Saturday, August 6, 2011

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Walking on water - our job or Jesus'?

A priest, a rabbi and a Lutheran pastor went fishing one day.  They’d been on the water only a few minutes and the priest looked around at his gear and exclaimed, “Rats!  Forgot my bait!”  And he jumped up, ran across the water, got his bait bucket and ran back across the water and got into the boat.

A few minutes later, the rabbi started searching through his tackle box.  “For crying out loud!  I left my new lure in the car.”  And he jumped up, ran across the water, got his lure, ran back across the water and got into the boat.

The Lutheran pastor was new in town and it was her first time fishing with her new colleagues.  She watched in disbelief as one after the other effortlessly skimmed the surface of the lake.  “What in the world?  How on earth are they doing that?” she thought.  “Well, I’m sure they’re no better than me.  If they can do it, so can I!”

She announced, “I forgot my coffee!  I can’t fish without coffee!”  And she jumped up, stepped out of the boat - and sank.

She climbed back into the boat, shook herself off, looked at the priest and the rabbi, stood up and stepped out of the boat again – and promptly sank.

As her head went under the water, the priest leaned over to the rabbi and said, “You think we should tell her where the stepping stones are?”

You gotta wonder what Peter was thinking.  There they are in the middle of the Sea of Galilee – a lake about 13 miles long and 8 across.  They set out for the other side right after Jesus fed those 5000 families.  Jesus sent them ahead, but their way has not been easy.  It’s late, they should have gotten there by now.  They got partway across and now they’re stuck - the wind and the waves are so ferocious that they are making no headway – none at all.  They have rowed all night, and have nothing to show for it.  They are hours away from dawn.  They are holding on for dear life. 
To the ancients there was nothing more feared than the sea.  It’s more than wind and waves and water.  It’s a force of nature, a barely constrained agent of chaos.  It’s a place where mortals fear to go, but it’s a mark of God’s power that God controls the sea and keeps it in its boundaries. 

To be out on the sea at night, to be battered by wind and waves in the dark – that’s a battle of life and death.  Who can save them from the sea?  They are at the mercy of God.

Out on the waves, they think they see something.  No, maybe not.  Wait. Yes.  There’s something out there.  It looks…looks like…a…a person?  No it can’t be.  It has to be a ghost.  Mortals cannot tread on water, but spirits can. God can.

The figure comes into focus.  It’s Jesus – striding across the waves, showing mastery over the elements.  “Peace, courage – I am here.  Don’t be afraid. It will be alright.” 

Great!  They are saved.  Jesus can calm this storm just like he calmed the last one and they can get to shore and rest.

So what is Peter thinking? 

IF it’s really you, call me to come to you.”

It’s a test – Peter wants a sign.  He wants proof positive that it’s really Jesus.  Jesus calls and Peter jumps up and steps out of the boat and…


It’s going good for a few steps and then Peter has a ‘Tom and Jerry moment.”  You know how Tom the cat is chasing Jerry the mouse, and Tom runs off the table and runs in the air a little way and his feet are going and going, and then he looks down and – thud – he crashes to the ground.  Well, Peter does one of those – he’s walking to Jesus and then he starts looking at the sea around him and starts thinking, “What on earth am I doing!  Jesus walks on the water – well, we kinda of expect such things from him.  He’s just feed 5000 families with 5 loaves and 2 fishes and he does miracles.  But me - what was I thinking?”  And down he goes.

As he sinks below the waves, Peter says what he should have said from the beginning, “Jesus, save me!”  Notice that it’s not, “Jesus, if it’s you, save me.”  There’s no test here – this is the cry of a desperate man.

 “Jesus, save me!”

We spend a lot of time talking about Peter in this text. I bet I’ve heard this text explained a thousand times as:  Peter did ok as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, but once he started looking at the storm, he sank.  So keep your eyes on Jesus and you’ll do fine.

Good advice.  But there’s a problem with leaving this as the only way to look at this story.  It encourages us to think that if we just have enough faith, that if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ll discover where the stepping stones are.  It makes us believe that if we have enough faith, then we can walk on water, just like Jesus.  After all, Jesus chides Peter for his little faith and his doubts, right?

The irony is that explaining the text this way does exactly what Peter did – focuses us on what we are doing and not on what Jesus is doing.

So... what is Jesus doing in the story? 
·         First, he sends the disciples on a mission – to go across the lake, to make preparations for Jesus to join them in the morning.  That’s typical disciple work, advance set up for the master.
·         Then he prays.  Jesus is in constant communication with the Father, praying for the disciples, the world and all those in need.
·         He comes to the disciples.  Jesus can see there’s a storm and his people need him.  Now we – and the disciples know that Jesus can calm a storm with a word.  He doesn’t choose to do so here.  He chooses to go to the disciples.  Jesus always comes to us.
·         He comforts the disciples – Have courage, don’t be afraid, I am here with you.
·         He saves Peter.
Jesus, save me!

Matthew is a consummate story teller.  There’s something you should know about those words, “Jesus, save me!”  Those words are exactly in the middle of this story[i] - there are the same number of Greek words before and after “Jesus, save me!”  What’s more, that little phrase, “Jesus save me!” is almost in the middle of the entire Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a reason that “Jesus, save me” in the middle of his gospel.  The whole point for Matthew is to tell us that in Jesus, God is with us.  And Matthew wants to make sure we know that God with us (Emmanuel) is life-saving for us.  Matthew goes in from here explain just how much Jesus will do, how much he will give, to answer the cry,

Jesus, save me!

I think one of the reasons that this is such a well known story is that we all get it. Think of the metaphors for troubles in life: drowning in debt, in over her head, the storms of life – we get that the storm at sea and the disciples in the boat are us.  We are trying to follow Jesus and his commands.  We are trying to do what Jesus tells us.  But sometimes, as the saying goes – the boat is so small and the waves are so big!  We get caught up in looking for the stepping stones, in trying to walk on water ourselves that we forget that the Rock on which we really stand is already under our feet!
This story is not about the eleven disciples who stayed in the boat and whether they trusted Jesus or not. And it’s not about Peter walking (or not) on the water.  It’s not about us and our fears and our doubts and the sea of worries that threaten to drown us.

It’s about Jesus, and what he can do and who he is.

It’s about Jesus, walking across the waves, in control of the chaos swirling around us.

It’s about Jesus, being there with us, even if we don’t realize it.  Even if we don’t believe it at the moment.  Even if we can’t feel him here or don’t notice his presence. 

It’s about Jesus, reaching out his hand at that moment when the black chaos of life threatens to pull us under, and grabbing us

It’s about Jesus, Son of God, saving us.

[i] Facts gleaned from Russell Rathburn, The Hardest Question


  1. I forgot to check "the hardest question" one of my favorite websites.

    I like your insight that "Lord save me" is just in the middle of the gospel. I'll be thinking about that for a long time.

  2. Love the joke, and love the how it paves the way for this straightforward reminder (oh, how I need it) of the Rock as our Savior.

  3. I love the focus on Jesus. Thank you!!!