The water in the cooler was too hot. It was evident that I, once again, could not do anything correctly. It didn’t matter that New Orleans was under a water boil advisory and I had been boiling water for this cooler since 6:00AM to make sure that those visiting the abbey had safe drinking water. I had not bought enough ice to cool it down, and therefore validated his frequently-voiced opinion that I know nothing about working at the abbey.
I was so frustrated. Each morning I bring him coffee and water. Throughout the day I give him snacks every time he asks. Day-after-day I nurture the garden that produces a harvest that goes directly to his plate. I show him love and respect and dignity.
And yet he mutters under his breath that I can’t do anything right.
I know he has experiences that I cannot even begin to imagine and that he suffers from mental illnesses that I’ve never encountered. I know that his response to everything is, “No, that wasn’t me,” or “No, I don’t like that.” I also know that he loves and is incredibly loyal to the abbey – he has proven that to me time and time again. But even knowing those things, I sometimes cannot keep up my tough facade and convince myself that it doesn’t hurt to be made to feel like my acts of love and service mean nothing.
So, I sat down and said, “I’m doing the devotion now. You’re welcome to join me.”
“I ain’t need no prayer.”
I started turning to the day’s devotion, and slowly, he sat down across from me. When I look up at him with a wary smile, he said, “Well ain’t you gonna pray? I ain’t got all day.”
I read the prayer, we talked about prayer requests, and then I asked if he knew the song for the day. He said, “No,” so I sang what I could recall of the refrain, though it wasn’t much.
“You don’t know nothin’ about church. You ain’t know that song.” He joined me, not with the same song, but with Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
I asked if that was his favorite hymn and he said, “No, Wade in the Water.”
So, then we sang Wade in the Water. Did we know all the verses? No. Did the verses I found online match what he knew? No. Did we continue to sing for 10 minutes, only in sync during the refrain? YES.
And then he left the abbey, acting aloof, like the moment had impacted him not-at-all. But I heard him later, walking through the streets of Pigeon Town, singing his own version of Wade in the Water for all to enjoy.
It wasn’t a long moment, or one incredibly exciting, but it was one that provided me a sense of re-nourishment and understanding. To vocalize companionship and appreciation is truly a vulnerable act, especially when one is living a life where they are used to being their own watchdog and advocate. In singing Wade in the Water, God provided us the opportunity to share a worshipful experience where we were both able to express and feel the love we have for each other, despite the frustrations. We were able to worship together, but we were also able to sing (the refrain) together, breathing in the same places, creating one heartbeat – unity, surpassing words unspoken.
When preparing for this blogpost, I was reminiscing the moments I spent belting Wade in the Water in the deepest voice I could manage while preparing meals with my youth group in my church kitchen at home. See, it’s also one of my favorite hymns. But I’d never taken the time to interpret it’s meaning. Delving deeper this afternoon, I learned that the phrase, “God’s gonna trouble the waters” means that God is with us in the ups and downs and will heal us from what is causing us pain and hardship… Specifically, when written, it was a message of hope for the enslaved. This well-known spiritual references a number of Bible passages – this line specifically references John 5:2-9 where those with diseases and injuries would wade in a pool and an angel of the Lord would “trouble the waters” in order to heal them and make them whole. (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-wade-in-the-water)
I realize that my frustrations about feeling like none of my actions were acknowledged or appreciated is no comparison to the hardship and pain caused by enslavement or disease, but I do find it beautiful that my spirits were lifted and my frustrations were eased by this song that carries a message of hope, healing, and deliverance. In fact, God troubled the waters that day at the abbey by turning my heart back toward him rather than on selfish feelings of fulfillment.