Many years ago Simon and Garfunkel sang a song about a “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” What a blessing it would be to find a bridge over troubled waters! But there is another song, an old spiritual that says something quite different, something far less appealing, something calling for courage. The song says, “Wade in the water children! God’s gonna trouble the water!”
What strange advice! And yet it is rooted in deep biblical tradition, and like so many biblical themes it is rich in paradox. Truth be told, God often troubled the water in biblical times and his troubling of the water usually evoked fear and bewilderment. It challenged God’s people to step out in faith and trust, to wade into troubled waters. And guess what? There was always a blessing on the other shore. But first you had to wade in, first you had to trust God.
And there is this additional feature, (almost as though God were giving us something with which to float to safety). God doesn’t just bring the blessing through troubled waters, but rather through wood and water. It is not water only, but wood and water. Maybe you know where I am going with this but for now just wade in the water with Jesus on this the feast of his Baptism watch how wood and water work wonders!
First let’s consider some of the following Biblical examples of this tradition of wood and troubled waters bringing blessing.
- Cleansing Flood– One of the most terrifying stories of the ancient world is the flood. The world had grown so wicked and sin so multiplied that God concluded he must literlly wash it clean. And you think its bad now! God went to a man named Noah and told him that He was going to trouble the waters and that Noah had to be ready. Build an Ark of Gopher wood Noah! Now this was not a small project. The Ark was the length of one and a half football fields (150 yards), it was 75 feet wide and 45 feet tall. Now you have to really trust God to do all that work. And then gather the animals two pairs of unclean animals, 7 pairs of clean animals. More trust more time and lots of wood. But then God troubled the waters and the waters of the flood made an end of wickedness and a new beginning of goodness. From troubled waters came a blessing. But first Noah had to wade on in. Through the wood of the ark and water God worked wonders! (cf Gen 6-9)
- Trouble at the Red Sea– Pharaoh had relented and the people were leaving Egypt for the Promised Land. But fickle Pharaoh has once again changed his mind and pursues them. With the Red Sea before them and Pharaoh behind them the people were struck with fear. But God would win through for them. How? By troubling the waters: God told Moses to take up the wooden staff and to trouble the waters with these words: And you lift up your staff and with hand outstretched over the sea, split the sea in two… So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. (Ex 14:16, 21) Now you and I know the end of the story but the people that day did not. With water like two walls on either side they had to go forth, they had to wade, if you will, in the waters. They had to trust God that the waters would hold. And God brought them through and they went out of slavery and into freedom. Are you noticing a pattern? God troubles the water and there is a blessing that follows. But you gotta wade, you gotta trust that with God, wood and water work wonders. The wooden staff and troubled waters bring forth freedom.
- Trouble in the Desert – It is a fine thing to be free but thirst has a way of making itself known. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet (Ex 15:23) So once again, God troubled the waters, called the people to trust and there came forth blessing! And God did it through wood and water. The wood of the tree and the troubled waters of that spring brought the blessing of survival.
- More Trouble in the Desert! But yet again as they journeyed further more thirst. And God said to Moses: Go over in front of the people holding in your hand as you go the staff with which you struck the sea, …Strike the rock and the water will flow from it for the people to drink. (Ex 17:5-6). From troubled waters came forth blessing. With God, wood and water work wonders. The wood of the staff troubled those waters and they came forth with the blessing that preserved life in the desert. St. Paul would later say that they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:4)
- At the River Jordan– After forty years of wandering in the desert the Israelites are finally ready to enter the promised land. But the Jordan is in flood stage, impossible to cross. But once again God had a plan and was going to trouble those waters. He instructed Joshua to have the priests place the ark on their shoulders and wade in the water. Now the Ark was a box made of Acacia wood and covered in gold. In it were the tables of the Law, the staff of Aaron and a ciborium of the manna. The also knew and believed that the very presence of God was carried in that ancient wooden box, even as in our tabernacles today: And when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap far off people passed over opposite Jericho (Joshua 3:15) So again, God troubled the waters and the promised Land was reached. And how did God do it? Wood and water work wonders! The wooden box of the ark troubled the waters and they parted bringing the blessing of the promised land.
OK, we’re almost done. Today is the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus wades in the water. But the Baptism of John can’t bring blessing it can only symbolize repentance and point to blessing. Why can’t it bring blessing? No wood, at least not yet. But Jesus whom Isaiah called a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Is 11:1) will soon enough take up an old rugged wooden cross and and trouble the waters of his own body and soul and from those troubled waters flowing from his wounded side on the wood of the cross will come forth the greatest blessings of all: salvation, cleansing, holiness, adoption, membership in the Body of Christ, a heavenly inheritance, a transformed life, Grace upon Grace and the very gift of the Holy Spirit. Listen to how John describes the troubled waters of baptism coming forth from the side of Christ:
When [the soldiers] came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:33-37)
John wants to make sure you know that it wasn’t only blood that came from his side but also water. And that water is the water of our baptism and the giving the Holy Spirit (cf John 7:37-39) And what water was more troubled than these waters? Who ever suffered more than Jesus? And these waters bring blessing because they are troubled and because of the wood of the cross. These waters still flow in your baptism and mine. When we were baptized, God troubled the waters of the font and they brought forth blessing by the power of the cross. You see, wood and water work wonders. So wade in the water Children, (don’t build a bridge over it!) God’s gonna trouble the waters! And by the wood of the cross he’ll see you through.
