The Waters of Marah

North American popular culture, as brought into your home and heart by the North American media, is a very powerful force, and it seems that we too easily underestimate its transforming power. How else to explain the results of a poll undertaken by the Public Religion Research Institute regarding the popularity of the view that favours allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry, and opposing policies that would give business owners the right to refuse services to a same-sex wedding? The PRRI, a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm, polled 40,509 Americans in 2016 for its American Values Atlas. That the majority of Americans favoured gay marriage is not surprising (58% versus 32% who opposed it and 10% who had no opinion). More surprising is that of those surveyed a full 44% of American Muslims favoured gay marriage. Given Islam’s famously unenthusiastic view of homosexuality, this is a bit of a jaw-dropper. I do not know how long the Muslims polled by the PRRI had been in America. Were many of them new immigrants, fresh off the immigrational boat from Sudan and Libya? Or had they been in America for a long time, or perhaps even been born in America? I suspect the latter. But it seems clear that the longer one is exposed the proclamations of the North American media and the more one drinks from the deep wells of its popular culture through books, radio interviews, songs, magazine articles, movies, news programmes, and interactions at the school, workplace and on social media, the more one’s views will conform to these new modern norms. If even our Muslim neighbours end up jumping on the popular LGBT bandwagon, we can clearly see the power of our popular culture. As far as traditional Christianity is concerned, that cultural well has been poisoned. In our long trek to Kingdom through the desert that is this age, we have come to the waters of Marah.

You remember the waters of Marah. Israel had been liberated from Egypt and was trekking through the deserts of Sinai on their way the Promised Land. They were tired and thirsty, and after three days in the wilderness they came to a place they later called Marah, “and when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named ‘Marah’” (Exodus 15:22f). In Hebrew “marah” means “bitter. And by “bitter” the text did not simply mean the water tasted sour or unpleasant, but rather that it was poisonous, undrinkable, and would make you sick if you drank it. (This is apparent by the later reference to “diseases” in v. 26.) It was a terrible and terrifying moment in their journey, for they soon faced certain death if drinkable water could not be found.

God provided the answer. “The Lord showed Moses a tree and he threw it into the waters and the waters became sweet”—i.e. drinkable. The tree changed the well from being a font of poison to being a font of life, and they could find life-giving water even in the desert. Christians meditating on the miracle have always been struck by the instrument which produced that life—a tree. It irresistibly reminded them of the tree of the Cross, and how the Cross could turn doom into deliverance, and transform death into life. That is why the story of the waters of Marah is read in church at the service of Great Vespers on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross. Through the Cross we can journey through the world and not be poisoned by it.

We need to remember this as we journey through the desert that is the 21st century West. No one can live without culture, and after a short time we too grow thirsty. When then we open the pages of a magazine or turn on the daily news or settle in to watch a movie or read a book or otherwise interact with popular culture, we must remember that the well has been poisoned. That does not mean that there are not also good things in the cultural well. There was water in the well of Marah, after all. But there were also things in the good water that were not good, and it was these things which made it poisonous.

The answer, then as now, is the Cross. As Paul said, through the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ the world had been crucified to him and he to the world (Galatians 6:14). Through the Cross we count ourselves dead to the world and to its poisonous values. We do not belong to the world, but to God, and we refuse to make all the values of our secular culture our own. Our values come from the Church’s Holy Tradition, and whether or not these values coincide or overlap with the values of the world is a matter of ultimate indifference to us. In baptism the Church casts the tree of the Cross into the waters of the world and transforms them. Through the Cross we can drink in the world and not die; we can pass through our secular culture and not be poisoned by it. But everything depends upon discernment. If we would pass safely through the desert, we must know when we come to the waters of Marah.

Note: I will be away from the church office September 22 to Oct. 7 and unable to receive or moderate blog comments during that time.  Any comments offered will be moderated and posted upon my return.  



  1. Of what possible relevance can American Muslims’ views on homosexual marriage have on….. anything? And why do you keep harping on this, Fr. Lawrence? Why are so many Orthodox priests absolutely fixated on homosexuality, and not other sins? Where are your musings on gluttony, wrath, pride, greed, sloth, or envy? Have I missed them?

    1. As the blog piece said, the relevance of the views of American Muslims is that this reveals how potent is the North American media. I continue to “harp” on this issue largely because the secular media continues to harp on it, relentlessly pushing the homosexual agenda at every available opportunity, to the general confusion of the children subjected to this ceaseless barrage. Just yesterday in the small town next to where I live a rainbow cross-walk was painted on the road to show the town’s support for the homosexual agenda. When there is a similar barrage celebrating the sins of gluttony, wrath, pride, greed, sloth, or envy (possibly with a Gluttons’ Pride Parade or the proclamation of a Greed Pride Month) I will be happy to harp on them too. The front line, chosen by the world and not by the Church, happens to be our culture’s draconian promotion of an aberrant sexuality. The responsible thing for a preacher to do is to confront the propaganda directly. The indication of error is an essential part of one’s pastoral ministry to one’s flock, as they seek to discern the truth in the midst of an all-powerful culture of lies.

