March 26, 2023 ~ Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
“Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s gonna’ trouble the water.” I love that Spiritual! I am so thankful that the Festival Chimes played it for us this morning. If you are familiar with this Spiritual, which happens to be in our Faith We Sing Hymnal, then like me, you likely had the lyrics going through your mind, too. “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s gonna’ trouble the water.”
I was pretty young when I was first exposed to this Spiritual, and did not yet understand it’s connection with a specific scripture passage. You see, I knew that most Spirituals, were like the folk songs of slaves: songs of lament, sorrow, longing, and hope. Spirituals were also used to teach folks about the Bible. And water was an important image in the African American spiritual. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” is a song that finds hope on the other side of the river. “Go Down, Moses” is a spiritual of deliverance in which Pharoah’s armies were drowned in the sea. Africans began their captivity – the “middle passage” – by traveling across the ocean to a new land in slave ships. The Ohio River was the dividing line between slavery and freedom, often accessed along the Underground Railroad.
But why, why would this Spiritual glorify “God’s gonna’ the water?” I don’t believe that God tests us, but rather journeys with us through life’s most challenging times. Why would one want God to trouble the water? Then I came across John 5:2-9, which begins: “Now in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, there is a pool with five porticoes; its Hebrew name is Bethesda. The place was crowded with sick people – those who were blind, lame or paralyzed—lying there waiting for the water to move. An angel of God would come down to the pool from time to time, to stir up the water, the first one to step into the water after it had been stirred up would be completely healed.’
Believers were hoping that God would trouble the water so that another suffering one would be miraculously healed! “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s gonna’ trouble the water.” Though that gospel passage defines the context of the refrain, the verses refer to other Biblical passages where water plays a significant role: The crossing of the Red Sea as the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt on their way to the Promised Land, and the promise from the prophet Isaiah (repeated by Jesus in his first sermon), that we are to proclaim that the captives will be set free. So much hope in a loving God, expressed in so few words.
It is also believed that Harriet Tubman, who made several trips to the South and helped free more than 70 people in the mid-19th century, used this song along the journey. This song was used as code for the slaves to get off the trail and into the water. Slavers used dogs to find escaped slaves, and water helped hide their scent. Since blacks were often known to sing, white people wouldn’t be alarmed hearing it.
Howard Thurman said, “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.”
During his earthly ministry, Jesus was often in the midst of turmoil, conflict, and rejection. As we are drawing closer to Holy Week, we are increasingly aware that soon we will remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice ~ his willingness to be excruciatingly executed because of his love for us. In our scripture text from Mark 12, Jesus had been engaged in a “debate,” a dispute, an argument, a theological conversation with the Sadducees over the belief in the resurrection. But the scribe in this pericope evidently agreed with Jesus. Having lived his life following the 613 laws of the Torah (Old Testament), he inquired with Jesus about the “foremost of all the commandments.”
Jesus replied citing Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the standard daily prayer for dedicated, unequivocal, love of and devotion to God. Then he adds Leviticus 19:18, “Love for neighbor.” One could surmise that in Jesus’ theological understanding, love for others elucidates most clearly one’s love for God. The scribe agreed.
Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas very succinctly reminds us of Jesus’ development of these commandments when she mentions that “Jesus calls us to love even our enemies.” And she admits that she wrestles with that calling in the face of racist violence, systemic racism, and implicit bias.
She reasons that “the love of God as revealed in Jesus, who is nothing less than the perfect incarnate manifestation of God’s love in the world, is a ‘dynamic transcendent force’ that moves through human history. God enters into the ‘messiness’ of human reality to show forth the meaning of God’s love. … [Jesus] reflects a God entering into solidarity with humanity – taking on the human struggle in all of its complexities in order to show the way toward God’s just future, what Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and Martin Luther King, Jr. called the ‘Beloved Community.’ This is a way of love. The full measure of God’s incarnate love is found in the cross.”
And the way of the cross leads to the power of the resurrection. As those who believe in resurrection power, we may be living in the hope that “God will trouble the water” and all will be healed: all relationships, all past wrongs, all systems that still oppress, all prejudices that result in violent oppression. But there is still a role for us, as we need to be actively engaged in partnering with God to realize the healing power of the troubled waters. The passage from John 5 goes on to tell us that one sick person had been sitting beside the pool by the Sheep Gate for 38 years! Jesus asked the person if he wanted to be healed, to which he replied, “Rabbi, I don’t have anyone to put me into the pool once it had been stirred up.”
How many are sitting so close to deliverance and have no one to help them into the healing pool? How long, how long will they need to wait for us to love our neighbors as ourselves?” If we were in that place, would we not be praying, yearning, hoping for loving deliverance, justice, liberation?
We have learned what it means to be Stone catchers, Outcast oriented, and Unburdened. Now, let’s practice LOVING, radically loving, until we get it right and all can testify to Christ’s resurrection power. Amen.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, Resurrection Hope, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, ©2021, p. 121.