WALKING ON WATER
The disciples are obeying Jesus and trying to sail to the other side of the lake, but the wind is against them, pushing them away from their destination. No matter what they do, they find themselves farther and farther from shore.
Then they see a figure walking on the water. There is only one explanation in their world view: It has to be a ghost.
Jesus identifies himself and tells them, “Do not be afraid.” [Matthew 14:27b NRSV]
Matthew is silent about the reaction of the others, but Peter’s response is “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” [Matthew 14:28 NRSV]
Peter can’t bring himself to simply accept that Jesus is there with them. He, who has witnessed countless miracles, somehow finds Jesus walking on water unbelievable. So he demands proof—an in-your-face challenge: if you really are Jesus, then call me to come out and walk on the water with you!
This seems almost insulting to Jesus. But in reality Peter is displaying an incredible willingness to risk his life, just to find out if it really is his Master.
Jesus says just one word: “Come.”
Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water. At first, it works. But soon Peter looks around and realizes that what he is doing is impossible. He starts to sink. He cries to Jesus for help.
In a gesture that is full of symbolic meaning, Jesus reaches out his hand and lifts Peter up out of the water.
Together, they get into the boat. Seeing this, everyone in the boat worships Jesus saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” [Matthew 14:33 NRSV]
WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT
Like those disciples, you and I are doing our best every day, trying to make headway against all the forces that work to hold us back and bring us down. Sometimes, we make progress, but other times, it’s one step forward, three steps back.
Because we feel safe in that boat, our comfort zone, we have given ourselves no choice but to ride it, wherever it takes us. We can see the shore—our destination—but we never get any closer. We often seem to be drifting away from it!
Then we see Jesus a little way off, but it’s easier to doubt or dismiss what we see, even to make it into something evil or terrifying like a ghost. At least that way, we don’t have to respond to him or let him help us—or let him ask us to do anything we’re not ready to do!
And that’s where the disciples found themselves that stormy afternoon: stuck in a boat that’s going nowhere. Fighting a wind that was against them. Faced with the appearance of help but terrified of accepting it.
Until Peter shows some courage—at least a little. He gives voice to his own fears and doubts. “If it really is you, you’ll have to prove it to me.”
But Peter doesn’t leave it at that. Not only will Jesus have to prove to Peter that he is really there, he’ll have to do it in a way that is most unusual. Perhaps that was the most unbelievable thing he could think of to ask—to walk on water, the way Jesus does.
Jesus does three things.
First, he reaches out his hand to Peter and lifts him up out of the water.
Then, he chides Peter’s loss of faith.
And finally, he gets into the boat with Peter, at which point all the disciples acclaim him as the Son of God.
WHAT IS THE LESSON FOR US?
First, we’re all in this boat together, trying to make headway against all the forces that push us back and down. We struggle to make headway toward our goal: living as the people of God, in the Kingdom of God. Most of the time, we really don’t get very far, and we feel lucky just not to be losing ground.
Then the answer comes to us. It is Jesus, calling us, “Come to me.”
We know about him, we can see him just a short distance away. But for us that “short distance away” is a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon. Crossing that divide requires something we are unwilling or afraid to do:
Get out of the boat.
In 1983, Ron Wilson of The Temptations released a popular song about this.
Well Peter and the boys one day
were sailin’ on the sea
Until the Lord came strollin’ by and said
“Peter, come to me”
Peter, he jumped overboard
with his hat, his shoes, his coat
You see, if you wanna walk on the water,
you gotta get outta the boat
Well if you wanna walk on the water
you gotta get outta the boat
You gotta put your faith in the Son of God
and I will guarantee you’ll float
Give your life to Jesus
make Him your only hope
‘Cause if you wanna walk on the water
you gotta get outta that boat!
You know, even though we are not happy in the boat, even though we’re making little progress, we’d rather be in that boat than risk going out of it toward Jesus.
Logic tells us, after all, that we’re not Jesus. We can’t walk on the water. We can’t even hold our own heads above water, outside the false security of our frail little boat.
But that’s exactly what Jesus asks us to do—“Come.”
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.” [Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV]
But we’re still afraid.
Isn’t it better to stay where we feel safe, even if it’s a false sense of security, than to risk everything by doing what Jesus asks?
Of course, the boat we are in is never going to reach that shore.
WE HAVE TO GET OUT OF THE BOAT.
We have to brave the wind and the waves. But even more, we have to conquer our own fears—telling us that it’s insane to get out of the boat.
We have to trust Jesus.
And what happens when we do get out of that boat?
Like Peter, we quickly realize that the wind and the waves have the power to take us down. Our only hope is to say the words of Peter, “Lord, save me.”
And that’s all it takes. Jesus reaches out to us and lifts us up