Peter Jumps Into the Water

This week’s gospel from John 21 deals with nudity, miraculous fishing, and redefining love. It is a jam-packed resurrection appearance that only could be delivered by that incredible gospel we call John.

One part sticks out for me this week. And it obviously deals with Peter.

So the disciples are fishing. They are hanging out. And Peter is naked. The suck-up “beloved” disciple sees Jesus is cooking some breakfast on the shore and then what happens?

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.

The narrative doesn’t say what happens to Peter or what the hell he is doing. It says what the other disciples do. They listen to Jesus.

When confronted with a text like this, we are tempted to do two things:

  1. Fill in the gaps
  2. Speculate what “really” happened

And most gap-filling and speculating on this seems to miss an incredibly important truth.

The evangelist didn’t say Peter swam to shore. It doesn’t suggest Peter did anything important other than jumping into the water.

Later on, it ties it all together when it suggests that Peter goes into the boat after they are ashore and alone brings the fish that Jesus asks for. There is a great metaphor of Peter leaving the boat and entering it again on the shore to present the fish hauled into the boat by the other disciples. It is a fascinating literary juxtaposition.

What was clearly important to the Johnine community was not how Peter comes to shore, why he was naked, or how he covers himself up; things which cause all manner of speculation by us; but that Peter was naked, clothed himself, and jumped into the water.

In the end of the story, we learn about the clothing himself and about the nakedness from how Jesus speaks to Peter. That’s what I’m preaching about tomorrow.

But I think there is something really amazing about this moment, in which Peter’s response to Jesus is not

  • “Do my best” or 
  • “Listen to His instructions” or
  • “Get to Him as fast as I can” but simply
  • “Jump in the water.”

I don’t know what it really means. It certainly doesn’t seem like the writer intends for us to believe he swam to shore because he was so eager to see Jesus, because there isn’t the slightest hint of that in the text! And it seems like an odd thing to write as a set-up for a literary tool that shows Peter getting back into the boat on the shore. It is far too odd and dramatic for that.

Perhaps the beauty of this story is that it is so thoroughly a human response to the divine. That we hide our nakedness like the first human. That we do inexplicable things when confronted with the miraculous. That sometimes we don’t pull our weight and sometimes we carry the whole burden for others. That sometimes we are shown compassion when we come up short. That sometimes we strive for ideal and get above average.

This is also the same Peter that denied Jesus after defending him, lopping off an ear in the process. The same Peter that named Jesus “Messiah” but was then named “Satan” for declaring that Jesus must not die. It is a man that does such good and noble things, then such cowardly and petty things.He isn’t the everyman, but the polarity. He is us when we are right and wrong.

In jumping into the water, Peter does the inexplicable. The writer(s) doesn’t say that Peter was ashamed or that he was eager. All it says is that he got dressed and jumped into the water. Perhaps the lesson for us is to wrestle, not with the rational, but the irrational.

Perhaps it is a truly human moment–an artfully inexplicable moment–that defines us. That defines humanity. That we, like lemmings, simply jump into the water.




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