The story of Jesus walking across the water to catch up with the disciples, who are rowing against the battering wind and waves of the Sea of Galilee, is one of my favorite Bible stories. After feeding the thousands who followed him into the wilderness, Jesus commands the disciples to head across the sea without him, while he remains on shore to send the crowds on their way and to spend some time in prayer on the mountain.
While the disciples are crossing the sea, a storm rises and threatens to engulf them. They spend the better part of the night navigating the waves, and in the early hours of the morning, Jesus strides across the water to meet them.
The disciples weren’t afraid of the storm as far as we can tell. After all, many of them were experienced fishermen. They didn’t say anything, according to Matthew, until they saw the wave-walking Jesus striding toward them. Thinking they were being approached by a ghost, the disciples were terrified.
Jesus calls out to reassure them and Peter decides to put Jesus to the test, “If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus encourages Peter to take the plunge and see for himself. Peter indeed takes a few steps but loses heart when the strong wind and waves threaten to overwhelm him and he begins to sink. As he’s going down, Peter cries out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”
Jesus immediately reaches out and grabs Peter, pushes him back into the boat and then, the most amazing thing happens. Jesus gets into the boat with Peter and the other disciples. The wind and waves are calmed and they eventually reach the shore.
Peter did the right thing when he was in over his head and sinking like a rock. He cried out with something like a mustard seed of faith, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus did (on more than one occasion).
Peter doesn’t flounder just because he takes his eyes off Jesus, but because he grows afraid. And, honestly, isn’t that fear justified? It’s a terrible storm after all!
Now we all know that Peter should have kept his eyes on Jesus and ignored the waves as he walked toward him. We all know we should keep our eyes on Jesus.
But the truth is sometimes we don’t. Our problem is that no matter how good our intentions, we are sometimes distracted, worried, even overwhelmed by all the turbulent waves around us.
The pandemic, social justice, economic and environmental issues, family problems…, you name it, we can find something to worry about just about anywhere. While I know I should trust all my worries to the Lord, sometimes it isn’t that easy.
There’s a lot in our individual and collective lives that can make us afraid. And that fear can be debilitating. It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward, let alone take action with confidence. Fear is one of the primary things that robs us of the abundant life that God desires for us. Maybe that’s why one of the most frequent quotes in the Bible is, “Don’t be afraid!”
What encourages me in this incredible story is what Jesus does when Peter takes his eyes off him, begins to sink, and calls out to Jesus to save him. Jesus immediately reaches out his hands and catches him, saves him from drowning and restores him to his calling as a disciple.
Yes, Peter should have kept his eyes on Jesus. And so should we. But Peter did the right thing, what we all need to do when we are in over our heads and sinking like a rock: “Lord, save me!”
The truth is we were not intended to walk on water, and when we falter, or even fail, Jesus will be there to catch us, support us, and set us straight again, encouraging us to get up and get going.
The Christ we proclaim does reach out for us when we call out to him. But what I love about this story is that Jesus does more than this. So much more. He gets in the boat with us, accompanies us on our journey, a faithful companion and guide. Remember, it’s with Christ in the boat that the disciples reach the shore in this story.
Somehow the disciples, who didn’t always row in the same direction, figured out how to stay in the boat and row together to reach their goal. And you can bet they kept their eyes and ears fixed on Jesus. We can learn a lot from them.
That’s the challenge and the promise of this story. And that’s the challenge and promise for us today. Amen.
Resources: Barbara Brown Taylor, 1993; Fred Craddock, et.al., 2001; David Lose, 2017.