Wade in the Water (Artful Devotion)

Hambling, Maggi_Wall of Water II
Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water II, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Then 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. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

—Exodus 14:19–31

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SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual

There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.

A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:

A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):

Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):

The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:

According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.

It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “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” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)

In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”

There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.

“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.

For other songs based on the this week’s lectionary reading from Exodus, see my coverage of “Carol of the Exodus” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

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Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).

Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water V, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 19, cycle A, click here.

Making Music in Quarantine

Here’s a quick roundup of some of the music videos and songs I’ve really enjoyed that have come about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He Will Carry You”: A song by Scott Wesley Brown performed by Zanbeni Prasad on lead vocals, with her husband Benny Prasad on guitar and her sister-in-law Aruni Prasad on backing vocals. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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“The Sun Will Rise”: One of The Brilliance’s early songs, from their 2010 self-titled album—sung here by Madison Cunningham [previously], Matt Maher, Liz Vice, Jayne Sugg, Tyler Chester, and David Gungor, with multiple contributing instrumentalists (see full list on YouTube).

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“Maren” (Have Mercy on Us): The First Lady of Ethiopia, Zinash Tayachew, sings a new gospel song whose Amharic title, ማረን, transliterated “Maren,” means “Have mercy on us,” a plea addressed to God. “Do not abandon us during this time when the world is terrorized by bad news,” she sings. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues, a new EP by David Benjamin Blower: One of my favorite singer-songwriters, from Birmingham, England. “Apocalyptic Lockdown Blues is a small oral history of a global pandemic,” Blower writes. “This is folk, rootsy and ambient, with sacred longings, poetry and politics, sung out of windows and accompanied by birdsong.”

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“A Celtic Prayer”: Produced by Jonathan Estabrooks, this video features the choir of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City singing a traditional Celtic blessing set to music by Barry Peters. It begins, “May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with you on the road.”

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Virtual May Morning 2020: May Day, May 1, is a public holiday in England, and for the past five hundred-plus years it has been an Oxford tradition to kick off the celebration at dawn by having the Choir of Magdalen College sing unaccompanied in the Renaissance style from the top of the college’s bell tower. Typically a crowd of thousands gathers for May Morning along High Street and on Magdalen Bridge, but this year the event was canceled due to COVID-19. However, Magdalen College pulled off a virtual choir! The boy choristers and lay clerks recorded their parts from home, under the direction of Mark Williams, which were combined in a video that was released online at 6 a.m. local time. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

The choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus,” a seventeenth-century Trinitarian hymn, and “Now Is the Month of Maying,” an English ballett (a light, dancelike part song similar to a madrigal) from 1595, about lads and lasses frolicking in the grass. The prayer in the middle is led by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Bowyer, dean of divinity. The actual church bells did ring out the hour like usual, with a celebratory chime following the performance (the chimes in the video were prerecorded).

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“Doxology”: One of the things I miss most about communal (in-person) worship is singing the Doxology together with my church family each week. As part of his “Covers from an Empty House” series, Ben Rector has posted a contemplative rendition at the piano, which captures the sense of both mourning and hope that so characterizes this global moment. [HT: TGC Arts & Culture Newsletter]

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“I Know Who Holds Tomorrow”: This song was written by Ira Stanphill in 1950 following a painful divorce. It’s covered here by The Petersens, a family gospel group from Missouri.

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Scott Avett [previously] has been posting #emptylivingroomconcert videos on Instagram since the beginning of the year—just him and his guitar (or banjo) and a sixty-second time limit. Here are a few. (He’s the writer of all these songs, I’m assuming.)

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