A Bittersweet Path

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 12, 2000


Exodus 15:22-27 Marah and Elim

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?"

Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

There the Lord made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you."

Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

Revelation 10 The angel and the little scroll

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, "Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down."

Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, "There will be no more delay! But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets."

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: "Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land."

So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, "Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey." I took the little scroll from the angel's hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, "You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings."

Arcana Coelestia #8349 Bitter water

"They could not drink its water because it was bitter" means that true ideas seemed unpleasant to them, since they had no love for goodness. "Drinking the water" means receiving true ideas and using them as goodness directs, . . . and "bitter" means unpleasant.


Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (Exodus 15:22, 23)

Last Sunday, as we considered the story of Moses and the burning bush, we looked at some of the strange and even painful events that shake us out of our material complacency and get us going on our spiritual path. Through his encounter with God at the burning bush, Moses ended out leaving his relatively stable and secure life tending the flocks of his father-in-law to go on a dangerous and difficult mission to lead his enslaved people to freedom.

By the time of our Old Testament story for today, Moses has already accomplished that part of his new mission. He has defied the Pharaoh of Egypt and his armies, and brought the children of Israel safely out of their Egyptian slavery. You would think the people would be celebrating and dancing for joy! Their long enslavement was over! They were free at last! Now everything would be wonderful; they could all live happy and joyful lives!

That's the theory, anyway. In reality, things seldom work that way. When we leave behind our old way of life and start on a new path, we may think that everything is going to be great now. But it is much more likely that we will be in for a bittersweet experience.

In today's story, the children of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea on dry ground, and witnessed the great destruction of the Egyptian armies as the waters rolled back into their place, engulfing the Egyptian charioteers. The enemies that had been coming hard on their heels to carry them back to slavery were destroyed! None of them had ever witnessed so great a miracle of salvation. And they knew that it was God who had saved them.

Their songs of celebration were short-lived. On the other side of the Red Sea there was not the fertile land that God had promised them in Canaan, but a great expanse of desert that they must cross in order to get there. Through that desert they trudged for one day, then two, then three, without finding any water. Finally, after this weary introduction to freedom, they found water! But just as quickly as their hopes were raised, they were dashed to the ground. The water was bitter. It was undrinkable. And their songs of celebration turned into the grumbling of discontent. "What are we to drink?" they demanded.

I suspect we've all had experiences like this in our lives. We started out on a new phase of our life with excitement and high hopes, only to have things turn out a lot tougher than we expected. For many of us, our first real experience of this was when we left home for college or to find our own way independently in the world.

As I look back on my own experience of leaving home for college, I remember the great plans and high ideals that I started out with. And then I remember two years of struggling through life in a strange and unfamiliar atmosphere, without the comfort and security of my home and family around me. After two years, I'd had enough. And the plans I had drawn up so definitely beforehand seemed to have gotten lost somewhere along the way. Yes, I had my freedom from home and family, and public school--which, at the time, had sometimes seemed a wearying and restrictive to me. But in many ways, I was in the exact same situation as Moses and the Israelites were after they left Egypt: adrift in an emotional desert, with no clear path ahead of me, longing for something to satisfy my inner thirst.

Of course, not everyone has that kind of experience on leaving home and going off to college. Some thrive in the college atmosphere, and look back upon it as one of the best times in their lives. For some, the letdown comes when they leave college and for the first time have to support themselves doing work that may not have anything to do with their plans while they were still in school. Others do go into their chosen profession, only to find that it is a lot harder and a lot less immediately satisfying than they had imagined.

Sooner or later, we all hit a life transition that just doesn't work out the way we hoped or planned. Sooner or later, we all find ourselves wandering in that desert for days or weeks or months or years, searching for water, grumbling about how dry and empty our lives have become. At that point, we might turn to God demanding to know why this is happening to us. And if the struggles we are facing are the result of a choice we made to move forward in our spiritual, emotional, or interpersonal life, we may begin to think that it would be better just to go back to the way things were before. When we commit our lives to God in a new and deeper way, aren't things supposed to get better? But so often, they seem to get worse.

This was the experience of the Israelites as they set out through the desert to claim their freedom and follow God's promise that they would become a great nation in a beautiful and fertile land. As they went through their struggles in the desert, that bright vision began to grow dim, and they began to wonder if it would have been better to have remained enslaved in Egypt, where at least their life was predictable and seemingly secure.

The waters of Marah and Elim are a perfect image for these difficult and disappointing first experiences whenever we go through a major change in our lives--and especially when we make a new commitment to move forward in our spiritual lives. To help us understand the symbolism of the bitter water turned sweet, I would like to quote more fully the passage from Swedenborg's Arcana Coelestia that I read from earlier. Swedenborg writes:

"They could not drink its water because it was bitter" means that the truth seemed unpleasant to them because they had no love for goodness. "Drinking the water" means accepting the truth and using it as goodness directs; "water" means truth; and "bitter" means unpleasant. So it is clear that the passage, "They could not drink its water because it was bitter" means that the truth seemed unpleasant to them.

