Rev. George Miller
August 3, 2014
When I was called to Emmanuel, an image came to mind: that we were an oasis: an oasis in the middle of the road, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the state.
Emmanuel UCC: a spiritual, social, physical oasis; an oasis to look forward to, to find rest, to end one week and to prepare for another.
A place for folk to go where one can be refreshed and fed on numerous levels.
Four years later, I still feel the same way, but now with a deeper vision- an oasis in which our many hands work together to do our part to make the Kingdom of Heaven a bit more real.
An oasis in which the spiritually deaf can hear the voice of the Still Speaking God, the spiritually blind can see Living Water that is Jesus Christ and the spiritually hungry can be revived by the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
In essence, Emmanuel is to be a place where all journeyers can be cared for, ministered to, and experience a taste of just how good Christianity is when judgment is stripped away, compassion is shared and when the body of Christ is truly the hands of Christ.
No small order, yet our Shepherd’s Pantry fed 39 households and our Vacation Bible School enriched the lives of 26 children.
Today we are back again, each having had our own journeys filled with sadness and joy, bad plumbing and refreshing vacations, hopelessness and hope.
We are here in this oasis, some to find God, some to share God, so it is good that today we kick off our 2-month sermon series with the story of Hagar and the well of water.
If you’re familiar with FaceBook you know that there are a series of quizzes that are all the rage, quizzes that ask such burning questions as “What Gem Stone Would You Be?”, “How Floridian Are You?”, or “Which Golden Girl Are You?”
For the next two months we’ll ask “What Biblical Character or Story Are You”?
Since we’re all so complex, there will be no pat answer, but this will offer an opportunity to explore the scriptures in a fun way.
Today we start with Genesis 21, but first we’ll need to cover 27 years of back-story in about 2 minutes.
Once upon a time, God, said to Abraham “Get up and GO! Leave behind everything you’ve ever known for I’ll give you land, many kin and your family will bless all the families of the world.”
Small problem: Abraham is 75, Sarah is about 69 and they have no children. But Abraham says “OK” and off he and Sarah go, traveling from place to place.
10 years pass. They go to Egypt, survive a famine, meet a pharaoh, rescue a relative and are blessed by a king. But no land, no baby.
Tired of waiting for God to act, Sarah takes matters into her own hand. She gives her slave girl, Hagar, to her husband in hopes that a child will be conceived. Which is just what happens.
Wouldn’t you know it: Sarah gets jealous, Hagar runs away, God convinces her to go back and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.
But God says “Oh no, this wasn’t part of the plan. Abraham-you will have a son with Sarah.” So, they wander some more, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, they meet another king and Ishmael becomes a teen.
And then, just a mere 27 years after God’s original promise, when Sarah is a youthful 94 and Abraham is a spry 100, they have their promised son, Isaac.
Three more years pass, and one day during a party Sarah notices that Hagar’s son Ishmael is playing with Isaac, and Sarah does not like it one bit.
She demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, which he does, giving them nothing more than a canteen of water and a loaf of bread.
So much for loving justice and doing kindness.
So much for traditional family values. This intergenerational, interracial family is like a soap opera, laced with sex, jealousy and cat-fights.
Hagar and Ishmael are left to wander the wilderness until their supplies run out. Facing certain death, she places her son under a bush, and too overwrought to even look at him, she cries out to God, she weeps.
Just when it seems all hope is lost, just when it seems like she and her son will die…she hears the voice of the Still Speaking God who calls her by name. Who asks what is wrong. Who tells her “Do not be afraid.”
Who opens her eyes so that she may see: a well, with water, water for living, is there.
She and her son are refreshed. Renewed. Empowered. Ready for what lays ahead.
When all else seemed lost, she found an oasis in the middle of the dessert, in the middle of their journey, in the middle of their lives.
And their story is forever changed.
Of course, we have to ask ourselves: where did this well of water come from?
Did it just magically appear when God heard her cries, a parlor trick for a pitiful person?
Was it a lesson she needed to learn that sometimes in order for God to do miraculous things we have to be so broken down and desperate that we have nothing but the Living Lord to rely upon?
Was the well of water always there, but Hagar was too immersed in her own grief and fears too see it?
Does it matter if the point of the story is that even at our lowest, most desperate moments, God sees, God hears and God is capable of acting, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey?
Is it safe to say that Hagar, a Gentile, becomes the spiritual prototype of the Samaritan woman at the well who will meet Jesus, the Living Water, roughly 1,000 years?
And for those here who tend to be social justice minded, is it safe to say that Hagar represents all those find themselves in unfair and unfortunate situations: those who are enslaved, those forced into the sex trade, those abused by employers, homeless on the streets or unable to care for their children?
If God saw, heard and responded to Hagar’s cries back then, does God see, hear and respond to their cries now?
As we can see, though today’s scripture is only 13 verses long, it contains the themes of family, jealousy, hard choices, survival, wandering, hopelessness, assured death, not having enough, and an uncertain future.
And yet it also features or points to themes of perseverance, hope, new beginnings, self-sustenance, love, thriving, “enough” and the presence of God.
Desert and oasis, death and life.
Like what we had at VBS, what we have at the Shepherd’s Pantry; what we’ll have in September’s Global Mission Fair.
What we encounter every time we gather to worship and get to be the many hands that make ministry happen.
So, which Biblical character are you today?
Abraham: caught in the middle, with difficult choices to makes, unsure what’s the right one when both have negative repercussions?
Sarah: insecure, protective of your family, willing to do what you think must be done, not sure if God is trustworthy or if God is capable of blessing both you and someone else?
Ishmael: an easy target for another’s wrath and insecurity, a child of circumstances on the verge of disaster?
Isaac: an innocent completely caught in something you don’t understand, something you have no control over, who has lost a playmate, a friend, a family member due to one of life’s unfair situations?
Hagar, who knows what it’s like to be unfairly treated, to be cast into the wilderness, to know what it’s like to watch a child needlessly suffer?
Are any of these characters all good? Are any of them all bad?
Or perhaps you’re one of the other servants, watching these events unfold, knowing what Abraham and Sarah are capable of doing, wondering if you’re next?
Could you even be God, whatever that may mean in the context of this family’s story?
Rich, complex, real. Wildernesses and deserts of hard choices and harsh realities.
Which makes the oasis we come across via Hagar and Ishmael that much more refreshing, that much more necessary, that much more vital.
Because everyone knows what it’s like to be lost, everyone knows what it’s like to be different in some way, everyone knows what it’s like to thirst, everyone knows what it’s like to face a hopeless situation and wonder:
Does God see? Does God hear? Does God even care?
Which is why this time, why this place, why this oasis, in the middle of Hammock Road, in the middle of Sebring, in the middle of the state of Florida is so important.
Because with our many hands, because of our many hearts, we are capable of finding our own unique way of saying “Yes, yes, and yes.”
God does see, God does hear, God does care, and God still speaks. Let us share with you how...
Amen and amen.