22 Replies to “Wood and Water Work Wonders!”
wow… awesome, just no one jump off any temples;)! Liked it!
Of the five reflections on this liturgy this weekend, and all were excellent, this one was tops. Thanks again, and I still don’t know how you crank out all this good stuff!
Ah Hermeneutics again. Yes we are given troubled waters; and the crossing can be difficult. Is not a bridge, in a classical sense, at least, usually thought of as being made of wood? The wooden arch of Noah helped to carry them over the troubled waters, as over a bridge, to a new life. The wooden staff of Moses, was placed before, and touched the rock, releasing the water in one case. Did not that provide a kind of bridge. I cannot go through all of the fine example you gave. But the important one is the Cross of the Crucifixion. An we not look on this wooden cross, as the bridge provided by the atonement, which allows us the hope of salvation? Are we not asked to carry our crosses? Are we not told that this should be a joyous task, and not something taken in default of our need to cross the troubled waters of life. But this cross, is the wooden bridge to our salvation. Like, Jesus, I am asked to carry my cross. I too need to bear my cross in life, and like him, lay my bridge down, in order to cross over the troubled waters. Like a bridge over troubled waters, I will lay (me- my troubles) down. I will bear my cross with gratitude.
Well it’s just a homily so I see no need to insist on the image I chose to use. I guess my point was more to say that I’ll choose the advice of a spiritual over a pop song any day. S & G say bridge, the spiritual says wade. So I’ll wade. The image of Jesus today in the baptism was one of wading too. These are the influences to my choice. Bridges aren’t bad though and if you want to make a bridge out of the examples that’s fine. But as for your cross being a sufficient bridge, I don’t think so, It’s not about your cross/bridge it is about Jesus’ Bridge which alone is sufficient. I understand what you are saying but just think that point must be clear too. Jesus is the only pontifex maximus with a bridge capable of getting us over.
Just making sense of what for me was a ‘spiritual’ folk song, which affected me deeply when I was younger. I liked the image of the cross laying on top of the troubled water, though. No offence!
I didn’t make it clear that the Cross of the Crucifixion was the bridge providing the atonement. The crosses I carry are in response to that. I wade into the water, carrying my cross. I think both spiritual and folk song are really saying the same thing. My apologies.
Thanks Loreen, You are right, that was and is a beautiful song and your interpretation of it is very nice. I appreciate you letting me homilize on it. As with any homily (and this article was my sermon notes for Sunday) the preacher “plays with” and “works” a theme. THere is a little edginess that helps a homily along and the intenet is to make people think. In this case I was playing off the theme of Jesus wading in the water. But I too meant no offense. God Bless you.
Here is the source of the misunderstanding. (just came back from coffee while thinking this over)An we not look on this wooden cross, as the bridge provided by the atonement, which allows us the hope of salvation?
I should have said – Can we not look on this Wooden Cross, as the Brtidge providing the Atonement, which allows us the hope of salvation? Are we (also) not asked to carry our crosses? Also But this cross, is the wooden bridge to our salvation. should read, But Christ’s Cross, is the wooden bridge to our salvation.
I emphasized the ‘bridge’ aspect, because I intuited that this is what you found disagreeable with the folksong, and made the spiritual superior, because in that one’s actually gets involved with the troubled water by ‘wading in it’. I was merely attempting to explicate the metaphorical meaning behind the similie in the song, by drawing on your awareness that there was always wood as well as water in the fine examples you gave. The presence of the wood was what I was hoping to explicate. Anyway, as you say these are words; to actually fact our difficulties in life is one of the ways that we wade through the troubled waters of life. I am grateful that I have Christ’s bridge to help me get across. God Bless.
The above comment is still not complete, because I haven’t related it properly to ‘wading into the water’. So I went out for another coffee – it’s been an ‘expensive morning’, but I really must thank you for making for me the need to clarify my thinking, which may be one of the purposes that you want to achieve with this blog.
