I noticed the man on the side of the street as I exited the off-ramp. He was limping back to the curb. The kind of limp where his hips lifted up and back down with mechanical precision. Up and down. Up and down. As if a lever had to be pushed with great force to propel his legs. He was thin, had a full head of brown hair, and wore a blue parka that had some smudges on it. From his back, he could have been any age. I tensed knowing the timing would sit me square in front of him. Proximity requires more acknowledgement; breathing in a possible piece of their reality.
As the man began to turn around, the stop light changed to green. I inched up waiting for other cars to turn left, and saw deep valleys of lines etched his weathered leather face. His eyes were blue and resigned, and somehow, time slowed and allowed my eyes to take in his landscape. Driving past, I turned my head to read his sign which he loosely held in only one hand off to his side.
“Hip replaced from colon cancer.”
I’m not altogether convinced there’s a way to explain this kind of moment in words. His limp and eyes made me believe his words. A friend asked, “What if it’s not true?” I thought for a moment, ready to argue how a downward spiral of insurance, job loss, and other misfortunes could easily lead someone there. But instead, I just said “Well, if it’s not, he’s still a too thin man on the side of the road clearly desperate for some kind of help.”
One of my favorite songs to hear at Christmas time isn’t a Christmas song, but the African American spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” It took on a whole new dimension for me when I heard it years ago at the The Lower Lights Christmas show. The version matters in my fondness, apparently.
I love the imagery of “wade in the water” and all that it evokes. One line however made me question why it was worded the way it was. “God’s gonna trouble the water” sounded a little like a vengeful God who concocts trials and waves. This season, after hearing it again, and still loving it, I read more about it.
In Howard Thurman’s book The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, he reminds that “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.”
Thurman goes on to say, “Do not shrink from moving confidently out into the choppy seas. Wade in the water, because God is troubling the water.” I’ve been dipping toes in.
The man on the street, who has a name, mother, and dreams I don’t know is definitely in choppy seas. Sometimes it seems people are pushed overboard and flailing to keep their head above water. I would feel forgotten. I wonder if in his sea he knows or feels God ‘troubling’ it? No doubt, as Thurman said, this man, and every person’s “hope rose and fell like the ebb and flow of the ocean tide.” It is all of us at some varying degree.
“When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
But the thing I keep coming back to is, we, I, have to wade into the water too. To buoy, smile, look at, give gloves to, just say hello- and when we can – do grand actions. But wading in is the little things too. Because as The Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, likes to remind us in her recipes, ‘make things the size of peas’, so they can become grand creations.
“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 5:4
May our season be full of reminders to serve in small and grand ways. With a spirit of compassion and hope. As deep as the sea.