It’s hard to tell from our text in Genesis this morning, but we’ve arrived in the middle of a story. Abraham’s chief steward has made the 400 mile journey back to Haran, Abraham’s hometown, and is in the midst of explaining the purpose of his journey to Rebekah’s family.
He had been sent by his lord Abraham on a journey to find a bride for his master’s son, Isaac. The one, he tells this family, who would inherit a great deal of gold and silver, and herds of donkeys and camels too. Abraham didn’t want a bride from among the women of Canaan, but from the land of his ancestors.
And so, the chief steward tells them, he arrived here in the area and came upon the well. It had been a long hot journey across the desert with the camels who had been carrying extravagant gifts as well as other servants. Abraham couldn’t just send one servant and a couple of camels, of course. Any con man with a camel could rustle up a story about needing a bride in order to steal away a young woman. So there had to be quite a few camels and whatnot to make the story believable for the hearers. So, the chief steward says, when I arrived at the well I prayed to God that the next young woman who came to draw water I would ask for a small drink for myself, and the one who said, “Drink, and I will also draw water for your camels,” let her be the one.
Now we’ll get back to the steward’s telling of his story in a moment, because I need to address a little something first. This prayer sounds a bit like the prayer uttered when the snow is flying on December 23rd and you have a ton of gifts to buy so you make your way to Shopper’s World. As you circle the parking lot you pray, “Please, God, give me a parking spot right near the doors, and I promise to make a donation to the food pantry.” It’s that old trap of treating God like a vending machine. “God, I need a husband. Make him tall and muscular and good looking too. Oh, and make sure he has a great job.” While God is clearly involved in the lives we live here on this planet including our relationships and the giving and receiving of love, it is also clear that, as my seminary professor David Bartlett put it, God is not “in charge of a cosmic Matchmaker.com, just waiting for us to fill out our profile and push the ‘send’ button.” That’s not how God works.
“Au contraire,” you may be uttering under your breath. “That’s exactly how God works in the story we just read. C’mon, Preacher Man, don’t try to sell us short on the ways of God. Besides, I’m asking God to help me win the lottery. I’ve got numbers that I know are winners.”
Let’s get back to the steward there in the Ancient Near East, and I’ll come back around and pick up that stitch of this tapestry in a couple of minutes.
As soon as the words of that prayer about water for the camels get uttered in his heart, well Rebekah appears. He says his little line about needing a drink, and she says, “Help yourself, and I’ll get the camels watered too.” Now remember, it’s hot and dry. And even if they stopped at an oasis or two on the way, those camels would have been thirsty after a 400 mile journey. This isn’t a chore that would take a single filling of that jug of hers. Rebekah would have to pull gallons and gallons of water from the well for those camels. She’s working hard. And when she’s done, the steward asks her who she is, who she’s related to. She responds with her father and grandfather’s name, and also the name of her mother, and the chief steward puts bracelets on her arm and a ring on her nose.
Then, he tells Rebekah’s father Bethuel and the other family members that have been listening to this tale, he worshipped the God of Abraham who had led him to this spot to meet this young woman. God had led him there to Rebekah, the daughter of one of Abraham’s kinsmen. And so, he concludes, given the clear sign of God’s providence tell me if you’d like to engage in this marital contract with my master Abraham, or not.
Bethuel and his family seem willing, but they first call Rebekah in and ask her. With her own agency, she gives her ascent; “I will go with them,” she says. Over the next few of days they make all the preparations for her to depart, along with her own maids and servants who attend to her. And after all is ready, just before she heads off, her family blesses her. “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.”
Surely those days were a whirlwind for Rebekah, this swirl of emotions of leaving behind the family she knew, and the exciting adventure waiting for her in this new exotic place. After many days the caravan arrived there one evening, and Isaac himself had come out to walk in the field. And when he looked up, he saw the camels coming in to view, and he hurried over to meet them.
Seeing him, Rebekah asks, “Who is this?” “It’s my lord, Isaac,” the steward tells her. So Rebekah slips off the camel, and pulls her veil to cover her face. As Isaac meets them, the steward tells him everything that has happened, and when he hears it all—how God worked in the events of his life—he took Rebekah to become his wife, and, we read, he loved her.
Notice what is not said next. No where do we read the words “And they lived happily ever after. The End.” Because this is not the end of the story, and they do face trials along the way that make things not always so happy. (And if Rebekah had known about the animosity that would emerge between her fraternal twin boys, Esau and Jacob, she may well have said, “No thanks,” to that steward back at the well.)
This story of Isaac is of course the continuation of the story that began with God telling Abraham to chart a new course and that he would become the father of many nations. God told Abraham that his numerous descendants would in fact become a blessing to the entire world. God’s purpose in this love story is to continue that covenant, to keep the promise going. In a number of years it will get passed on to Isaac’s son Jacob as well. Jacob himself would father twelve sons, and they who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. One of them, Judah, would become the ancestor of King David, who in turn would become part of the lineage of a baby born in the bleak midwinter centuries later.
So when that stewards of Abraham prayed in his heart for a young woman to come and water the camels, God saw it for what it truly was: the continuation of the promise to bless the entire world. That’s a lot bigger than parking spaces, and lottery tickets, and even our own fairy tale dreams about love. God was working toward the salvation of the world.
There’s just one last thing to discuss. Why would the text mention the bit about Isaac being comforted after his mother’s death? When we last saw Isaac, Abraham had bound him on the top of Mt. Moriah in order to sacrifice him to God. It all ends well, there’s that ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac gets unbound and comes home. But I suspect that that incident has changed his relationship with his dad a great deal. That as an only child, his mother likely became his confidant and taught him a great deal about the ways of God. Remember, she herself laughed when God had promised Isaac to her, and so she when she gave birth to him she was the one to name him Isaac meaning the “Son of Laughter.” I’m certain her laughter and joy continued through the end of her life. Abraham was much more serious it seems contemplating covenants and promises and blessings and whatnot. Sarah I suspect embodied an exuberance in her last years as she watched her boy grow into a young man. You likely know someone like that who exudes joy and makes you want to spend time in their presence. So when she died, that spark is gone, and Isaac is left with his father whom he doesn’t fully understand, and he becomes wistful wondering about his future. A future, he’s been told, that is full of promise.
And with the arrival of Rebekah, that promise continues. Isaac found a companion to share his life with. Someone with whom to love and laugh and experience the great mystery of life. And because of their faithfulness, we end up becoming children of Abraham too. Those who, through that promise of blessing, have had our lives changed. So may we continue sharing the joy of that covenant, by being a blessing to the world. May we seek not fairy tale endings, but the continuation of the story of God in our lives in all its complexity, knowing that whatever comes our way that God remains with us in order to bring about our own redemption and the redemption of the world. May we live trusting that God is ever faithful, honoring the promise made to Abraham and Isaac and to their children forever. Amen.