“On (and Under) the Water”
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
[As Peter saw Jesus walking on the surface of the water, he called out,] “Lord, if it is really you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught onto him, saying to him, “O ‘Little-faith,’ why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:28-31)
Our summer of stories from Matthew’s Gospel continues. This weekend we hear one of the most memorable (and weird) episodes from the life of Christ -- the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee. And I believe this story has much to teach us about the walk of faith and following, and about how Christ meets us on (and under) the water.
The story’s setting is an important starting point. Having just fed the multitude with bread and fish, Jesus finally gets the chance for the “alone time” he had been seeking after learning of the death of John the Baptizer. He sends the disciples ahead in a fishing boat, and remains behind to pray through that night in the solitary hills just north of the Sea of Galilee. So these expert fishermen set out by boat that night, probably heading back to Capernaum or one of the other towns on the Northwest shores of the sea.
And traversing that sea at night is the beginning of their problems. Strong winds often blow from the West, from the Mediterranean Sea, swooping down across the hills around Cana, Nazareth and Sepphoris, making that body of water really treacherous and unpredictable, back in Jesus’ time and still today. Rainstorms pop up without much warning, tranquil waters become fierce whitecaps, and a nice night of sailing can suddenly bring you within an inch of your life -- even if you’ve spent your whole life seafaring there. And that’s just what happens. The waves kick up, and the sailors experience a fierce headwind, that puts them at total risk of shipwreck and drowning in the dark, deep waters of the Galilee.
After a terrifying night of battling violent winds and deadly currents, and just as light begins to dawn to the East, they see the last thing they’d ever have expected – Jesus walking across the surging waves toward their capsizing boat! Note from Matthew’s telling that they don’t even believe the figure striding toward them across the spray is actually Jesus. “It’s a ghost!” they cry out, certain that their predicament has been made immeasurably more scary by the appearance of some sort of demonic spectre walking toward them. Like most ancient mariners, they believed the sea to be the habitat of monsters, demons and spirits, and surely they would be in the clutches of supernatural enemies any second. Yikes!
Jesus, knowing his students and aware of the superstitions of his community, reassures them. “Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid!”
And here’s where the story takes an even more strange turn. Peter, never one to think first and speak later, cries out, “If it’s really you, Lord, call to me to come to you on the water!” Now, this challenge confuses me every time I hear it. What is Peter up to? Is this a challenge from the Big Fisherman, to confirm that this is truly his Teacher? Is Peter doing what he so often does as the First among the disciples – pulling rank? Or is he just so fearful of the prospect of drowning out there in the storm that he wants out – even if it means leaving his colleagues to steer the ship, bail the boat, or collectively go to Davy Jones’ Locker while he escapes in the grasp of the Master? You’ll have to decide, because the story doesn’t get inside his head in this amazing moment. Jesus simply says, “Come on!”
And, stepping off the ship, Peter the Savior’s Apprentice, does just that. He walks on the surface of the sea as well! Get your mind around this moment, especially from the vantage point of the other disciples. “There goes Peter!” they may have thought. Maybe Thomas is thinking, “Okay, me next!” Or perhaps Bartholomew wonders if, once again, the Big Guy is pulling rank while the rest of them are left to drown. Either way, Peter heads off to Jesus, while the others remain to watch, in amazement and wonder, as their imminent demise freezes them in terror.
Peter, at this moment, experiences what any of us do, who dare to step out of the boat in our own lives. Maybe it’s that moment when you dare to pray for a miracle cure when no cure seems likely. Perhaps it’s the impulse to be daring in Christ’s service, when all your instincts and prior training tell you that things won’t go well. Or maybe it’s when that still small voice calls you to soar like eagles, when the doubter in you just wishes that you had brought your water wings.
Peter, we are told, feels the strong wind in his face. I imagine him taking stock of the fierce waves, the howling wind, and the very real prospect of his imminent death. He takes his eyes off Christ, and notes the dreads and dangers all around. And, he begins to sink.
And that’s the moment I want us to focus upon, any of us who would wish to take Christ at his word and at his promise. Because to meet Jesus on the water is also to meet him under it as well. In our baptism we are reminded that our Savior awaits us not only in the successes and victories of life, but in the fearful and deadly places as well. As our courage wanes, and our fears surge like stormy seas, he grabs ahold of us. Not just when we’re brave and resolute, but also when our braggadocio gives way to fear and desperation.
Peter will learn this too, and not only on the sea on that day of miracles and rescue. He will learn it during Holy Week, when his assertions that, “Even if everyone else turns tail and runs, I will never deny you,” morphs into, “Damn it anyway, I never met the man!” In the howl of wind and wave, and in the crowing of the rooster, Peter learns what we all learn at length. We are little else than “Little-faith.”
And that’s when Jesus becomes more than our religious “Swim Coach.” That’s when our frail confidence meets not merely a Teacher on the surface, but a Savior – there for us as our knees buckle, our courage wanes, and we sink beneath the waves. That’s the One we meet at the Cross, when all is lost and every other rescue has flagged and failed. That’s when, “Lord, guide me,” and “Lord, direct me,” becomes the only prayer that finally ever matters: “Lord, save me!”
And save Peter he does, grasping his sinking hand and pulling him up from the sea -- even as he grabs us, whatever may be our moment of sinking and dismay. He catches hold of us in his Savior’s grip, suspended between the life we know, the death we fear, and the hope we barely know to whisper or howl. He grasps us when all else fails – when we fail – because that’s what a Savior does. Always and forever.
“Oh ‘Little-faith,’ why did you doubt?” Why? Because that’s what we frail humans do – fall and fail and lose hope. Just as he does what he always does – because of who he is, and because he so deeply understands what we are and what we do.
And, as he returns Peter to the boat, to his friends and his fellow faith-travelers, the Sea falls silent. The winds quit, the waves relax, and the fearsome squall becomes a tranquil lake once more. “Who is this,” the disciples wonder in their admiration, terror and confusion, “that even the wind and waves obey him?” Good question, and it won’t find its answer on that strange and frightful sea journey. It will find its answer on the Cross, in the dank silence of the Empty Tomb, and in the gift of the Spirit that will press them into the service of the Obedient One who commands death and loss to fall silent in his wake – as he offers life, peace and eternity to all.
See you at the Water this weekend, at the water which drowns the frightened and lost Adam in all of us. See you as we gather around the Word that declares our doubts and assures our forgiveness. See you at the Table that conquers our hunger and thirst, and calls us to be courageous in his service. See you as the “Little-faith’s” who we truly are, in the service of the “Great-faith” Lord who grasps us, rescues us, and sends us forth to serve, encourage and live!
With You in God’s Good Work,