The God Who Sees
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2 and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.
4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
13 So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi, which means “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.
When I lived in Indianapolis, there was one museum I was instantly drawn towards. It was the Children’s Museum, and it is awesome. On the bottom floor, you get to play around in archaeological digs with mummies. Above that, they have a huge exhibit of Lionel trains and dinosaurs. And on the top floor are all the toys you could ever possibly want to play.
But by far my favorite part of the museum was the third floor called “the Power of Children.” In this exhibit are the stories of three children — Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. I knew the story of Anne Frank from reading her diary. And I had seen Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” his painting of Ruby Bridges walking courageously into an all-white elementary school, while grown adults throw tomatoes at her head.
But the story I hadn’t heard before was Ryan White’s, a native of Indiana. I didn’t know his story with AIDS. I didn’t know that when he was diagnosed in seventh grade, everyone at his school and community saw him differently. It was the 1980s and there was a lot of fear and a lot of judgment around the disease. When others found out he had it, they didn’t see Ryan White, the teenager any longer. They didn’t see Ryan, the boy who loved 80s pop music and playing with GI Joes. They didn’t see a young person who just wanted to go to school and learn. They didn’t see Ryan the brave young man who would come to speak up for so many who were living and dying with AIDS. Instead they saw danger. They saw sickness. They saw someone who was now different. And they wanted all of those things kept as far away from them as possible. They pushed him away. They banned him from school. Parents, students, and even teachers blamed him for his disease and chased him away. They didn’t see Ryan the person. They only saw his disease and their own fear.
We are bad at seeing others. It’s not just an Indianan thing, or an American thing. It’s a human thing, part of our brokenness and sin. We either overlook our neighbors completely or see one thing in them and make them into an object or a stereotype, not a human being.
Hagar was one of those people nobody saw as a person. In our scripture reading today, Hagar is a slave from Egypt owned by Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham are two of the great figures of our faith and tradition. This is the same couple from the song “Father Abraham” we all grew up singing in Sunday school. God creates a covenant with them, and pretty much every event, name, and story, that follows in the Bible is of people who come from their lineage.
But even these two great figures have a blind spot. Just like the world around them, they choose to see Hagar, their slave from Egypt, not as a human being, but as a piece of property that they own and can use however they’d like. They use her and her body so that Abraham can have a child, his first son, Ishmael. And even after Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child, they refuse to call her by name. Instead, she is only ever referred to as “my slave girl” or “her slave-girl.” She isn’t a person, but an object.
And so, when she starts to see herself with value – in verse four, when it says she looked upon Sarah with contempt, the actual Hebrew is “her mistress was lowered in her eyes,” meaning she started seeing Sarah eye to eye, equal to equal – when Hagar does this, it disrupts everything. Hagar is immediately attacked and belittled. And from the abuse, Hagar flees for her own safety and life. Not knowing where to go, soon she ends up in the wilderness, in the desert between Canaan and Egypt, all alone, with no idea of where she can go, and hope quickly vanishing.
But then, a voice cries out to her. A voice which has seen her and found her even in this wilderness. A voice which knows her and unlike Sarah and Abraham, calls her by her actual name: “Hagar!” “Hagar!” This voice offers comfort and promises. It tells her she is included in God’s work, and that through her and her son a whole nation, a whole people will come. The voice of God reaches Hagar even in this barren desert and tells her “I see you and I hear your cry.”
It is fascinating that Hagar, this Egyptian slave who starts out in this story seen only as an object to be quickly used and forgotten, is instead such an important person in the history of God and humanity. She is the first woman to have a theophany, a meeting with God. She is the first woman to have a birth announcement. She is the first woman to be promised a whole people to come from her descendants, placing her on par with Abraham. And she is the first person, male or female, to give God a name.
She names the Lord “El-Roi.” El-Roi. It means literally “God who sees me.” For Hagar, out of everything that happens, the most incredible of all is that God should take notice and see her. Because Hagar, like so many people today, lived her life assuming she was not worthy of being seen.
When I was a chaplain in a hospital in DC, there was a patient, Diana, whom I visited one night while on call. Only in her mid twenties, Diana had a small brain tumor that was going to be operated on the very next day. To me this seemed a terrifying diagnosis and operation. But as we spoke, she told me that when she first came into the hospital she wasn’t scared. She wasn’t scared because she didn’t know if she wanted to keep living or not. She grew up abused in her home, and had responded to this abuse by spending the last decade of her life stealing from and manipulating anyone she could in order to pay for her addiction to drugs. She didn’t know who she was and she didn’t see much value to her life. She believed she had long ago pushed away anyone who could ever care for her or love her.
But she called up for a chaplain that night because she had heard something earlier in her hospital room. Like Elijah standing on the mountain and Hagar in the wilderness of Shur, this woman heard God in the stillness and the silence of that space. She heard God say to her: “Live. Just live.” She didn’t know exactly what that meant or how she should follow those words, but she knew one thing. She knew those words, that voice that came to her, it made her want to sing. That was her first response. To simply sing. So, she began to sing some of her favorite hymns.
And I have to tell you she had a beautiful voice. Whenever she spoke she was quiet, scared, very guarded. You could hear the pain and distrust in her voice. But as she sang, she belted the tune out. And in her voice, in those songs, there was joy. There was hope. There was a person who wanted to be alive. There was Diana, the person God breathed out of dust. God had spoken to her. She knew she mattered. She knew she had some value. She knew that she was seen… She knew “El-Roi” – God who sees me.
There is something incredible about the fact that God would take notice and see any of us. That God knows our names. That God cares deeply about who I am, about who you are.
What are those moments in your life where you knew God saw you? Maybe like Hagar, it was around the birth of your child, and the beauty and joy that day brought. Or maybe it was in the loving words of a friend. Maybe it was in a moment of success. Or maybe like Diana it was in one of the darkest times of your life. Maybe it was in the midst of a song or a prayer. For me it came at a camp, in the silence of kayaking around a lake, and hearing the Spirit truly move over the face of the waters, saying “I see you, Alex. I know you by name.”
We worship a God who is not blind, who does not see as the world sees, but whose vision penetrates even into the wilderness. God sees Ryan White, the teenager who plays with GI Joes, listens to pop music, and just wants to go to school. God sees the brave Egyptian woman wandering the desert, running from slavery. God sees the woman with a tumor whose voice fills the hospital with love and joy. God sees the stranger, the alien, the outcast, and the loner. God sees each one of us and calls us by name.
In our world, it can be so tempting to rush on by people, to look past our neighbor, or even worse, to look down upon them. It comes out of our busyness. It comes out of our fear. It comes out of our own wondering whether anyone actually sees us. But in our lives where we are constantly rushing, these words from Hagar should give us pause. For God came to the wilderness. God saw the person, and not just the slave. God called her by name. The God we serve is El-Roi, the God who sees.
During this season of Lent, what if we, each one of us, opened our eyes just a little bit wider and saw with God those in our community? Sit with someone. Listen to stories. Write a note. See them as more than they at first glance. Find out who they are as unique and wondrous creations? For there are so many people in our world who are in the wilderness right now. And they, just like Hagar, are waiting there to hear a voice. They are waiting for that voice which says to them “I see you. I know your name.” Amen.