Walking on Water
Our Gospel story this morning is about people who find themselves far from the shore.
But Jesus, too, is in the middle of a storm, though his storm is more internal: In the scriptures preceding this famous story of Jesus walking on water, Jesus has just heard that his beloved cousin, John the Baptist, was killed by Herod. This is the same John who baptized Jesus, who was taken prisoner by Herod, and sent a letter to Jesus asking him if he was the Messiah. (Some people think that letter was a veiled plea from John to ask Jesus to help him get out of prison… like, “Hey, if you’re the Messiah, why am I still here in prison?”) Jesus responded to John’s letter by naming the various miracles that had taken place, but He didn’t respond by saying, “Yes, and let me help you get out of prison.” So I imagine that Jesus had some complicated feelings about John’s death.
Next, Jesus tried to get some quiet time (to grieve?) by going up to a mountain to pray… but he was becoming known, and people followed him. And then the people are hungry, so we get the story Jesus feeding the 5000 with 2 loaves of bread and some fish, another famous story.
After that’s finished, we can imagine he’s quite tired, so he puts his disciples on a boat and finally gets some time to himself to pray. We can surmise that he has a lot on his mind… that he’s grieving the loss of his cousin. So yes, Jesus is in his own storm.
I wonder what storms you have found yourself in over the course of your life… what storms you find yourself in now. I have certainly found myself in several storms over the course of my life… a divorce, difficulties in my family, coming out as gay…
I’ve also spent significant time with people who are in the midst of their own storms. As a chaplain at a public hospital in NYC, I spent my days with people who have just received painful diagnoses- cancer, heart disease. I’ve spent time in emergency rooms with parents who have lost their children to a variety of things - gun violence, being struck in a crosswalk, drug overdoses, or… allergies. I’ve sat with people who have lived most of their lives on the street, people for whom minor medical issues have been left untreated to the point of becoming life-threatening. In that way, I’ve had the privilege of walking in other people’s storms, and their storms have become my own, as well.
And I know that you have all had your storms, too - or maybe you’re in one right now.
But let’s get back to the story: You may have noticed that I’ve been silent about an important part of this story - the part where Jesus walks on water.
This might be one of the most famous things about Jesus. He heals lepers, feeds the five thousand, walks on water, gets raised from the dead…
The temptation to read this story and to focus on what seems miraculous about it - the flashy part, the dramatic part - where a human being walks on water? Not only Jesus, but then Peter too – And by the way, what was he thinking?! In this story, I see Peter like a kid learning how to ride a bike -- insists on having parents hand there even when they are balancing themselves - then looks back and realizes the parent isn’t there, and falls. Although in Peter’s case, he was in the middle of the ocean, not just on a bike.
Many times when this story is read, Peter is taken to be the example for us, and a promise: the promise that if you hold onto your faith, you will be able to walk on water, be able to survive the storm. And if you don’t, well, you’ll sink, like Peter almost did. Sometimes we read this story like a story of promise and warning - a promise that your faith will protect you, a warning that if you lose your faith, you’ll be all alone.
I saw this a lot in the hospital - patients facing incredibly painful realities, painful choices - and sometimes I saw in them this belief that if they just had enough faith, that they’d be taken out of the storm. And if they were sinking, some thought it meant that there was something wrong with them - that they didn’t have enough faith.
But those of you who have weathered storms know that that’s not how it works. God’s interest is rarely in taking us out of the storm, as much as we often wish that would happen. Faith isn’t something that protects us from feeling fear, or loss, or grief.
And faith doesn’t protect us from experiencing really hard things.
So what is faith, then? What is it worth? Well, in this story, anyway - what if we think of faith not as what keeps Peter from sinking, but instead as what got him to step out of the boat?
Peter is the disciple who, eventually, you may remember, becomes the head of the church, the rock on which the rest of the church was built. Do you think the fact that he was the impetuous one - the one who volunteered to do this crazy thing, to test the limits of God’s love, to test his own mortality- has anything to do with why Jesus chose him to be the rock on which the church was built?
Maybe the reason Peter asked Jesus to prove who he was on the water by asking HIM, Peter, to come out to those rough waves was because Peter knew that that was something only Jesus would do - not tell him to stay in the boat and be safe, like we would all counsel Peter to do - but that he would, without a doubt, ask Peter to get out of the boat?
And do we do that, as a church, today?
Are we taking those risks - or are we staying safely in the boat - or safely on the shore? Are we more concerned with our own survival as an institution, with keeping people in and out, with looking respectable and normal - than with being close to God?
If God’s out in the water - where are we?
So what’s the lesson for us in this story? Well - I don’t do Bible stories like that. I don’t think the lessons are that easy. I don’t think the Bible is a manual for a trouble-free life.
But I can tell you this, from my time in the storms -
When you’re in the storm, and you’re looking for somewhere safe, somewhere to keep you from sinking - if you’re focused on getting back to the boat, to where everyone else is, you might very well miss the hand being outstretched to you. You might miss the hand of God.
God is very rarely where we expect God to be, and safety, with God, often looks very different than what are expecting it to look like.
I can tell you that when I’ve been in the storm, when the waves have seemed too deep for me - grace has come to me from the most unexpected places – from the kindness of strangers, from animals, from children, from people in hospital beds with their own storms raging. In those moments I learn about love that is fierce. I learn about love that knows no boundaries. I learn about the beauty of the human spirit. And I learn about God - I learn about God the most in the places, in the people, that we often think of as being farthest from God.
So if that’s a possibility - if God might be somewhere we least expect God to be - what does it look like, in your life, to get out of the boat?
Maybe it looks like loving someone who you don’t think deserves to be loved.
Maybe it looks like sitting and listening to someone you don’t agree with - and just listening, not arguing, but just trying to be in their shoes.
Maybe it looks like forgiving yourself. That can be a terrifying thing to do.
Maybe it looks like praying for racial reconciliation in this country - and asking God to show us what we can do in our neighborhoods to combat the injustice and division that plagues our nation.
Maybe it looks like stepping away from places that feel safe order to step closer to the places where God can be found reaching out to us… like it was for Peter.
And let’s think about this - if the rest of the disciples are in the boat by themselves to stay out of the waves, and Peter is out on the water without a boat, and he starts sinking - but Jesus is with him - who is really safe?
Let’s not miss an opportunity, this week, to notice the Spirit of God active in the forgotten and invisible stormy waters of our world - and ask ourselves what it would mean to walk closer to that outstretched hand.