The priest on Sunday asked us why Christ would want/need to be baptized, since he is God. He then left this topic and went on to talk about the Holy Ghost’s descent. He talked about that soft, quiet voice, (like a dove) which we often mistake for our own, and told us to listen to it, for it may be the Voice of the Holy Spirit. So I was pondering this at the cafe, and if nothing else came to appreciate why the Virgin Mary is always spoken about as pondering what is happening to her. To answer the priest’s question, in my own way, (not to confuse the human and the Divine here!) maybe Christ was baptized so that the Holy Ghost would descend, and the voice of God would announce the Unity of the Trinity. Just my thoughts here. And therefore, Jesus, waded into the water, in order to be Baptized. From my own limited perspective, before I can lay myself down, and even presume I can be the bridge for my earthly troubles, I, like you said, have first to wade into the water. Like Christ did. There, of course, the comparison stops. But I thank you for almost making it necessary to rethink and clarify my thoughts. I am deeply appreciative. (will check for typos before submitting – I’m learning) I hope this has a modicum of grace/beauty, so that it approaches in some way closer to the Truth, at least for me. Thanks, again.
Interesting! Thanks Monsignor.
(Whenever I think of someone wading in, in trust, I think of Mother Angelica.
And didn’t she bring blessings:)
Yes she had a lot to endure!
addendum: I forgot to say she started out selling only fishing lures – (Close to water!)
Good day Monsignor. Based on my limited knowledge in the bible & from my personal experiences, it is true that God`s blessings are many times accompanied by challenges & sacrifices. Most of us know that sometimes we have to wade in life`s troubled water to make us a better person. Just like in the military, it`s hard to become an excellent General if you don`t have considerable battle experience. One thing is sure , God is faithful and He said I will never forsake you or abandon you . Best regards.
Kind of amazing that you missed what the reference to “God’s going to trouble the waters” was about in the song. The Angel of the Lord troubled the waters at the pool of Bethesda so the people seeking healing from the waters could be healed. They were only healed when then got in at the time that the Angel of the Lord troubled- stirred the waters. Now go re-read that passage.
Why the hostility Cinzia? It seems rather strange given the nature of the post. At any rate I did not use the passage of the pool of siloam for a couple of reasons. 1. There was no wood involved and you may have noticed I used only passages where there was a combination of wood and water. 2. The man in that story never makes it into the water. Jesus just heals him without recourse to the water. Hence your theory that this is the root of the spiritual may be misplaced. Granted the angel stirs up the water but the people don’t wade in they dive in or are put in as quickly as possible to be the first in. Kinda like musical chairs. I have no need to re-read the passage as far as I can tell since I did not fail to notice it but it did not make the cut for the reasons I stated: no wood and no water.
Great homily! I think I get it – by building a bridge we would be taking “the easy way out” of the troubled waters. I have a funny story involving a horse I was training this summer. Sammy is a big grey Thoroughbred gelding terrified of a 3 inch deep stream on the trail. There is a bridge across the stream for leaders to walk next to the horses. Sammy decided it would be a good idea for him to cross the bridge rather than cross the stream, scaring his leader (the bridge is not designed to hold a horse’s weight). Basically, how I had to work with Sammy was to get in the water with him and show him it was ok. He’s a smart horse – if I were him I probably would have chosen bridge over wading, too.
My point is that a lot of us probably choose a bridge over wading. Maybe we don’t face our problems the way we should. Maybe by going across a bridge in one way or another we are avoiding or not entirely facing the problem. I am definitely guilty of this. Sometimes by avoiding my feelings or the problem I think it will go away, only to find that the problem is still there or has gotten worse when I do decide to face it. Like Sammy, avoiding the stream meant it was still there for me to face later. Maybe for us to wade in the stream (face our problems/issues), we need someone to help us like I had to help Sammy.
Thanks, Katherine. That really clarifies for me the appropriate negative reaction to the S.&.G. lyric, for it implicates a metaphor. I am still investigating this. But I think scripture is far more direct (and consequently more real) that a merely aesthetic approach. So I would have to conclude on this aspect that the folksong is not scriptural writing. I do, however, want to study more on this and would want to clarify this distinction. But sometimes metaphor can have a very influential, and yes, even spiritual effect on one; if and when the metaphor is appropriate, or if it ‘connects’ for one. Actually, the laying down, could be thought to have sexual overtones. I didn’t want to mention that, but as well as with the bridge allusion, (you lay down in order to create a bridge) it has always been another possibie interpretation that I have been aware of. The song did help me, back then, though, so I’ve always been grateful to S. & G. Thank you, both of you.
Addendum: Being a bridge entails making a sacrifice in some way, is implied in the ‘good’ interpretation. That was the connection for me, with the Cross. Isn’t this interesting, how there can be almost opposite meanings in different interpretations! Also. You lay your life down for a friend. That kind of thought.
You are welcome, Loreen. That is just how I interpret the song, and this post. I tend to look at things in accordance with our world today. When I am reading scripture, I often think about how it can apply to our world today. My views are open though….while I have an opinion on things, I am open to correction and change.
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