      1. Fr. Lawrence,

        Thank you as usual for your insightful article. I think Lewis’ point is (at least partly) valid. I scarcely hear sermons or read articles that speak to gluttony, lust, etc (i.e. those specific passions directly challenging most of us in our spiritual life).

        1. Thank you for your comments, Jacob. I think however that my reason for mentioning gay marriage might be misunderstood by some readers. I cite it not as an example of how sinful society is, but of how potent the media is. The poison in our society is not confined to aberrant sexuality. At least as dangerous, in my opinion, is the epidemic of pornography, the normalization of casual sex (i.e. fornication), addiction to social media, the rise of a culture of divorce, the radical polarization of politics, and the essential break-down of family communication. The waters of Marah are bitter indeed.

      2. This is strange – it seems the clergy can’t win. Very often I hear complaints that priests do NOT teach enough about sexuality. I have never heard a sermon on this subject, is a common refrain. Then we have on the other hand complaints that this is all they hear about.

        All I can say is, may God grant our shepherds the grace to discern right pastoral application. And may God give us all the grace to acquire the Holy Spirit so that a thousand around us will be saved.

        On the topic of Muslim immigrants, in my opinion, your statement, Father Lawrence, that North American popular culture is a very powerful force, is extremely understated. It is, as I have heard many in my church say, a storm no smaller than the Flood, much adept at absorption than the Borg could ever be. It appears as sweet and moral and fair as Communism and is captivating to newcomers. And, as Father Stephen Freeman articulates, it has been developing for 400 years since the Enlightenment.

        1. Thank you for your sympathetic comments. Preaching is a difficult business, because it is addressed to a general audience. In our congregation I do address the evils of fornication, casual divorce, and pornography. But because about 40% of my congregation is under 10 years of age, certain things can be addressed only obliquely–such as by references to the dangers of “going to dark places on the internet”. More details can be given in private conversations, Bible studies, and in confession than are possible in a homily. And of course blogging offers opportunities to address certain issues in more detail than possible on Sunday morning. I remember making a passing reference to “sex trade workers” in a sermon as an example of how our culture uses language to sanitize sin, with the result that one parent freaked out and dragged his child out of church that Sunday, since the child was exposed to the notion that prostitution exists. As you say, clergy can’t win. Sermons on the evils of gluttony, sloth, and envy are needed rather less, as any confessor knows, since most of his flock are only too aware of these sins in their life, and society does not seek to promote them with the same draconian energy it expends to promote homosexuality.

  2. Fr. Lawrence, I struggle a little with the logic in reading the Old Testament image. I get the parallel between the waters of Marah and contemporary culture. I get that the wood is the Cross, which enables us to drink that water without perishing. You suggest, however, that the Cross is a kind of antidote that allows us to drink poisonous water. By suggesting that we are ‘passing through’ our culture, as in, not imbibing those waters at all… To me, this doesn’t quite save the appearance of the Scriptural text, which says that the wood transformed the water itself, making it sweet. (I read somewhere that Moses threw in a mangrove tree, and God used its natural ability to sweeten salty water in a supernatural way). I would then take that point and suggest that as Christians, we immerse ourselves in culture holding the Cross, and the Cross transforms that culture into something good by absorbing that which is of death, and preserving that which is of life (the water without its salty impurities). You conclude that our purpose as Christians is to reject the culture around us (or at least, not partake of it without a strong dose of Gospel antidote), whereas I would suggest that our purpose is to engage culture in the light of the Cross that fills our vision. In doing so, we have discernment, lifting up and imbibing that which is good, and leaving that which is evil.

    1. I am not sure that we are not saying much the same thing (apart from the detail of the mangrove; the waters were not simply salty, but lethal–hence the reference to disease in v. 26). My point was that we reject our culture as we find it presently constituted, and only accept the parts of consistent with the Faith. As the waters of Marah needed the tree to be safely consumed, so we need discernment if we would safely interact with our culture and pass through this present age. One can press the details too strongly: the tree made the waters drinkable, but the Cross does not make the sinful parts of our culture less sinful. We still require discernment to distinguish between what we can accept and what we must reject.

