuck there, without (we are sure) enough water. We might be tempted to try and forge our own way, a way that runs counter to our souls and counter to God, like Abraham giving his wife to Pharaoh or Sarah giving her maid to Abraham. We try to fix things, solve things, hurry things up to alleviate the impatience. This never goes very well nor makes us very happy.
We might be tempted to play it tough, act like nothing hurts. We choke back the bitter laugh and smile politely; don’t let it show that we doubt, that we feel, that we hunger.
Or. We might join Hagar and weep ‘til we are heard.
As Richard Rohr reminds us, neither denying the pain nor trying to beat it will suffice. Neither fight nor flight will do. We must “hold it until it transforms us.”
Hagar was transformed into someone who could see water in the wilderness. The text makes it sound like that well was there all along, but until she wept, until God heard, until God met her there, she could not see it.
I still feel sorry for Sarah, because I don’t like to wait ninety minutes, much less ninety years, but even still, if she had sat with her sorrow, rather than taking matters into her own hands, how might that have changed her? What would she have seen through tears that one cannot see through schemes? Would there have been a well of sorts for her? Water in the wilderness of her longing?
It takes a certain gift of courage to sit with what ails us and let it run its course, teaching us what it may. I, for one, am often weak-hearted and resistant. I want my answers and my healing and my well water and my babies now. One more year, one more month is too much for me.
I couldn’t begin to explain why it takes so long, both God’s promises and our transformation, but they do. They take a really, really long time. But it often happens, that just when we think we are the very most alone, we hear an angel whisper, “You are seen. You are heard. Open your eyes. Water awaits you.”
You’ll end up in the wilderness a second time of course, and a third, and probably again and again, for such is life. But a well will always make an appearance, for such is God. Living water will find its way to you, just you wait and see. Amen.
 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (Crossroad Publishing, NY: 2003), 171.