So Isaac departed from there and camped in the valley of Gerar and settled there. Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham; for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham; and he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herders of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herders, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that one also; so he called it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
You may not be familiar with our story from Genesis today, the story of Isaac clearing out the old wells of his father and digging new wells to meet new needs until he finally declares that the Lord has made room for us. This little story is not included in the Revised Common Lectionary, our schedule of assigned readings each Sunday. I didn’t come across it until I was looking for a reading for my installation service as Lutheran campus pastor at SCSU four years ago. When I first read this story, it felt like I had been handed a gift from God. A gift to help me think about ministry on campus.
But before we get to all that, I want to dive into this little story.
Isaac was actually born and raised in Gerar. If he considered any place the home of his childhood, it would be in that land among the Philistines. But he had moved away when his father, Abraham, had moved, yet again, to pursue God’s call. Now Abraham and Sarah had both died, and Isaac was the head of his vast household. A famine had come to the land so Isaac seeks refuge in Gerar just as his father had done before him, and they do indeed find a safe haven among the Philistines. They grow, they prosper, and yet, it is an undertaking to find a place to truly settle. It is a process getting to Isaac’s declaration, “The Lord has made room for us.”
The first thing that Isaac does is return to the land that he grew up on, to the wells that had been allotted to his father, to the wells that he drank from and watered his livestock from. In other words, Isaac found new life in his heritage. He returns to the wells that had nourished him and cleaned them out so they could nourish him again.
After restoring and being restored to his heritage, it isn’t enough to sustain his expanding household. Isaac and his servants are on the hunt for a spot for a new well. Isaac is stepping up to add to what his father started before him.
As luck would have it, the first place Isaac’s servants dig, they discover running water, but the neighbors protest the well. Maybe the running water cut off their water supply upstream. ::shrug:: In an area where water needed to be carefully managed so that everyone had enough, the unhappiness of a neighbor was a serious matter. So Isaac abandons the well and digs another. Again a neighbor protests his new well. And again Isaac abandons it. Watching this, we see that finding a space to flourish is not simply finding a spot to stay put. It is the joining together of the resources to flourish - daily water and daily bread with the needs of the neighbor, heritage with innovation.
So after a couple of failures to secure a new well for a new day and growing household, Isaac moves. Not far. He doesn’t abandon his prickly neighbors or the valley, but he moves. He shifts his perspective, shifts what he is looking for and digs a new well there. Nobody quarrels with him over this well so Isaac names it Rehoboth or broad places. The word reminds me of the sense of broadness you get when you stand in an open place or a high place and the horizon stretches on for miles. Isaac had found his breathing space, his space to flourish, so he declares, “Now the Lord has made room for us and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
This little story has been a gift. When I found it, it felt like I was being handed a framework for finding a place for new life for ministry on campus. In it is no easy answer, no step-by-step guide for getting your way. Instead it gave me things to keep an eye on. You are nourished because of the heritage that was left to you. Love and care for it, but don’t get stuck by it. Add something, leave your mark, dig new wells, and name them. Even if you have to leave those wells behind, know that they nourished you in their time and might find and give life beyond you. Listen to those around you. They can help you find a place. Don’t be afraid to move, to change your vantage point. It might be just the thing you need. In the end, Isaac identifies all of this activity as the Lord’s activity - old wells and new wells, quarrelsome neighbors, failures and successes not meant to last, and moving and being moved - all of these joined together are the activity of the Lord, which brings us to broad places.
Truly, this little story has given me a firm footing as I have explored what it means to have a space in a bustling place like St. Cloud State University. It re-emerged in my imagination as the last four years of the ministry were reviewed in December by a gathering of our ministry partners - synod staff, neighboring pastors, ecumenical partners, SCSU students and staff, and our board. We gathered together to look at the wells we had cleared, new wells we have dug, wells that need to be abandoned, and spots that could be hiding water. Through this process, the ministry has committed to launching weekly worship on or near campus for this next school year and finding some sort of office space for me so that students can reliably find me. We’re clearing out an old well and digging a new one. And standing firm that the Lord moves through all of this activity.
Now I’m passing along to you this little story that God has gifted me about Isaac digging wells to find his broad place. May it help you see that the world is disorderly and complex and unpredictable but the Lord joins it all together to provide water in dry times and guides us to fruitfulness. Amen.