In the book of Ruth, Naomi very early on requests no longer to be called "Naomi." Rather, she insists that others begin to call her "Mara," which means bitter. No one does, and she is continued to be called Naomi throughout the book, but this bitter word she has chosen for herself has deeper meaning than even Naomi tells us.
It would not have taken much of a stretch of the imagination for ancient Israel to have caught on.
See, Marah was the name of one of the first stops of the people of Israel on their way out of Egypt. It was a place where there was water to drink, but the water was so bitter that they could not drink it. It was one of the first places, therefore, where the people grumbled against their God, asking why He brought them out into the desert to die. And it was one of the first places that God showed His incredible power along their journey, tossing a tree/branch into the water and making it sweet enough to drink.
As soon as Naomi uttered the word, all of Israel would have known exactly what she was talking about.
Naomi wasn't talking about being bitter herself; she wasn't identifying how she felt in response to all that had happened to her (her husband and two sons had all died in a foreign land, where she was left with her two daughters-in-law and a bunch of strangers and no hope of having any more children of her own). She wasn't talking about how she reacted to all of this, and she wasn't warning others to stay away from her because she was bitter.
She was talking about how she felt better at her very core, like waters that could not be swallowed. Anything and everything that she had to offer had turned sour, and if anyone came dipping at her well, they would find that she had nothing life-giving left to give. She had nothing refreshing to offer. Not because she was busy being bitter and miserable about the whole thing, but because the very depths of her life experience had turned unpalatable.
Do not come and drink from my well, she was saying. There is nothing here for you. You will be disappointed if you think I have anything good to offer you any more.
Perhaps she was hoping that others might pick up her cause and grumble against God for her, asking why He would take such a sweet, giving, generous woman and bitter her well until she had nothing to offer, why He would take everything that she was and make it of no use at all to the people she loved most - His people, ironically. Perhaps she was picking up her cause herself. We know that she was. Grumbling against God for these very reasons.
Not, again, because she became a bitter old woman but because everything good in her life had turned sour and there was nothing left to nourish her in this barren place where she was all alone and a stranger in a strange land.
But what Mara also suggests in so naming herself is that there is still hope, there is still a small glimmer of something, but it's going to take an act of God. She hasn't completely given up; if she had, there were other names she could have called herself. "Empty." "Dead." "Done." But she calls herself "Bitter," in no small part because in this story of the water is also her story of hope.
All it would take is one act of God, one life-giving act of God, one flick of God's wrist to throw something living into the bitter water, and her life would once more become sweet enough to drink. It would again become nourishing. Refreshing. Vital.
And isn't that what we see as the story goes on? It is, indeed. Naomi goes home. Her daughter-in-law goes with her. At Naomi's leading, Ruth winds up in the field of her kinsman-redeemer, who not only provides food for her and her mother-in-law, but takes them in and gives to Ruth a family, to Naomi a new heir/son to take the place of those lost, and not only that, but a line in the genealogy of Jesus Himself.
All that with just one move of life, just one toss of redemption into the mix.
Just as He'd done at Marah.
Bitter waters, indeed.