A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on July 24, 2011.

Genesis 29:15-28

They met at a well and it was love at first sight. This was where many romances began in biblical times. Ancient wells were the equivalent of modern day coffee shops and other “watering holes,” which Baptist pastors are not supposed to know about.

Jacob and Rachel had this chance encounter at a well near Haran because he was running away from his brother who vowed to kill him and she brought her father’s sheep to the well for water. Immediately upon seeing Rachel, Jacob did what young men do when they want to get a pretty girl’s attention. He impressed her with his strength and “I am in charge” attitude.

The large stone which covered the well was not supposed to be removed until all the shepherds arrived at the well with their sheep. This was done to protect and preserve the water supply, but also because the stone was so large and heavy that it required several men to lift it.

Jacob was unwilling to keep Rachel waiting at the well, so he took it upon himself to remove the stone, which he somehow managed to do. He did more than remove that stone, however; he impressed Rachel with his strength and authority. That day around the water cooler, Jacob found his wife, or so he thought.

He made a deal with Rachel’s father, Laban, to work seven years in his fields for the right to marry this beautiful maiden. After he had done so, Laban hosted a feast and gave Jacob his daughter’s hand in marriage. It wasn’t until the next day that Jacob realized he had been tricked and married Leah, the older, yet less attractive sister.

Was Jacob unaware of the custom in that day which declared that sisters must marry by birth order, the oldest going first, or did he think that his mother’s brother would not trick him? I don’t know? Whatever the reason, though, Jacob ended up marrying Leah and working seven more years in order to marry Rachel. 

Did you notice that Jacob speaks no more in our text after Laban told him that he must follow protocol and marry the older daughter first? What could he say? The man who was determined to jump ahead of his own brother and steal his birthright and blessing could not break the rules in Laban’s family. The trickster got a dose of his own medicine. For the first time in his life, someone got the best of him and caught him by surprise.

What kind of impact do you think this experience had upon Jacob? What did he learn? What changes did he make in his lifestyle and relationships? Surely, finding himself in the victim’s role for the first time led to some changes in his life.

I would like to think this experience, along with the divine encounter at Bethel, had a profound impact upon him. There was certainly room for improvement because Jacob was a self-serving individual who repeatedly exploited friends and family. Quite frankly, I have my doubts that Jacob quit taking advantage of people based upon the manner in which he parted ways with Laban, which was far from ideal. In all likelihood, the “trickster” never reformed.

What can we learn from this story which can change our lives? There is no shortage of lessons, that’s for sure, and many of them revolve around relationships, primarily among family members. Let me share some which came to mind as I pondered our text last week.

Conflict in families is nothing new. Favoritism, sibling rivalry, jealousy, deceit, threats of violence and stealing are all here, along with the havoc they created. For sure, this is not a cute little love story, but a soap opera, and these are God’s chosen people!

Conflict occurs even in good families. In many ways, Isaac and Rebekah had a typical family. They loved each other, yet fought with one another.

Conflict in a home does not indicate the absence of love, but the presence of undesirable traits such as selfishness, deceit, immaturity, irresponsibility, arrogance and poor communication skills. When these lesser traits go unchecked, conflict results.

While conflict in a home grieves God, He does not abandon families in turmoil. Instead, God works in the hearts and lives of family members to resolve problems and repair relationships. In other words, God works with imperfect families, hoping to make them better.  

“The story of Israel is not simply about origins, it reveals the fundamental character of Israel’s continuing life with God through the generations. It shapes the very heart of Israel’s understanding of God as one who works on behalf of families like this one. Indeed, it speaks about and to the community of faith in every age,” writes Terence Fretheim in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Remember, it was said of Leah and Rachel in Ruth’s book that God used them to build up the house of Israel. He can use our flawed families, too.

As I said, there is no shortage of lessons to be gleaned from this story. There is also a question inherent in this text which needs to be asked.  What do you do when the person you marry is not the person you thought you married? What do you do when you marry Rachel and end up living with Leah? Can we use Jacob’s experience to talk about our own? I think so. Let me share some ideas that come to mind.

Discovering the person you married is not the person you thought you married is inevitable. It is going to happen to everyone who is married, on some level, because dating is filled with fantasies and marriage is full of surprises. Who we are on our wedding day is not the person we really are.

All of us discover things about our mate, not to mention ourselves, which we don’t like that sometimes cause us to blurt out, “You are not the person I married.” It is, however, the same person, and our challenge in marriage is to learn how to live with someone quite different from the one we thought we married or someone who has changed in ways we did not anticipate. Actually, this challenge is common to all relationships.

Jackie and I dated for three years before we got married. We knew each other much longer than that, though. We grew up in the same town and attended the same school, church and social functions, yet we still had lots of surprises to contend with after we said, “I do.” Actually, we were married fifteen years before we really pulled back the veil and understood one another. We took the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory and learned a lot about each other previously unacknowledged. I don’t know if we discovered things about each other we did not know or we decided to identify and deal with them. Either way, we came face to face with our differences and began talking to each other as we never had.

