In the story, Jesus walks on water. So does Peter. He is just doing what Jesus did, offering us an option at a time of great fear.
Proper 14A | Matthew 14:22-33
The first time I walked on water, I was 16 years-old. I had never done anything so intentional as that before. It was a bold ask: for guidance in a confusing time. A quiet prayer that I was too cool to do directly, in a church or a bedside. It was in a youth hostel in Mühlhausen, Germany.
There was no pool, of course. It wasn’t that kind of place. The assignment has been lost, as has the poem I wrote, but it was there, then.
I wrote a sonnet. I hadn’t written poetry, but I wrote this sonnet and it wasn’t terrible. For me, it was the math of counting syllables and the ABBA rhyme scheme which drew me in. Then it was the iambs which made it fun, the rocking sound of cadence, up down up.
In that moment, on the other side of the world, I was called out of the boat and I leapt.
This story in Matthew comes after those parables in chapter 13 which explored the challenge of discipleship. And it’s in the midst of this moment Jesus hears about the killing of John the Baptist. And Jesus is overcome and tries to go away to pray by himself and the crowds won’t let him. He spends the whole day healing and curing the sick; restoring them. He needs space and they need him.
Then, rather than sending them away, Jesus has the disciples feed the crowds with five loaves and two fish. After that, he sends the disciples away. It’s time, long past time, for Jesus to be alone.
Of course that doesn’t last long.
The disciples are in the storm and the waves are rocking the boat. They’ve been here before: the waves scaring them so much they think they’re going to die. Jesus was sleeping in the back that time, so they wake him up, angry at him, wanting him to do something but not really thinking he actually can. They want something they just don’t know what.
And when Jesus calms the storm, they are terrified…at Jesus…because they don’t really know who he really is.
So they’ve had that experience in the boat but this time Jesus isn’t there to protect them. They’re heading into the wind and it looks bleak but it’s there he shows up, downwind, but making the distance. Again, Jesus terrifies them: they think he’s a ghost. I guess because people don’t walk on water.
This is no accident. Jesus terrifies the disciples, not because he is scary, but because he is not what they expect.
Peter Walks on Water
It really can’t be overstated that Peter walks on water in this story.
After Jesus tells them not to be afraid and calms them, Peter wants to make sure it’s him. to show his faith or express his belief? I don’t know. But he says this strange thing: he suggests Jesus invite him to come to him. Jesus does. Then Peter gets out of the boat and proceeds to walk on water.
And if you’re paying attention to the logistics in the story, Peter doesn’t sink like a stone. He doesn’t keep running off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote, look down, and drop to the ground below. He walks on the water, senses the wind, and then he starts to sink. Notice that it isn’t the physics or reason which prevents Peter from the miraculous, it’s the fear of the wind.
So it isn’t Wile E. Coyote at all.
It’s more like Harry Potter and his friends when they confront their fear, or when He Who Must Not Be Named is mentioned. It’s the ominous, the storm, the thing which threatens them, and before that, Peter loses his strength and conviction. It would be too pat and wrong to say he loses his faith. Just his certainty.
This is Peter, after all. The one who swings from being totally certain to completely wrong–afraid of what will actually happen with Jesus in the end. It’s a natural extension of the man, to be afraid. To let that fear disrupt what he knows about Jesus.
So here he is, between the boat and Jesus and he has been walking on the water! -Can you believe it!- And then the ominous fear comes back and he begins to sink. He calls out, instinctively, learned by now, to Jesus, “Lord,” he says, “save me!” And he does.
We’re too quick to account this to faith. Peter does walk on water and his fear pulls him out of connection with Jesus.
There was a lot of fear this weekend. Fear from those who have been following the rise of certain white supremacist groups over the last few years. Fear from the students at UVA who were on campus when hundreds of men with torches walked onto a public university chanting nazi slogans and statements about hurting minorities.
And fear from the protestors, police, and the people of Charlottesville. A storm had come in and it was rocking the boat and in the unspooling hatred and fear, a life was lost in a horrific act of violence. And as many eyewitness accounts have stated, there could have been many more.
Why are we so afraid of this storm? The storm which causes our fears to rise like pimples on the skin. The storm of hatred and bigotry; of white supremacy and its great fear of losing its voice, heritage, and place. It’s need to be first when Jesus tells us how we need to be last.
The storm rolled into a city which could be our own and came upon a campus which could be our neighbor and demanded we be afraid for they were laying claim to this land which wasn’t theirs, and these hearts which weren’t being offered but to accept them as equals.
How often we shrink with this fear! Shrink, sinking into the floor when the storm rolls in. The winds and fierceness. This isn’t God coming in a cloud, it’s the wrong direction. This is something far more sinister. This doesn’t win our hearts with love and mercy, it demands and steals. And we’re offered the same words today Jesus offered those frightened followers so long ago:
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
That we might stand like the clergy and people of faith who witnessed there. They faced the darkness with its fear of violence and they kept standing.
Walking on Water
Of course I didn’t literally walk on water when I was 16. But remember that we are his disciples and we do what Jesus does. And Jesus walked on water and so did Peter. He healed the sick and reconciled the separated and so did the disciples.
And we are given moment after moment to walk on water. In the way that I did, when I found his voice and found what would bring new joy into my life. The first buds of a whole vocation which had me walking on water many more times. In seminary and parish leadership. In my marriage and with my children.
I have heard that voice and if invited, I would step out of that boat and walk to Jesus. And every time, there was a wind which would distract me. And maybe I sank. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Because I always ended up back in the boat and arriving on the other side.
In the midst of the darkness which surrounds us, the storm with the howling wind, we know that if we face the wind, Jesus will be at our back. And when we turn around, we can hear his voice. In turning to him, the howl of the wind will never overwhelm him and we can hear him.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
And when we hear him, do we hear the invitation? To be bold and come to him? To step out and walk on water? Shall we? Just remember: it’s the fear that makes you sink.