Troubled Water

I am preparing Margaret Bonds' "Troubled Water" for performance at the Katherine L. White Invitational, and in doing so I have been reflecting on the words of the spiritual she quotes in the work:

Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God's gonna trouble the water

The lyrics seem to be a direct reference to this passage in the Bible: “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 ”(John 5:2-4, KJV)

Water figured in the physical healing of the man in this passage in John. But the song also contains refrains that reference the Jordan River, Moses, and the Israelites. Water is often pictured in the Bible as a way of deliverance: the Israelites passed over the Red Sea as they fled the Egyptians, and then they crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land.

It is hard to put into words how all of this works out musically in "Troubled Water," but I believe there is significance in the repetition: three times the children of Israel are asked to "wade in the water." The water is definitely symbolic of deliverance, but more than that, I believe it has something to do with the very presence, promise, and provision of God. Wading in the water is the act of putting one's faith in God, no matter what - even when He troubles the water! 

Life contains many trials, and the Jewish people have experienced much persecution and suffering over the years. Slaves in America also experienced persecution and suffering (In fact, it is said that Harriet Tubman sang this song to warn slaves in the Underground Railroad to get off the trail and into the water to avoid being discovered). There are times when we, too, must go through very difficult seasons of life where we experience suffering. But the message is still the same: Wade in the water. (Did you hear it?) Wade in the water. (One more time!) Wade in the water. 

It is as if we need the reminder several times so that we can gather up our courage and take that step of faith to put our feet in the water and trust that God will deliver us through, or from, our troubles. 

You will hear the initial theme return almost verbatim in the second half of the piece. I wonder if this is the same call, different response: Whereas the first call is to act in faith and the response is hesitation, the second call is perhaps met with courage and resolve, resulting in victory in the final moment.

That Margaret Bonds is able to capture the intensity of the faith struggle, as well as the physical suffering and doubt and testing, and then end it in victory - all in five minutes' worth of music - is an incredible feat, and one I am privileged to work through. If you can't come to the concert, I hope you will at least take a minute to listen to this wonderful piece.