      1. Thanks for clarifying, Father. I wasn’t entirely certain, upon reading the article, whether you felt we could “redeem” any aspect of our culture, or whether the Gospel provides us with an ‘alternative’ that allows us to effectively shun what surrounds us.
        There seems to be room for understanding the bitterness of the waters to be due to their high salt content. The later reference to diseases may well be read not as referring back to Marah, but to the earlier plagues on Egypt. Still, the point remains, the water was lethal in its bitter form.

  3. Waters with an algal bloom can also be toxic to people or animals.
    There are many waters in the world which have algal blooms. including Egypt.
    Stirring up the waters may be a way of removing the algae from the surface and allowing deeper cleaner water to be accessed . This appears to be used in Australia in some circumstances today.
    This does not mean that God did not put that idea into the mind of Moses to use the tree.

  4. I would note one possibility that we should consider. If we have a desire for culture, we have easy access to a wide swath of culture from previous generations, and from other cultures. If a person wants a play, there is Shakespeare. If a person wants essays, there is Lamb and Chesterton. If a person wants a novel, there is Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, etc. We even have increasing access to the popular fiction of earlier ages and other cultures.

    I grant that there are reasons to want contemporary culture as well. I only mean to point out that some of the desires can be satisfied with more wholesome water from the past.

    1. Is it not a fallacy to believe that just because cultural product is from an earlier era, it is any more Christian? Monks are not allowed to read fiction, and they encourage anyone who comes to them for guidance to shun secular literature or music. From a perspective of prayer, Dickens, George Eliot, or Jane Austen, or Beethoven or Brahms, are just as harmful as whatever author or musician we are scandalized by today.

      1. North American expat,
        I wanted to deal with another part of your reply separately.
        It is good that you raise the question of whether we should imbibe fiction and secular music at all. I immediately thought of St. Jerome’s decision to stop reading any secular literature.
        As I understand it, there are monks who do not recommend that everyone stop reading secular literature. St. Basil the Great spoke cautiously in favor of using secular literature in “To Students on Greek Literature”. I was introduced to Kriloff’s fables through a work that mentioned a Russian monk who spoke highly of them. Fr. Seraphim Rose was well-known for encouraging this, and even listened to classical music himself. I believe that one of the Optina Elders used a story from Rider Haggard as an example, although I would have to double-check the books on that one. I may be mixing up cases.
        Perhaps these are all outlying cases. Fr. Lawrence could speak to this issue better than I.

        1. I quite agree that in our search for truth and nourishment we need not confine ourselves to whatever we happen to find in contemporary culture. Indeed, we are heir to a tremendous treasure here in the west, and there are new treasures to be found even today. Part of accepting the world as a gift and living sacramentally includes rejoicing in the good things in our culture whenever we find them. Confining our diet to the strictly religious is the way to a kind of culty sectarianism and pathology. The way forward is to become discerning, not fearful.

      2. North American Expat,

        Father Stephen F wrote recently of a young man who was preparing to become either a Priest or a Monk (sorry, can’t recall which). This man asked his Bishop what he should read to prepare. The Bishop replied: “Classic literature.” So I guess there are differences of opinion on the matter.
        I’m sorry, to proclaim that listening to classical music is harmful is flat out silly. Classical music is timeless and beautiful and we should celebrate things that are beautiful. God created beauty and beauty points us to God. When I stand on the shoreline of an ocean or lake, or view a beautiful snow capped peak, or listen to a great piece of classical music…all of those things are things of beauty and I always end up praising the Triune God for this beauty that God created.

  5. North American expat,

    I see your point about a fallacy. It might have seemed that I was saying that things written in earlier times were necessarily more Christian. I am sorry that I was unclear.

    You are correct that cultural products from earlier eras are not necessarily more Christian. However, there may be certain respects in which this is safer. In particular:

    (1) If Fr. Lawrence is correct, then those atmospheres were somewhat less damaging than the contemporary atmosphere.
    (2) There has been time to sift a lot of bad stuff out, or at least to identify it as harmful.

    I was not really taking a stand on whether we need to imbibe cultural products or not. I was assuming, for the sake of argument, that Fr. Lawrence is correct and we will need cultural products from time to time. My point was that if he is correct, our options are not limited to contemporary products or nothing. There are also things from the past that have been carefully sifted.

  6. As a musician, I support Fr. Lawrence’s view on becoming discerning, not fearful. There is some not advisable classical music, e.g. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, at least for anyone who wants to know its lyrics’ content, which is quite humanistic (in the eighteenth century enlightement’s sence)… And even amongst the works of a single composer like J.S. Bach, some of his Cantatas speak of protestant doctrines, which of course doesn’t forbide us (in my view) to apreciate all the rest of his musically genious works.

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