Bitter Waters Made Sweet

Sermon: Bitter Waters Made Sweet

I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 11, 2010 at the Olivet New Church in Toronto.


A Sermon by Rev. Coleman S. Glenn

“And they came to Marah, and they could not drink the waters for bitterness, because they were bitter; therefore he called the name of it Marah.” (Exodus 15:23)

This morning we read a story about the Children of Israel’s journeys in the wilderness.  It’s easy to read the story without really grasping what the experience was like for them – but if we put ourselves in their place, we might start to understand how this story comes into play in our own lives.  Picture what the experience would have been like for just one of the children of Israel.  Picture him in a desert.  He has just finished crossing a great sea that was parted before his people so that they could walk through on dry land.  And the Egyptians, who since he was born have beaten him, chained him up, and forced him into labour, were completely swallowed up by the sea.  Moses and his sister Miriam have just finished shouting out a song to Jehovah, his God, who has the power to do miracles unheard of by Egypt’s magicians.  He is going to a new land, a land where he will be free, a land flowing with milk and honey.

He looks around him – at the thousands of his fellow Israelites, at his tribe, at his friends, at his family.  And they begin, setting out over the desert for the promised land.  The sand is hot, and there is not any water, but he hardly notices it – he is free!  He walks along through the desert, he and all of the other sons of Israel.  At night, they rest, then they start again the next morning.  Again, he walks and walks through the desert.  The sun is beating down.  There’s not much vegetation.  He hasn’t had anything to drink since yesterday.  And still he walks along following an enormous pillar of cloud.  Night begins to fall, and the pillar of cloud turns into a pillar of fire, lighting the way.  Eventually, he stops with the others to set up camp.  His mouth is parched.  His stomach hurts from thirst.  His skin is dry and dusty.  It seems like another lifetime that he crossed that sea.  He doesn’t sleep very well.  And the next morning, he wakes up, and they start walking again.  The pillar continues on ahead.  He trudges and trudge and trudges through the desert.  It has been three days since he has had anything to drink.  He is close to fainting.  His muscles are cramping from lack of water.  He knows that he can’t go on like this for much longer; his body is going to collapse.

And then he sees it up ahead: water!  There is a surge of bodies as he and all his thousands of companions rush toward the water.  He reaches the water.  He leans down to take a drink.  He brings the water to his mouth – and immediately he spits it out.  It’s bitter.  It’s undrinkable.

The people around him start to discover the same thing.  All around him are people spitting out water.  The crowd starts to grumble.  He hears people shouting out to Moses, “What are we going to drink?”  He is almost ready to give up hope – it feels like he will never drink again.  And then he sees the people parting.  Moses is coming through carrying a large piece of wood, which he carries to the water, and throws it in.  A few people take a drink – and then drink, and drink some more!  He cautiously approaches the water.  He leans down, and he tastes it.  And it is sweet!  After three days with no water, he drinks and drinks until his thirst is gone.

The experience I just described is foreign to almost all of us.  Most of us will never go longer than a day or so without anything to drink, let alone three days without water in a wilderness.  But we can imagine the thirst, the longing for water, and the disappointment when we find out that the water is bitter.  And maybe you can already start to see what this story might mean in its internal sense.  The children of Israel had just crossed the Sea of Reeds (mistranslated as the Red Sea in many Bibles).  They were elated – they had escaped from Egypt, and the Egyptians would oppress them no more.  Think of the times in your life when you’ve felt that joy of a new beginning.  Times when you looked at your life, noticed that you were sinning against the Lord, and made a commitment to stop.  The first day of that commitment brings a feeling of joy and elation.  Finally, you’re going to be free – free from the desire to control other people, maybe, or free from lust, or free from the need to tell lies.  You have made a commitment to the Lord to change, and you have prayed for His help.  You know that you are on the way to the Promised Land.

And then daily life sets in.  Maybe for a week, two weeks, a month you see the progress you’re making.  You catch yourself a few times when you’re about to break one of the  commandments.  But as work starts to pile up, you dedicate less time to your spiritual commitment.  You start to fall into old patterns.  Maybe you stop reading the Word as often; you stop taking the time to work on your spiritual life.  You haven’t given up, but you don’t give much thought to these things anymore.  And you can feel it.  You know that something is missing, that the very thing that gave you such excitement only a little while earlier is gone.  You thirst.  And it might not even be on a conscious level – just a nagging, empty feeling that you’re missing something important.  You’re trudging through the wilderness, and you are becoming thirstier and thirstier.

And then you realize it: you’ve stopped focusing on the Lord.  You’ve stopped focusing on your commitment.  You’ve stopped taking the time to think about how to love the Lord, how to love the people around you.  Maybe you’ve stopped reading the Word.  Maybe you haven’t been going to church.  You realize what’s been missing. And so with hope you open up the Word to your favourite passage, you attend a doctrinal class, you go to church.  You recommit yourself to your goals.  You’re ready to get back on the right path. You see the cool waters right in front of you, and you take a deep drink.

And there’s nothing there.  The same words that in the past have inspired you fall flat.  You read the Word, but it’s not joyful; it’s a chore.  Your doctrinal class feels meaningless.  Church is boring.  The waters that looked so refreshing, so cooling, so life-giving, are bitter!  And this is a very real feeling, as real as the feeling that the children of Israel had when they discovered that the waters of Marah were bitter.  When you want nothing more than to feel the Lord’s presence, to taste the living waters of His truth, and you cannot do it – you feel hopeless.  You need these truths.  They are what tell you how to live!  Without them, you don’t even know how to love your neighbour!  In some cases, you may actually be brought to tears.  I’m a bad person.  I’ll never get this.  I might as well give up now – there’s no life in these words, and I’ll never find life in them.  We groan against Moses, who represents the Lord’s Word.  If we cannot have water from you, how will we survive?

