Last week we talked of welcoming being like giving a cup of cool water, and this week are hear about someone who welcomed not with cups but jugs of water. It’s not always that you get to preach on your Biblical namesake—but I am glad for the opportunity.
This story from Genesis (where our focus scriptures will take us this summer) is actually told twice. The passages we read are from the perspective of the old, trusted servant of Abraham (who is never named). I will add back some details from the narrator’s story when necessary.
Abraham’s servant is sent out to find a suitable wife for Isaac. And how was he going to do this? First of all, he would go to the land where Abraham’s relatives lived (at Abraham’s direction). But in addition, the servant decides to devise a “sign,” a way of knowing that THIS woman was the one that God had chosen. And the sign was that at a well this chosen one would offer drink to both the servant AND his camels.
And this is exactly what Rebekah does—even giving more than expected. We hear in the original narrative that she offers to draw water not just for the camels but until they are finished drinking! It says, “She quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels” (until they were satisfied.) Now Google tells me that one thirsty camel can drink as much as 30 gallons of water in 13 minutes! (And this servant was traveling with 10 such camels). I figure Rebekah was drawing water for quite some time. This was welcome on a super-sized scale.
The servant rewards this generosity with a nose ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets weighing ten gold shekels. (This is probably close to 37 ounces of gold combined—I don’t know what the gold rate was in those days, but on Friday it was approximately $1215 an ounce. Quite a lavish gift!) It is only after all these camels have drunk their fill that the servant asks whose family she belongs to: And lo and behold she is of the correct lineage for his search. He immediately bows his head in prayer, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham.”
Then comes the negotiation with the man of the household, who happens to be Rebekah’s brother, Laban (a trickster who will play quite a part when Isaac and Rebekah’s son, Jacob, is looking for a wife.) Laban seems to be taken with the nose-ring and bracelets that his sister has acquired, and after hearing the servant’s story agrees to the match although he tries to delay Rebekah’s departure. But I will give Laban credit for allowing Rebekah to make up her own mind. When asked if she would immediately go with this man, she responded “I will.”
Rebekah embodies two of the important characteristics of Biblical heroes and heroines—she is hospitable to strangers, (welcoming them with her jugs of water) AND she is willing to say “yes” to being led away from the familiar at the prompting of God.
The Bible doesn’t record much of Rebekah’s thoughts (although Seasons of the Spirit has allowed us to try to insert them into our reading of the story). I have so many questions that will never be answered. Did she jump at the chance to get away from Laban and her past life? Was she the adventurous type who wanted a new life, a new land, a new family? Was she worried at all about this to-be-husband who didn’t even come looking for a wife himself? Was she swayed by the gifts the servants brought, or by the story of God’s sign and blessing? We just don’t know. But the Bible does tell us a rather amazing thing. This arranged marriage ended up being one of love.
What exactly are we supposed to learn from this story? Does it have anything to do with the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens... My yoke is easy and my burden is light”? I’m not sure that I want to make this a “whenever God closes a door, God opens a window” sermon. I’m not sure that the ways of the world are always so easily understood—or that God’s plans for us are so quickly discerned. Certainly Abraham (and Abraham’s oldest, and most trusted servant) would know that. I guess what I hear in both the Hebrew Scripture and Jesus’ comment are that with God even burdens and yokes can be borne. Maybe part of it is in the way that we approach the difficulties or challenges we encounter in life. Do we see them as road-blocks or opportunities? Are we searching for what we already have decided we should find? Or are we willing to allow ourselves to be delighted with something else? The Seasons of the Spirit commentary declares:
“Delightful things happen all the time—often unplanned—and we need to look out for them. In our focus text, Abraham’s servant is delighted to find Rebekah, Rebekah is open to what might be in store for her in a new place, and she and Isaac find delight in each other.”
This may be the Biblical version of “follow your bliss” or even “spark joy.”
The story of Rebekah reminds us that God and God’s opportunities find us in the most mundane of activities—like drawing water at a well.
Once again, we are encouraged to be hospitable, welcoming, to all that come onto our path. You never know who they might be.
We hope that we can have the courage and wisdom to say “yes” to new paths and vistas even if we can’t see where it will end up. How could Rebekah ever have imagined that she would become a beloved matriarch of a world clan?
And finally, and maybe most importantly, we are called to find beauty and love around and within us. This seems most appropriate if we are to truly be in the image of the One who created and then pronounced “It is good.”
But don’t take Rebekah’s word for it: the story of the people of God is filled with these close-up encounters with “angels unaware;” filled with the invitation to choose new paths; filled with unexpected blessings and delight in small and large things.
And if it is the story of the people of God, then it is our story as well. Come, be part of the story, Jesus beckons. Even if you feel discouraged. Even if you don’t think you count. Even if you have stopped believing in angels, or good luck, or having joy. Come anyway.
For together, with the ancients as our role models, with God before us and behind us and beside us, with our brothers and sisters near and far,
we find: That our yokes are easier,
our burdens are lighter,
and our lives can radiate joy.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.
34So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. 36And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ 42“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also” —let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’ 45“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’
REBEKAH…Is hospitality a gift, not a burden?
46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels.
REBEKAH…after all, the hospitable thing to do.
47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms.
REBEKAH…sign of God’s blessing on this servant.
48Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.” 58And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.”
REBEKAH… I was left to choose my own path.
59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.
REBEKAH…regardless of the paths we choose.
62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.