God’s gonna trouble the water.

Our Wednesday Chancel Bells are playing in worship this Sunday, a fun and challenging version of “Wade in the Water” arranged by Benjamin Tucker.

Recently, I did some research into the background of the song (which, by the way, can be found in The Faith We Sing at #2107) and it’s very cool.

Wade in the water, wade in the water, children;
wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

There are 2 major aspects of the history of this spiritual: contextual and scriptural.

Water is an important image in the African American spiritual because of their lived experiences: their captivity began with a journey across an ocean to a new land in slave ships; later, for the Underground Railroad the Ohio River was the dividing line between slavery and freedom. Water is also an important visual throughout the Bible, so as Biblical narratives and allusions were embedded in spirituals, it’s natural that water came to have both a personal and a biblical meaning in these songs. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” (Songs of Zion, 115) is a song that finds hope on the other side of the river. “Go Down, Moses” (Songs of Zion, 112) is a spiritual of deliverance in which Pharaoh’s armies were drowned in the sea.

This particular spiritual, thematically centered around water, bases its text directly on several different scripture passages. The first two verses are based on the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, Exodus 14:21-31, and the deliverance of the Israelites.

See that host all dressed in white,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
The leader looks like the Israelite,
God’s a gonna trouble the water. (Refrain)

See that band all dressed in red,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
Looks like the band that Moses led,
God’s a gonna trouble the water. (Refrain)

The third stanza may refer to Isaiah 61:1 (KJV) and its assertion of empowerment and freedom found in faith:

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

Look over yonder, what do I see?
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
The Holy Ghost a-coming on me,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.

The final stanza refers to another body of water mentioned throughout the Old Testament: the Jordan River, which was of significant importance as a landmark of deliverance and hope in the African American experience. Numbers 32:29 (KJV) is one example of a scripture to which this stanza could refer:

“And Moses said unto them, If the children of Gad and the children of Reuben will pass with you over Jordan, every man armed to battle, before the Lord, and the land shall be subdued before you; then ye shall give them the land of Gilead for a possession.”

If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.
Just follow me down to Jordan’s stream,
God’s a gonna trouble the water.

But my favorite scriptural reference in this hymn is not found within the verses. The refrain, quoted at the top of the post, is based upon the narrative of John 5:2-9 (KJV):

“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.”

Howard Thurman (1899-1981), dean of the Chapel at Howard University, offered this interpretation:

“For [the slaves] the ‘troubled waters’ meant the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of life. Within the context of the ‘troubled’ waters of life there are healing waters, because God is in the midst of the turmoil.”

Though African American spirituals were born in the pain, oppression, and struggle of a particular people, they have become songs for all people. Thurman’s conclusion is a message for all of us:

“Do not shrink from moving confidently out into the choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.”

Let’s use Thurman’s conclusion as our prayer this week: God, please trouble our waters, and give us the courage to move confidently out into those choppy seas.

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