I don’t think our story is unique. Every couple must travel down this road of discovery and dialogue, and when they do, they must be open and honest about what they learn.

They must voice their confusion and identify their struggle. If necessary, they need to seek help to get to know each other so that growth, maturity and understanding can occur.

When I discovered that the cheerleader, band member, Girl Scout, church choir member and social butterfly that I married needed precious down time to charge her battery, I was shocked. What a difference it made in the way we related to each other from that point and the conversations that followed.

On your own or with a counselor, talk to each other about why you think and behave the way you do. Identify the way you make decisions, arrange values and priorities, react to challenges, handle problems and stress, respond to criticism, process anger and show affection. Verbalize your hopes and dreams and uncover your fears and struggles. Talk about your strengths and weaknesses and what you need from those around you in order to live up to your potential.

I refer to this as entering conversation rooms where most couples rarely go. They either do not know how to do it or refuse to take the time to do so and their marriage always suffers as a result. As a matter of fact, it dies and a host of grand dreams end up being buried, which is extremely painful.

Our resident counselor and my good friend, Gloria White, refers to this as “the work of marriage.” It is work, hard work, but the benefits speak for themselves.

Every healthy couple I know cultivates their relationship with this level of open, honest conversation. They know how vulnerable and complex marriage is and that it can never be put on auto-pilot or taken for granted. They know each day holds the promise for growth or the potential for disaster. Most of all, they know silence is deadly.

Once you are this open and honest with each other, however, you must learn to love each other, flaws and all. You must accept the fact that the person you marry is both Rachel and Leah.

This is why commitment is so important in a marriage. It is certainly one expression of love. Everyone is going to disappoint or hurt you and you will disappoint and hurt everyone. Life is messy because there are no perfect people or relationships.

Are you going to throw away every person in your life that disappoints you? If you are, you will bounce from one relationship to another and die a lonely person. A lot of good people, imperfect though they are, will come and go through your life.

This is not to say that there are times when the wisest thing to do is to terminate a relationship. Sometimes people must head in new directions. Healing and hope are parts of our faith, too.

However, you will never grow and mature into the person you need to be without deep levels of commitment. Do all you can to keep your marriage together, for you mature when you learn how to live with imperfection, in yourself and others. It forces you to see your own weaknesses so you can deal with them and come to grips with the skeletons in your closet. There is no growth in a relationship until you acknowledge your own patterns of destructive behavior.

How do we do this? How do we stay with someone who is not the person we thought they were? Accept the challenge, with God’s help, of letting someone be authentic and living with an imperfect person. This is not a painful challenge or commitment by any means. It is the pathway to growth, maturity and real happiness. It transforms a marriage from a contract to a covenant, a partnership of love where healthy changes occur.

Develop a deeper understanding of what love and marriage are. Marriage is not about feelings as much as it is decisions. Decide to quit living in a fantasy world. Decide to quit thinking that there is a perfect mate waiting out there for you. Decide to get serious about the work of marriage. Decide to be honest with each other. Decide to live in a relationship with full disclosure.

Decide to become a healthy person. Decide to identify your weaknesses and overcome them. Decide to focus upon your mate’s strengths and encourage him or her to cultivate them. Decide to identify and compliment any progress you see in your mate’s efforts to improve their life. Decide to identify and deal with anything that undermines the relationship. Decide to love each other unconditionally. Decide to get help when you encounter a problem bigger than you are. Decide to stay in counseling until you figure it out.

In other words, decide that nothing will cause you to walk away from the commitment made to one another without exhausting every means to stay together. To do so will impede your own growth and development.

There is something interesting in our text that speaks to this element of commitment. Scripture says that Leah had “dull eyes.”  Actually, there is a lot of debate as to what it says. The New International Version says that she had “weak eyes.” The New Revised Standard Version says that she had “lovely eyes.” Which is right? Maybe both are right as Craig Barnes, pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh suggests. The interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

Jacob saw Leah’s eyes as weak or dull. Whatever he saw in them, he did not like and that is what he focused upon. As a result, he never loved her like he did Rachel and remained with her only out of obligation.

On the other hand, Jacob saw only the beauty in Rachel and none of her faults. Do you think she was perfect? You know the answer to that. Jacob saw what he was looking for in Leah and Rachel and that determined his relationship with each one.

When you look into the eyes of your mate, what do you see? What are you looking for? I suspect that’s what you see.

When you look in a mirror, what do you see? Most of us see what we are looking for. It is amazing what others see that we don’t, isn’t it? What’s more amazing is that we don’t ask them.

What do you do when the person you marry is not the person you thought you married? You realize they are thinking the same thing and, with God’s help, you take another look.

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