First there is a story about slaves who had been liberated from centuries of dying from a life that was never their own. There are poetic miracles that make us want to believe in a God who wants freedom for human beings so badly that They will defy what we know to be true in order to rescue us. We align ourselves with those free people who were forging more than a path through the desert - they were conjuring up a new way of life out of dust, and heat, and fire, and a hovering cloud. We feel their breath in our bodies, the hum of human connection at the base of our own existence. We remember Ubuntu: I am you and you are me. We once left Egypt.
Alexander Shaia once said that there is a word the Hebrews used for Egypt that, when translated, means “the narrow place”. Can you see that? The way the narrow place, the smallness, the oppression, the abuse faded away behind them as they stepped into a wide wilderness? The openness of the sky and the cold night air, no more walls and doors to lock them in with the heat? The strength and exhaustion of bodies that had built someone else’s empire before standing open hearted in the sweet air of uncontained desert? The loss they carried with them, the grief of children murdered and families desperate to survive? The scars on their bodies and the cracks in their hearts? It wasn’t supposed to be that way. It was never supposed to be that way. Don’t you know you were never meant to live that way?
Something happens when we leave the old thing, when the narrow way closes behind us, when we liberate ourselves from abuse of any kind. Once we’re no longer surviving the pain, our subtle bodies catch up to us and we find out just how angry we are. The church won’t tell you this, but it’s just to be angry, it’s fair to be bitter, it’s valid to flinch when a trigger happens. You’ve been crushed, beaten down, manipulated, mistreated, used, lied about, lied to, dishonored, violated, ignored… you’ve been building an empire that doesn’t serve love and the weight of that is too much. So scream into the fucking wind and let the truth of what has happened to you exist everywhere else, but don’t let it get trapped under spiritual abuse or silencing.
At some point in the story those wilderness wanderers had been walking for three days without water. They were exhausted, depleted, and already emotionally thin - you know that feeling of being so soul dry you almost can’t get out of bed in the morning? Imagine that coupled with sheer physical despair.
But then it’s right there: water. Water enough for everyone to drink and maybe, maybe The Divine is watching out after all. Until they drink it…
The water is bitter. As bitter as their now free hearts. So bitter it burns in their mouths, stings the cracks on their lips, and drops their lingering hope onto dry desert floor. The wholehearted despair is as thick as the cloud that reminds them they were worth saving. But now the story feels dark, feels cruel, feels like God Themselves have forgotten about them. As if they were forgettable. As if humanity weren’t always the point of the entire story. As if we had left Egypt for nothing.
They do what we have all done: they go dark. They slip into the shadows of their pain and they angrily ask Moses what now? Weirdly Moses finds a stick and he throws it in the water, turning it sweet, and they’re saved by a miracle. But not really. The sweet water wasn’t the miracle, the bitter water was. The ritual with the stick wasn’t the healing, the desert pool was. We know now why the water at Marah was bitter and we know now why Divine Love offered it. The high levels of calcium and magnesium in the water would have done two necessary things for them, for us. The magnesium would have worked as a laxative, purging any parasite or disease they had carried out of the narrow place with them. They would have moved into their new life with a fresh start, cleansed. A short distance away was an oasis called Elim and they would have rested there, healed there, prepared themselves for the kind of wandering that leads us all away from the old thing and into the new.
There’s something else. Endurance athletes use something called dolomite to survive in harsh conditions and for long periods of time. Dolomite contains calcium and magnesium. The bitter water was for them. The Divine was for them. All that time in the narrow place had taught them survival, but not trust. It’s hard to believe that the universe is working for our good, that Divine Love has one goal in mind: to lead us to a good, free life. We aren’t handed this version of God, we aren’t given a picture of a god who has always been creating in deep wilderness to bring people home to themselves.
When we reframe who we think God is we do something miraculous: we face bitter water and we find that we’re willing to drink it. Not because we’re martyrs and not because “God won’t give us more than we can handle”, but because - at the core of our existence - we know that The Divine is for us. We know that the universe is propelling us forward and that surrendering to that flow is the act that sets us free. If everyone and everything is our teacher, then nothing about our experience can be used against us. Nothing can diminish the soul deep knowing of how good we are, how worthy we are, how loved we are. It is the practice of that belief that makes us a student of the wilderness and not a slave to the narrow place.
I know the exact way bitter water slides down my throat, fills my soul, and asks me to fall back into an unseen oasis. I know the bitterness of an anxiety disorder that is as present as my skin most days. I know the bitterness of being an adult long before I was done being a child. I know the bitterness of multiple sexual assaults. I know the bitterness of both men and women in churches and ministries minimizing me and suffocating the life out of my soul. I know the toxic bitterness of purity culture. I know the bitterness of a depression so deep I tried to die. I know the bitterness of a marriage that was a product of trauma and intensely painful for almost the entire 14 years we were in it. I know the bitterness of holding my convulsing, vomiting baby while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. I know the bitterness of two hours spent in an ER thinking she had died without me. I know the bitterness of pouring my life, my creativity, my heart, and my values into a ministry that I now know abuses people. I know the bitterness of leaving my own narrow place and spending years dodging assaults from the people still camped out there. I know the bitterness of losing friends I trusted. I know the bitterness of divorce. I know the bitterness of being manipulated into a relationship with a man who I painfully learned was a narcissist and a liar - but all in the name of Jesus.
The point about all of this bitterness is that it has a purpose, but it has to move through us. We can taste it, talk about it, feel it, breathe it - but we can’t live in it forever. Bitter water is meant to purge us, to cleanse us, to heal us. It’s what the wild forces of love and freedom create for the sake of bringing us closer to our deepest healing. And we only find it in the wilderness, tucked between plants that thrive off of almost nothing and mountains that give us a view of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go - because The Divine has always used the wilderness to meet with us.
There’s more though. The story stretches all the way past finding a home, planting roots, and establishing a new kingdom - one they built for themselves this time. The threads of this particular human experience make the story of David in the wilderness even more important.
And that's the part I can't wait to tell you.
*Come back tomorrow for part two of Leaving Saul