We Can’t Walk On Water if We Stay in the Boat

July 17, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 43:2-3; Matthew 14: 22-31


Today’s gospel story is a fun one to visualize, but first it helps to put it in context.  Jesus was in need of rest and reflection. If the chronology of the gospel writers is accurate, he had had a bad couple of days.  He had just received news that Herod had beheaded his cousin John the Baptist and was going into the hills to grieve, but before he did so, he had 5,000 hungry men, plus uncounted women and children to feed. His reward was that this crowd, once fed, wanted to take him by force and crown him their king. So now he has to escape. He sends his disciples across the Sea of Galilee or Lake of Gennesaret or Lake Tiberius – all the same place, where he plans to join them later and he continues into the hills to be alone and pray. The lake is 700 feet below the sea level and is surrounded by a mountain range that rises to 4,000 feet above sea level. So, this body of water is greatly susceptible to sudden and extremely violent storms caused by the cold air rushing down from the mountains.

Sometime between three and six o’clock in the morning the disciples are caught in such a storm and they fear for their lives. As they are struggling to keep their boat afloat they see Jesus coming towards them, walking on the water. Well of course.  After all, they took the boat, so if you’re Jesus you walk on water.  But, the gospel tells us, instead of feeling relief, when they see him they become more frightened, because they don’t recognize him and they think that he’s a ghost.  What is it with Jesus?  The gospels have several examples of his friends not recognizing him.  Is he that non-descript? Does he wear his hair differently at various times?  Does he, like Oprah gain and lose weight rather dramatically.  I don’t get it. Jesus is not casual acquaintance to them. They’ve given up their way of life to follow him, and then don’t recognize him when he shows up to rescue them.

Rather than be offended, Jesus simply reassures them. He identifies himself and tells them not to be afraid.

True to form, Peter is the first to speak up. He hollers out, “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” What possessed him?  I would love to have seen the expression on Jesus’ face at that particular moment. No doubt he worked hard to suppress a smile at Peter’s audaciousness. Jesus replies with one word. “Come.” Now imagine Peter’s expression. (“Oh expletive, what have I got myself into now?”) Peter is truly caught between a rock and a hard place. The storm is still raging.  He’s got to be afraid.  But his friends in the boat had heard him challenge Jesus and are now watching.  He’s got his image to protect. He starts out of the boat.  Maybe he sits on the edge for a bit, then his feet touch the water and he has second thoughts, looks back at his gawking peers, and probably thinks he’d rather drown than have them think he’s afraid. He lowers himself into, no, onto the water. Cautious at first, then surprised that the water is holding him up. Now he can’t help himself, chest out he begins to strut. But not for long, scripture tells us that as soon as he felt the force of the wind, he took fright and began to sink.  Was it just a slow lowering or a full tumble like wiping out when water-skiing?  We don’t know.  But Jesus doesn’t let him suffer long.  He puts his hand out at once and holds him.

But can’t you hear him back on shore drying off around a camp fire?  Did you see me guys?  I walked on water.  He probably told the story for years increasing how long and how far he walked.  But regardless, he did in fact walk on the water and go toward Jesus. I think that it’s key to notice that before he could walk on water, Peter first had to climb out of the boat which meant leave what felt most safe and secure.

So what does all of this have to do with us? The Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “I have come to bring you life so that you can live it abundantly.” Living life to the full requires us to leave our comfort zone.  We cannot walk on water unless we are willing to get out of the boat. Alfred North Whitehead says it another way: “It is the business of the future,” he says, “to be dangerous. The challenge for each of us is to accept the danger of our personal journey and thereby accept the gift of our lives.” To adventure fully into life’s journey may mean that sometimes we fail and it certainly requires that we sacrifice the comfort and convenience of what seems secure. It may mean leaving what is familiar, trying new things, detaching, or opening ourselves up to new belief or new ideas. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot walk on water and stay in the boat!

One of the biggest fears of trying something new for many of us, is perhaps the possibility of perceived failure.  The story of Peter can be seen as ending in two ways. We can understand the story as one in which Peter tried to do what Jesus did, walk on water, but that he got scared and sank; humiliated by failure.  Or we can recognize that even for a short while he did indeed walk on water.

