Last week, the story of Hagar and Ishmael made its way into my reading. Like most other tales from Genesis, it’s so familiar that my eyes sometimes glaze over when I get to it. “Yeah, yeah,” I think to myself. “I know. They got kicked out, ran out of water, angel shows her a well…”

Which is why I stared at those familiar words a good long time last week when something jumped out at me that never had before, despite the dozens of times I’ve read this story.

So she put the child down under a shrub, and then went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away; for she said to herself, “Let me not watch to see the child die.” As she sat opposite Ishmael, he began to cry.

God heard the boy’s cry, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven: “What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; God has heard the boy’s cry in this plight of his. Arise, lift up the boy, and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation.”

Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and then she let the boy drink.

Genesis 21:15-19 (emphasis mine)

You can tell from the bold words here what jumped out at me this time. God opened her eyes, and SHE SAW A WELL OF WATER. He didn’t send that angel to touch a rock or the earth and make water spring up where there had been none before. She didn’t discover a hidden stream. She suddenly saw a WELL–as in, access to water dug by men. Something that would have been there all along.

Her salvation, her child’s salvation was always right there in front of her. She just couldn’t see it.

This isn’t recounted to us like the story of Pharaoh or even Paul–God didn’t harden her heart or blind her first, then reveal it all to her. She was just a scared mother, tossed out of her home with her son. She’d given him the last of their supplies. They were wandering in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Did she even bother looking around? Or did she just assume, “This is it. Sarah wanted us gone, and we’re gone. Done for. There’s no help for us out here.”

She was defeated. Utterly, totally defeated. So defeated that she didn’t even bother calling out to the God of Abraham for help. Why should she? Abraham was the one who had sent her out here. He had to have known that one skin of water wouldn’t be enough. Maybe she was angry with him. Maybe she was hurt. Or maybe none of that had a chance of lodging in her heart, because it was too full of impending grief.

She didn’t want to watch her child suffer and die.

Think about this for a minute. If I was out in the desert with my child and we were out of water, I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t be my reaction. I would hold him close. I would suffer right there with him. But maybe I’m judging too harshly, actually.

She put him under a bush. The only shade she could find–but bushes aren’t large. Probably not big enough for both of them. My first thought was, “Wow, Hagar, that was selfish–leaving him to die alone while you go away because you can’t stand to watch.” But you know, I could have it all wrong. I think it’s just as likely, more likely, that she gave him the last scrap of mercy she could find in that wasteland. She gave him the last of their water. She gave him the only sliver of shade. She did every last thing she could do.

And then she was out of ideas. Out of power. Out of resources. She knew–she KNEW–that this was it. They were both going to die. And that heartache did her in.

Then Ishmael did something very simple.

He started crying.

Now, let’s take a step back. This narrative reads like she’s toting around a toddler, but we know that Ishmael was ten years older than Isaac, who was himself three or four by now. This isn’t a child. This is a teenager.

A teenager, so weakened by their plight that his mother has to all but carry him. A teenager, a teenage boy who just watched his mother give him their last bit of hope and walk away to die. A teenager whose father had just cast him out of the only home he’d ever known.

He cried. He cried not in the confusion of a toddler, but with the desperation of a fully reasonable near-adult who knew, just as his mother did, that this was the end. He was too weak to crawl out from under that bush. He’d been too weak to crawl under it, she’d had to put him there. He cried. No words. Just the last of his water reserves, dripping from his eyes.

And God heard him. Neither he nor Hagar had cried out to God. But He heard him anyway. He heard him, because He’d never taken his attention off that abandoned mother and son. He’d told Abraham to obey Sarah’s wishes, knowing full well that He had great things in store for Ishmael too.

Still, He let them wander. He let them get to the end of their ropes. He let them try every…last…thing they could think of. He’d let them use up the last of their resources. He’d let them give up.

Maybe (though I don’t pretend to know the mind of God here!), He waited that extra moment, just to see if they would look beyond their despair to what was there before them the whole time. Or maybe He waited until the last vestiges of pride had fallen away. Maybe they had to be just that desperate before they were ready to hear the voice of an angel. Before they were ready to accept help from the hand of a God they hadn’t even petitioned directly.

The well was there the whole time. There. Just there. It was waiting, right there, as they stumbled to that bush, curled themselves into a ball, and gave up. It was there, right there, when they resigned themselves. It was there when Ishmael let himself cry.

It was there–but it took an act of God for Hagar to see it. It was there–and it was not only the direct answer to the wordless prayer of Ishmael’s cry, it was also the key to that promise, that command, the angel spoke just beforehand. “Arise, lift up the boy, and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation.”

The words, spoken to a woman blind with despair, could have sounded mocking. They could have sounded impossible. They probably felt unreachable. But then God opened her eyes, and she saw her salvation. She saw how they could take that next step toward a future worth chasing.

If I thought Hagar a little selfish at that abandonment on first glance, the last words of the passage I quoted should have corrected me. She did exactly what any mother would do, after she filled that skin–she gave the water to her son. She filled the skin and brought it directly to him.

How often are we like Hagar and Ishmael in this life? How often do we feel rejected by those who should love and protect us? How often do we feel like we’ve used up the last of our reserves? The last of our ideas? How often does life feel like a wilderness with a glaring, punishing sun and not enough shade?

How often do we do all we possibly can for our children, or our friends, or our spouses, or even ourselves, and KNOW that it isn’t enough? That we can’t save them?

How often does our own despair blind us to the help just a few steps away?

There aren’t always happy endings to our stories, or at least to our chapters. There are tragedies. There is loss. There is grief. There is pain. Sometimes, there really is no well in the wilderness–nothing that will stave off the horrible reality we dread most.

But there is always a God who hears our cries, even when we don’t have the words to direct them to Him. There is always a God watching us, ready to keep His covenant and fulfill His promise.

That doesn’t mean that He will “make a great nation” of each of us. We aren’t all promised prosperity and good health and long life.

But we’re all promised the best reward imaginable when we let Him take us by the hand: being in His presence. And when we’re there, by His side, it isn’t even about relief from the pain and sorrow and tears anymore–it’s about HIM. All about Him. It’s about trusting Him so much that pain and sorrow are understood. Unfathomable to us as finite humans…inescapable in the presence of the divine.

In a sermon I’ll never forget, our pastor said, of heaven, “I don’t want to be there because I’ll be free of pain or reunited with my family. Those are just happy side-effects. I want to be there BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE JESUS IS.” When we’re in His presence, that’s why the other pains and fears fall away. They can’t exist in the light of His face. They’re cast away. Forgotten.

Hagar’s pain, her hopes, her fears, and her entire existence revolved around that boy she tucked under the bush. The boy whose hand the angel instructed her to take. Her son. Her future. Her hope.

Our existence ought to revolve around the Son too. And when we take Him by the hand, we can cling to Him just as He clings to us. Because He is our future. Our hope.

And the wellspring of living water is right before us…if only we open our eyes to see it.

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