We call out to the Lord in our anguish.  We say, “Lord, give me your truth!  I am dying!”  And the Lord hears us.  The Lord Jesus Christ hears us.  He knows that we need truth, and He knows that we feel like we’re dying.  And He wants nothing more than to give it to us.  When He was in the world, He Himself said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst to eternity, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.”

So Jehovah shows Moses a piece of wood, or a tree, and Moses knows that he needs to throw this wood into the water.  But why does Moses need to do this?  Jehovah is all powerful, and He could easily make the water sweet without using a piece of wood.  But by showing Moses the wood to throw into the water, the Lord shows us what is really missing from our lives.  “Wood” in the Word represents good.  And it is good that will make truth delightful again.  It is not truth that we are lacking – the water is right there.  But the goodness has gone out of it.

The truth that we found delightful before gave us delight because, whether we knew it or not, it held love within it.  Every single truth in our minds is connected to goodness in our heart – to love, to kindness, to compassion.  And when these connections to the good in our heart are cut off, the truths become stale and meaningless.  The truth that the Lord Jesus Christ is God becomes real and powerful only when we feel the joy of Him acting through us.  The truth that marriages last to eternity is only delightful if we can connect to the joy and blessedness of true conjugial love.  The truth of the Ten Commandments, for example “You shall not steal,” is delightful only when you can feel the heavenly joy of giving to others replacing the hellish pleasure of taking from them.  For truth to have life, it needs to exist not just in our heads, but in our hearts as well.

But how can we reconnect to these truths?  How do we re-join the truth in our mind to the good we used to feel in them? When the water is bitter, we can’t force ourselves to feel the love behind the truth.  That is the problem – even if we know in our minds that the good is there, it still means nothing to us, because we cannot feel it.  And so we ask the question: what does it mean to have Moses throw the wood into the bitter waters?

The wood that is thrown into the waters is the goodness that we feel in our hearts – a love for our neighbour, a love for the Lord.  It inspires us to learn truth and to use that truth.

But the wood is not just good in our hearts.  It is also goodness in our lives, in our actions.  Throwing the wood into the water means focusing our attention on how we can serve others, rather than on our own desire to be satisfied.  And so return in your mind to that place of desperation.  Remember how the children of Israel might have felt as they watched Moses throw the wood into the water.  It seems like such a simple thing – why should this make any difference in the waters?  Why would a piece of wood help out?  How can he be doing only this when we are dying of thirst?  How can the simple act of doing good make a difference in the way truth affects us?

But Moses does throw the wood in the water, and the people do drink.  How do we throw the wood in the water?  We make the effort to apply what we know to our lives even though it feels like a chore.  We again make that conscious effort to resist the evil tendencies we’ve seen in ourselves.  We act according to the Lord’s commandments, knowing that to break them is to sin against Him.

And maybe for a while, truth will still seem stale and tasteless and bitter to us.  But as we keep at it, the wood will start to work.  As we add good actions to our lives, we start to feel the good love in our hearts.  And gradually, perhaps with little hope of success, we’ll try again to taste the truth.  And a miracle does eventually occur – those truths that seemed empty come to life again.  The water that tasted bitter does become sweet.  The Lord lifts us up out of temptation, and He leads us to a new sight of truth, to new feelings of love.

Picture yourself now in the place of that Israelite, in the deserts of the Middle East, having just drunk from the now-sweet waters of Marah.  The pillar of cloud is on the move again, and with joy and confidence you follow after.  And within hours you come to an enormous oasis: not one spring of water, but twelve!  Not four or five palm trees, but seventy!  Your journey is not complete; you still have miles and years to go before you reach the holy land; but after we come through hardship, the Lord blesses us with truth and goodness in abundance.  Even though the truth may at times become bitter, we continue to follow it, and the love we feel returns.  Then we can see the truth of the Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman:

Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst to eternity, but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life.


Lessons: Exodus 15:22-27; John 4:1-14; AC 8349

AC 8349. ‘And they could not drink the waters for bitterness; for they were bitter’ means that truths seemed … to be unpleasant, as being devoid of an affection for good. … All the delight of truth comes forth from good.  The reason why an affection for truth has its origin in good is that good loves truth, and truth loves good; the two go together as though joined in marriage. It is well known that everyone wishes to learn more about the things he loves and has as his end in view. One who loves good, that is, wishes in his heart to worship God and benefit his neighbour, loves to learn more about ways to do so, and therefore to learn truths. From all this it becomes clear that every affection for truth arises out of good

…. A genuine affection for truth consists in wishing to know what the truth is for the sake of life in the world, and for the sake of eternal life. People with this desire enter temptation when the truths they possess begin to be lacking, and especially when the truths they know seem to be unpleasant. The origin of this temptation lies in the fact that the links with good have been broken. These links are broken the moment that a person moves in the direction of his proprium, for in so doing he slips into the evil of self-love or of love of the world. The moment he does so he begins to find truths unpleasant; but as soon as he emerges from that state the truths become pleasant. This is what is meant in the narrative that follows, describing how the bitter waters were cured by the wood that had been thrown into them; for good is meant by ‘wood’.

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