There is an old story about an Italian peasant who bumped into a monk who lived in a monastery high on the hill. The peasant seized the opportunity to question the monk about their daily routines at this holy shrine. “What do you men of God do up there on the mountain so close to God?” she asked. The monk replied, “We fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up, we fall down and we get up.” Failure is not our ultimate enemy any more than success is our ultimate goal.  The journey is really what matters. We either live life to the full or we don’t.

Even the greatest know the taste of failure. Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I’ve been entrusted to take the game winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life. And that’s exactly why I succeeded.”

Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky put it this way, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

All of us take risks. We would never have anything if we didn’t. No new relationships would be formed. No new businesses would be started. No new homes would be built. Helen Keller got it right when she said that, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Mark Twain waxed poetic when he wrote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”

Sometimes the successes we experience from taking risks are not recognized as such by others, particularly I think in our performance-measuring culture.  There were two close friends who served together in the Second World War.  While in battle a shell exploded close to them. When the smoke cleared, one saw the other in the distance lying motionless in the mud. He wanted to go to him, but others pulled him back. He insisted upon going to his friend, but the others said it was foolish, for he would be killed, too. He broke away and crawled to his buddy. He lifted up the limp body and held him for a few moments. Then he laid the body reverently on the ground. When he returned to the trench, the other soldiers said, “We told you so. You risked your life for nothing.” But the friend said, “I shall never regret what I did, for the last thing he said before he died was, ‘I knew you’d come.’

God is always with us in the storms of life. In Isaiah God reassures us, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:2). The Lord may not come at the time we think He should come, or in the way that we want.

A woman is walking down the street when she hears a voice shout, “Stop.” She stops, and a piece of metal falls from space just in front of her–perhaps debris from a satellite. If she had gone one step farther, she would have been killed. She looks around to find the person who saved her life and sees no one. A few days later she is about to cross a street and she hears the same voice boom, “Stop.” And a car, out of control, zooms by in front of her–missing her by inches. She looks around again for the source of the strange but life-saving voice. Still she sees no one, but this time she hears a voice. “Do you know who I am?” the voice asks. “No, I don’t,” she answers. “I am your guardian angel,” says the voice. “I am here to protect you from harm.” Instead of voicing her gratitude, the woman was indignant. “There’s just one thing I want to know,” she said, “Where were you when I got married?”
Often we fear the difficult experiences of life such as illness, loss of loved ones, and financial hardships only to discover that these experiences can bring us closer to God. It’s not that God moves closer to us, it’s that when we are feeling helpless, when we are in need, we reach out to God. Sometimes the opposite happens. Maybe the disciples caught in the storm did not recognize Jesus because in their crisis they were focused solely on themselves and what they could do.  They were not were not looking for Him. At times when we are outside of our comfort zone it’s difficult to remain open to the sacred, to recognize the divine in our midst. Perhaps Jesus walked on the water to show His disciples that not even the very thing they feared, the raging, seething sea, could separate him from them.

In this gospel story we encounter one of the Bible’s favorite phrases, Fear Not. Don’t be afraid. It appears three hundred sixty-six times in the scriptures, one for every day and an extra one for leap year. It’s not that we shouldn’t feel fear; it’s rather that we shouldn’t let the fear hold us back. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Water-walkers face their fears.  We are not called to be comfortable; we are called to live life to the full.

What is God calling you to be and/or do?  Some of us are doers and getting out of our comfort zones requires that we stop doing so much and just be.  Others are called off the sidelines and invited into the fray of life.

Each of our calls to live life to the full is unique; as unique as each of our relationships with the divine. For some, getting out of the boat of our comfort zone means doing less, being open to others doing for us.  For others walking on water requires venturing out into new territory, risking failure or rejection.

Regardless of whether we understand this as openness to one’s call, or longing for meaning or desiring personal growth or searching for God, matters not. We have been given an amazing and precious life and invited to live it to the full. If we get just out of the boat, we will not be alone, and we can walk on water. God calls us, Come!”