This is how the truth seems to us when we have no love for goodness. Any delight that we feel in knowing the truth comes from goodness. Our love for truth comes from goodness because goodness loves truth, and truth loves goodness; the two go together as though joined in marriage. It is well known that we all want to learn more about the things we love and have as our goals. If we love goodness--that is, if we desire in our heart to worship God and do good things for our neighbor, we love to learn more ways we can do this--and so we love to learn the truth. So it is clear that all our love for truth arises out of goodness. (Arcana Coelestia #8349)

Perhaps Swedenborg has left a few of you behind here, so let's unpack what he's saying. As usual, Swedenborg is attempting to stretch our minds to look beyond the surface of the Bible story--and beyond the surface of our own experience--to the deeper causes and currents that are behind them.

When we begin a new phase of our lives, we have to learn a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and living. What worked for us when we were still at home attending high school no longer works when we go to college. What worked for us when we were in college no longer works once we are out in the working world. What worked for us as single people no longer works once we get married. What worked for us as newlyweds no longer works once we have children. What worked for us as parents no longer works for us when the children have left the nest. And what worked for us when we were engaged in our occupation no longer works once we have moved beyond our regular working years into our retirement.

At every one of these life transitions--and many others I haven't mentioned--we can no longer coast along on our old habits and our old knowledge. We have to learn a whole new set of "rules." We have to figure out how things work in this new environment and new phase of our lives. To put it in Swedenborg's terms, we have to learn new "truth." In the symbolism of the Bible, we have to find new "water" to keep the organic, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual processes of our lives going. We have to gain new knowledge and new insight--things that we had previously not been aware of at all.

The problem is, a lot of times we don't really want to do that. We don't want to put out all the effort to stretch our minds and hearts to accommodate that new knowledge. We don't want to change our perspective on life; the old one seemed to work just fine. And because when we first start out, we have no particular desire or love for the new understanding and insight that our new path requires of us, it seems bitter and unpleasant to us. The water of spiritual truth is an acquired taste because our spiritual taste buds have become accustomed to the flavor of our old ways of thinking and our usual ways of looking at the world and the people around us. This new water tastes bitter!

What is the solution? Do we turn around and go back to being enslaved by our old habits and our old ways of thinking? No! God calls us to move forward, not backward! Thankfully, the new and deeper understanding of life that we begin to encounter as we move forward on our life's journey does not have to remain bitter and unpleasant. There is a way to turn the truth that at first seems so bitter and unpleasant into a sweet, pleasant, and even exciting new way of looking at our own lives, at and our situation in this world, at the people around us, and at our relationship with God.

As Swedenborg tells us, it is a love for goodness that would make this new truth seem sweet to us. And that is precisely the correspondence of the piece of wood that the Lord told Moses to throw into the water. Too often when we start out on a new phase in our lives, we are thinking primarily of our own comfort and our own happiness--just as the Israelites were grumbling about what they would drink.

It takes us a little longer to realize that this new path we are now following is not just about how we ourselves can be happier, but about how we can make those around us happier. When we begin to seek out new insights so that we can use them in giving comfort, pleasure, and happiness to our family members, our friends, the people we work for, the people we serve in our day-to-day job or tasks, then the truth begins to taste much sweeter to us.

An example might help. Let's imagine that we are studying accounting. For some people, accounting is not the most exciting activity in the world. And if our primary motivation is simply to get a job, learning accounting might be an uninspiring activity! As we go out into the working world, we may float through various accounting jobs that don't mean much to us. We're just trying to make a buck. The work is boring, but it pays the bills.

Perhaps one day, though, we decide we want to put our skills to work in a job where we will be serving our fellow human beings. We search out a job keeping the books for a charitable organization or for a company whose services or products, we believe, provide a real benefit to its customers. Suddenly, the knowledge of accounting begins to taste much sweeter! Suddenly, we eagerly desire to learn more and gain a better grasp of the intricacies of accounting so that we serve people better. Suddenly the "water" of new knowledge and understanding has become sweet!

Why? Because now we are seeking out that new understanding and truth so that we can use it in serving our fellow human beings. Now the goodness of love and caring for others gives a sweetness both to our regular tasks and to the learning that we do to become better at our job. Now we are not driven reluctantly by the need for money or even by a sense of obligation, but because we feel the joy of adding to others' happiness.

The goodness of loving and serving other people is precisely what can overcome the bitterness of every new step we take in our lives. Thinking less about our own comfort and happiness and more about how we can make others happy is exactly what can take a flat, uninspiring, and even unpleasant time in our lives, and transform it into a time of new joy and inspiration that we had never experienced before.

Yes, it takes time for us to arrive at this new and changed attitude. We may have to trudge through the weary desert of being engrossed in our own disappointment, depression, and misery first. We may have to spend some time taking care of our own issues and our own feelings as we confront a major change in our lives--and that can also feel like wandering through the desert with no water to drink. But as soon as we are ready to lift up our heads, look to the Lord, and rededicate ourselves to the happiness of those around us, the Lord throws a new goodness into our lives that has the power to change our despondency and depression into a new sense of purpose and joy in life.

Whether we are just leaving home and starting out on our new life or moving into the final phase of our life here on earth, there will always be times when things will seem bitter and unpleasant to us. But our bitterness can be transformed into God's sweetness when we open ourselves up to new ways of understanding, loving, and serving one another. Amen.



Point of Focus

Music: Conversations with My Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer