Faithlife Sermons

Bitter Waters

Wilderness Lessons  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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The bitter waters of life often lead to an opportunity of testing: Will I obey God or not?



I’ve enjoyed being outside. The fresh air. The trees. The water. Hiking. Letting the wind sweep over you. Breathing in the cool air. I love it. I especially like being in the woods, under the dense tree cover. This was especially true in Virginia or the piney woods of East Texas. In many ways, you feel like you are in your own world. Even if you are a few miles outside of a town, it can feel as if you are truly in the wilderness. There are a lot of life lessons in the wilderness. I’ve learned about patience. Especially one time when I helped lead a group of early teenagers on a 12-mile hike. Or about following the path set out for you… when the one time I veered off the path and got “mixed up.” There are all sorts of lessons in the wild. The Israelites had some lessons, too. They were in a wilderness, more of a desert, rocky wilderness but wild no less. For the next few weeks, we will look at their life in the wilderness and see if we can glean from them. In a lot of ways, it feels like we are in a wilderness as a society right now. Maybe it feels like we are lost. I think the lessons for God’s people then will be very appropriate for us now.
Read Exodus 15:22-27


As we look at this text, we need to consider the context a little bit. We find ourselves in the book of Exodus. That is the second book of the Bible after Genesis. In the book of Exodus, we find very quickly that the Israelites have been slaves to the Egyptians. Not only are they slaves but they are brutally treated by the Egyptians, to the point that their newborn sons are being murdered. God hears the cries from his people and He raises up a leader, Moses. The new leader approaches Pharaoh with a message from God, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refuses to let the people go and he and the people suffer 10 different plagues, the last being the death of their firstborn sons. Through it all, God has miraculously protected his people from the plagues and the loss of their sons. After the last plague, Pharaoh tells them to go and the huge crowd of people begins their exodus from Egypt. Through their exodus, God leads his people through a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. At first, things look good, until Pharaoh changes his mind and begins his effort to track down the Israelites. He sent his chariots and troops to track down the people and they find themselves between a vicious army and the red sea. God tells Pharaoh to lift his staff, stretch his hands over the sea, and divide the red sea. In a mighty move of God, the Red Sea was divided and there was a wall of water on the left and wall of water on the right and God’s people walk through safely on dry ground. The Egyptians? They met a much different fate as the water collapses on them, drowning in the Red Sea. God’s people were saved and they believed God and began to sing His praises.
In many ways, the red sea would be the climax of any great story and it would wind down into a fitting conclusion. Yet, in God’s true story, the Red Sea was only the beginning and now he is ready to begin revealing His character to His people. Therefore, the people are about to have a test, a taste-test perhaps. I want us to first see the Taste.

The Taste

I don’t know about you but I like jelly beans. Unfortunately with everything going on this year, I don’t know if I had any jelly beans. I don’t like an ol’ jelly bean though, I have a very particular taste for Starburst Jelly Beans. They are far superior to any other type of jellybean in my opinion. There is another type of jelly bean brand called JellyBelly. They are much different in a lot of ways but what makes them distinct is the flavoring. They have over 100 different flavors, mostly good, but some…. not so good. They have made a niche in providing some nasty flavors for the fun of it and a game called Bean Boozled, where you have to taste jelly beans that look ok but didn’t taste ok. Just a few of the flavors: Dirt, grass clippings, soap, rotten egg, stinky socks and toothpaste. In children’s ministry, sometimes the leaders would play a game where the kids would have a jelly bean, sometimes a normal flavor and sometimes a not so normal flavor and they would have to guess the flavor. Faces contort, tongues stick out and hilarity ensues. Who knew bad-tasting food could lead to so much fun? It wasn’t so fun for the Israelites.
They have just come out of the Red Sea and they come to the wilderness of Shur. It is likely that this area is past the outermost fortifications of Egypt and represents safety and freedom from Egyptian rule. I imagine the people are still riding high as they have the mighty God on their side. They quickly find that the area that they are in is a desert: Sandy, hot, rugged for a huge number of people walking through. The Sun brutally begins to beat down on the people and they begin to drink the water they have in their skins. Day two comes and they begin to realize that they don’t have enough water, so they are looking for places that this caravan of people could have a drink. The sun continues to beat down and the thirst that the people face is severe. Day three, no water and they are dehydrated and close to dangerously close to dying of thirst. Yet, they look ahead and they see a place up ahead and it appears that there is water. The people cheer and are excited because they will have water. They won’t thirst to death. Perhaps they cheered. Mothers warmly hugged their children as they knew everything would be ok. Dads breathed a sigh of relief as they realized that things would be ok. They come to this place of water and begin to drink. One swig and they violently spit out. Perhaps they thought it was a bad area and they move to a different location and the same result: undrinkable water. That’s not unexpected because in this area the water may look clear but there may be a large mixture of dissolved mineral salts. Do you see that word Marah? It means bitter. The water was bitter; undrinkable. It was name Marah from that point forward. To say that the people were disappointed would be an understatement. They were angry. At who? Moses! That guy, he led us out into this place to die (they forget that Moses is simply following God). The slow roll of internal complaints grew into loud public grumblings. The shouts turned into one loud cry, “What shall we drink?” Moses cried out to God.
What’s amazing is that these people had just witnessed the mighty hand of God. They saw the power of God on full display. Yet, life has a way of turning the hand of God into a distant memory. Our troubles and the bitter waters of life seem to come out of nowhere at the time. Have you experienced something that seemed sudden and without precedent? The bitter waters of life seem to come when it’s least expected when nothing goes according to plan. Perhaps a death. A job loss. A health diagnosis. Some stressful event. Marital conflict. A wayward child or grandchild. An unexpected bill that you are unable to pay. The question is not if we will taste bitter waters, but when and what will be our response.
The Israelites grumbled. Do you? Is your response complaining against God or is it to see His hand behind it? Do you say, “Woe is me!” or “Worthy is the Lord!” Here is the thing though, God meets us in the middle of our bitterness. In different ways of course, but God by the miraculous would heal the water. Moses takes a log and throws it in. There is no use in trying to find a medicinal quality in the tree or figure out a new cure for bitter water. That would be a case-study in missing the point. The water became sweet not because of the internal quality of the log but because of the miracle-working quality of the one who made the log. This was God’s grace on the people. They didn’t deserve it. They probably needed some bitter water due to their grumbling and poor attitudes, but God brings sweetness to their water. Why? To bring them to a test.

The Test

The Lord made for them a statute and a rule. He’s making a promise to the people. The test is this, would the people obey God or not? You see, the bitter water of life often leads to an opportunity of testing, where we have to decide if obedience will be our response. Now let’s get the order right. God saved the people by His grace. They didn’t earn it. God provided clean sweet water by his people by His grace. They didn’t deserve yet. God saves you and I by his grace. We have neither earned it or deserve it. However, there is an important aspect here, while our obedience cannot save us, God does call us to obedience. Often our bitter waters will lead us to this question: whom am I going to serve?
God calls the people to Listen to himself and to follow him. This is the makeup of obedience: listening and doing. For us today, the listening part is laid out in His Word. At this point in the Israelites history, the law wasn’t fully spelled out, although it likely existed in seed form. It was a precursor of what was going to come, but that was the life of Israel at this time. Listening to the voice of the Lord and following Him. They were called to do that which was right in HIS eyes not their own eyes. The Lord was calling the people complete obedience. People who would seek after Him and follow Him. People wholly devoted to the Lord.
That’s what the bitter waters of life do for in our lives as well. They instruct us, don’t they? They teach us a lesson and they lead us to a question: Whom will I obey? How is that? Well, you see when we are tested, when we are brought to the bitter waters of life and we drink, when life throws us a curve we begin to understand this truth: we are not in control. I firmly believe that one of God’s purposes in our pain is to put it firmly in our hearts and minds that we are not self-sufficient. We are not independent. We are in this by ourselves. We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We don’t have all the answers. We lack wisdom. We often drink the bitter waters of life because we can’t tell the difference between what is good for us and what is bad for us. We are brought to our knees and our inabilities and insufficiencies come rushing out of us. Will our problems in life lead us to greater or obedience or radical disobedience?
The Lord gives this promise: “I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer.” I want to make a point about this verse. It is at times used by those who advertise healing to show that God will heal diseases because of our obedience. It has been twisted to say, “If you aren’t healed there is some sort of disobedience in your life.” The problem is that this is promise specifically for the Israelites to remind them that he will not put on them, what he did to the Egyptians. Think about it, they saw the mighty hand of God on the Egyptians and this is Word to them to say that He is for them, He wants to heal them, He wants the best for them… he won’t bring those plague of judgment if they will follow and obey him. It’s a signal of God’s relationship with His people and that He is not a God of disease but a God of healing. Perhaps this translation offered by one commentator helps, “Any illness I brought on the Egyptians, I will not bring on you. For I am Yahweh, your doctor.” Yet, we do know that God is the healer. God can and does heal, but the point in this passage is to reassure God’s people of His love for them.
Even with that said, we should take comfort in the fact that God is Healer. He has the best in mind for us. He loves us. He cares for us. God is always working on our behalf. Romans 8:28 is a reminder. Sometimes he brings physical, but he will always bring spiritual healing. He might not fix your relationship but He has to great lengths to show that He wants a relationship with you.

Touch of Providence

We saw the Taste, we see the test, but we also see a touch of providence. Just down the road would be Elim, a place of springs and palms. Sometimes God provides by the miraculous and at other times by his providence. His providence is loving care for creation and his people. He provides and cares for. He knew that there was a spring down the road. Do you know what that means for us? At times, in our most difficult times, we will have a test of faithfulness and if we will follow Him and pursue God, by his providential hand, he will provide us with the streams of water that we need. It’s not to say that obedience makes your life perfect and without problems, but by providence, the way of God always leads to good for us! We keep pressing forward, we keep moving down the path, we keep following Christ. This bitterness that you are experiencing may be an opportunity for greater spiritual growth dow the road. Yes, it will be hard. I love what Charles Spurgeon wrote, “The Lord was not going to lead a mob of slaves into Canaan, to go and behave like slaves there. They had to be tutored. The wilderness was the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students. There they went to the University, and he taught and trained them, and they took their degree before they entered into the promised land. There is no University for a Christian like that of sorrow and trial.”


As I consider this text, I cannot stop thinking about God as the healer. Maybe you’ve heard someone Say Jehova Rophe or Yahweh Rophe. The greatest healing that the Lord can bring is the spiritual healing that we so desperately need. You see, you and I have a great sickness called sin. The mortality rate? 100%. The infection rate? 100%. All people of all time have been infected with this sin virus and will suffer the punishment: death. Yet, God being the great healer sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, to take our punishment to provide the cure. You see, Christ is the cure for our sins! He is the remedy. If you will place your trust in Him and Him alone, you will experience the cure. Romans 10:9-10 says, “ because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Would you be saved today and experience the perfect healing of God?
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