Walking on Water
Ninth Sunday after Trinity Matthew 14:22-33
The background of the story is very simple. Jesus is on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is late in the day and Jesus has just performed the great miracle of feeding 5000 men with five loaves and two fish. After dismissing the crowd, he sends the disciples on ahead to the other side of the lake, telling them that he would meet them later, and goes away to pray.
So far, so good. As the disciples begin to sail across the lake, an enormous storm blows up. From the way the gospel writers tell the story, it seems as if the storm began around 8:00 p.m. and continued all night long. The disciples are in the boat struggling against the wind and the rain. After eight or nine exhausting hours, the disciples were stuck in the middle of the lake, drenched, chilled to the bone, weary to the point that they began to wonder if they would ever make it to shore alive.
We pick up Matthew’s story in verse 25: “During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.” By Roman reckoning, the “fourth watch” occurred between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. It was sometime during that three-hour period that Jesus began walking on the water.
When the disciples saw him walking on the water, they were terrified. Someone cried out, “It’s a ghost.” They were wrong, but it’s wasn’t a bad guess. After all, it’s not every day that you see someone taking a midnight stroll across a lake in the middle of a storm.
We can understand their fear. They’ve been rowing and getting nowhere, they just can’t make it to shore. It’s about 4 or 4:30 in the morning. They are dead tired, cold and waterlogged. Plus by this time they are probably grumpy, hungry and frustrated.
Suddenly someone sees a figure walking across the water. I think in that situation I would have said exactly what they said, “It’s a ghost.” My first thought would not be, “Here comes Jesus. He’s decided to walk on the water in the middle of this storm.” I think I’d be one of the disciples saying, “Shut up and keep rowing."
But Jesus immediately said to them, “Take Courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
In preparing this message I had to read a number of commentaries, Many of them react very negatively to what Peter did, calling him impulsive and headstrong and foolish for even wanting to walk on water. Some even suggested that Peter thought he was better than the others. The reason some commentators don’t like what Peter did is because they are the kind of people who would never get out of the boat in the first place!
Peter is not being impetuous. It’s not as if he jumps out of the boat and starts walking. That would have been presumptuous and foolish. Matthew is very clear that Peter asks for permission first. If Jesus had said no, Peter would have stayed in the boat. But Jesus didn’t say no. He said, “Come.” So Peter went.
We must not miss the force of Jesus’ words. When he said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” he used an expression the disciples would immediately understand. The phrase “It is I” is the same phrase that God used to answer Moses when he asked God for his name and God replied “I AM.” It’s not just that Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s me. I’m not a ghost.” It is “I AM” the Lord God of the universe who tells Peter to come to him on the water, and it is that power that enables the water walking.
Once Peter was fully on the water, he turns to walk toward Jesus. As he walks toward Jesus, Jesus walks toward him. Everything is fine until Peter notices the storm all around him. Remember, the storm has never stopped. Matthew tells us that “when he saw the wind, he was afraid.” But the wind was there all along. It’s not as if it let up when Jesus begins walking on the water. Jesus comes to them in the midst of the storm.
In this instance we could define faith as “concentration on Jesus.” I find that very helpful because we all can get distracted, especially when the storms of life rage around us. It’s not easy to keep your eyes on Jesus in the middle of the night, when the raging storm of fear threatens to overwhelm you. When the storms of life threaten to capsize the tiny boat of our faith. What do we need to do?
Fix our eyes on the Son of God.
A mighty storm is bound to come to each one of us sooner or later. Today the sun may be shining; tomorrow we may find ourselves toiling against the wind and rain, tossed about by adversity. What happened to Peter can happen to any of us. For a brief moment, he forgets about focusing on Jesus and remembers who he is and where he is. He is Peter, a Galilean fisherman who belongs back in the boat. In that instant he looks down at his feet and sees nothing but water underneath. His mind comes to a quick conclusion: “I’m not supposed to be walking on water. This is impossible.” When he lost his concentration on Jesus, he began to sink.
As he sinks he prays one of the shortest prayers in the Bible: “Lord, save me!” When you are sinking you don’t have time to pray a long prayer. Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. Peter is sopping wet and scared to death. Jesus is standing on the water as Peter clutches his arm for dear life. After Jesus pulls Peter up from the sea he decides to share a few things that will help Peter in his spiritual life. No doubt Peter is thinking, “Get me back to the boat. I promise I’ll never pull a stunt like this again.” Jesus’ words to Peter are very important. “You of little faith, why did you doubt.”
Remember where this conversation took place, in the middle of the lake. It’s still pitch dark, with the wind still howling and the rain beating down. Meanwhile back at the boat, the others are watching the whole scene, doubtless with their mouths open, and eyes as big as saucers. “And when they (that is Peter and Jesus) climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
Before we leave this familiar story, let me make two observations about Peter.
Firstly give Peter credit because he was willing to do what no one else was willing to do. Before we come down too hard on Peter for taking his eyes off Jesus, remember that there were 11 others back in the boat. If you want to walk on the water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.
This is about Peter walking on the water because he was the only one with the courage to get out of the boat. Maybe some of the others wanted to; maybe they would have if Peter had stayed out there longer. But give the man credit. He did it, and they didn’t. That’s why this story is about him and the other 11 aren’t even mentioned.
Before we criticize Peter for having “little faith,” remember that “little faith” is better than “no faith,” because that sums up the disciples who stayed in the boat.
Secondly when Jesus called Peter “Little-Faith,” he was not rebuking him for attempting too much, but for trusting too little. There is a difference? Jesus did not rebuke Peter for getting out of the boat. On the contrary, Jesus is saying, “Peter, if you had just kept your eyes on me, you could have walked across the Atlantic Ocean."
In the end, who do we remember? Peter who tried and sank or the other eleven who didn’t even try? They played it safe. Only Peter took the risk. That’s why we’re still talking about him after 2,000 years. I realise that it’s risky to walk on water. It’s possible we might sink. But you’ll never know until you get out of the boat.
In lifeboat stations there is usually a record of rescues and of the stories of bravery of those who went out in the storms to rescue others. Sometimes instead of a record of rescue, it simply says ‘Standing by’. That is when the lifeboat was there and ready to go if needed. The crew were keeping a watch and were ready to come to the aid of a troubled vessel if called to do so. That is what our God is doing, ‘Standing by,’ ready to help those who call upon Him.
Julian of Norwich lived through stormy times. The Black death, the Peasants’ revolt, the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. She has seen four kings on the throne of England and had nearly died as a young woman, but still she could write:
‘He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed; you shall not be work-weary; you shall not be distressed.’ But he did say, ‘You shall not be overcome.’
Julian was deeply aware that God is our maker, our lover, and our keeper. Amidst the storms of her life, she was aware of the presence, the love and the power of God.
Heavenly Father, grant that we might be great risk-takers for the kingdom of God. Shake us loose from the security of staying in the boat. Help us to walk on the waters of faith and believe that Jesus will hold us up. Help us like Julian to learn to put our hand into the hand of God who never leaves us or forsakes us. Amen.