We’d been out on the lakes for a few days and loving it. We were canoeing through the Bowron Lakes of B.C., a chain of 12 lakes that is very popular with paddlers from around the world. We were on the largest lake, Issac, when something changed. You could feel it. All of a sudden, everything went quiet. Not really quiet in that there was no noise, but quiet so that you could hear all noise – the flapping of a birds wings or the dip of a paddle across the lake. Then it got dark. In what was just a moment ago beautiful clear skies, clouds blotted out the sun. Jen and I knew we were in trouble. We put our paddles into high gear and rushed for the shore. We rammed the beach at full speed and pulled all our gear out as fast as we could so that we could overturn the boat overtop to try and keep most of the water off. Then the rain and wind started. What just moments ago was a glassy clear lake became a raging sea of chaos.
We were of course, just fine and the storm passed as quickly as it came. Eventually, we just got in the habit of pulling in about 1:30 because this is when the daily squall blew through. We also were in the habit of staying close to shore so that when trouble did blow in, we didn’t have to go far to reach safety. What would it have been like though, to be in a small fishing boat far from the seashore when a storm blows in. I imagine that the disciples would have been terrified.
Adding to their fear would have been common superstition. For people of the ancient mid-east, the sea was a symbol of chaos, not just a bit of confusion, but the part of the world that was not tamed by God in the creation. The sea therefore was a place where you may even be out of reach of God’s help but also, you could be within reach of the spirits who dwelled within chaos, spirits who’s presence were accompanied by storms.
So they’re out in this boat, being tossed around in the wind and rain, they’re terrified that they’re all going to drown, then Jesus comes walking by. Is it any wonder that they thought he was a spirit? What else could this be walking out on the open sea?
Now this scene has been depicted in so many ways. If there’s a movie about Jesus, there’s likely going to be a walking on water scene. There’s a song about Jesus’ insecure brother who says that he has to pay the ferry to cross the Galilee, but not my brother, no not him, he walks across for free. And even in my own imagination, I picture this scene as Jesus walking across calm water. Maybe it’s because, in my mind, walking on water is imaginable but when it’s stormy? When all the waves are bouncing around making hills and valleys? Is Jesus jumping from crest to crest or is he surfing the valleys? Whatever’s happening, Peter decides that he want’s to try too.
He says, “if that’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus simply says, “come.” And then we have the part that’s been used in countless sermons focusing on the perils of having too little faith: Peter gets out of the boat and after a moment of successful water walking, the storm scares him and he sinks. Oh, if Peter could just have faith, he could have been walking along with Jesus all the way to the shore, right?
I actually have a great deal of affection for Peter. He’s just so very eager to please but so often ends up being the butt of the joke. I can relate to this so maybe this is why I’d like to take just a moment to defend Peter.
Yes, he’s usually used as the sermon illustration of the one who lacks faith enough to walk on the water. Then again, how many others got out of the boat? None. And really, this was his first try. Have you ever tried walking on water? It’s really hard. Even when the water is frozen, one slight misstep and you’ll end up flat on your back. Let’s give Peter a break because one thing we should not assume is that this reading is telling us is that we should stay put, in the safety of our metaphoric boats, and not risk doing the impossible.
What would be the equivalent of walking on water for you? Maybe there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but have convinced yourself that you can’t? Maybe there’s a broken relationship where reconciliation seems impossible? Maybe there’s a grudge or wound that you’ve held onto for so long that it’s become a part of who you are, an indelible scar on your soul?
Maybe it’s our church’s chance to walk on water. Maybe it’s risking offending people to really make a difference in the world. Maybe it’s envisioning our congregations in a new way and risking failure to become a new and vibrant church. Maybe our entire world needs to jump over the gunnels of what has always been to recreate our world without it’s dependancy on environmental destruction, deep, desperate poverty, and war.
Is this easy? No. Did you notice that when Peter jumped overboard, Jesus didn’t calm the waters for him? He was there in the howling wind and breaking waves. Jesus called him into the chaos but seemed to expect him to hop the crests with him. If we have the faith to jump overboard with Jesus, we probably shouldn’t expect smooth seas either. If we want to escape other’s expectation of who we are, should we not expect to earn some judgemental looks? If we wish to transform our church, can we not expect objections from those who are fine with the way things are? If we try to transform our world into one ruled by love and justice, can we not expect anger from those who profit from a world ruled by greed and fear?
As the people of Virginia yesterday stood against those who sew hate and racism, did they know that what they were about to do could be dangerous? Did those clergy who marched for love know that they might receive scorn from many, some from their own congregations? Of course they knew but following Christ sometimes means stepping into the chaos.
It just might be a bit unrealistic to think that when we hop out of the comfort of our deck chair, that we too won’t sink below the surface a few times. And sure, maybe Peter failed to walk on water, and maybe it was a lack of faith that caused him to sink but then again, he did still have faith enough to reach out and take the rescuing hand of Jesus. Jesus was there with Peter in the chaos, Jesus was there offering a guiding hand, leading him back to the safety of his boat from where, when Peter was ready, he could try water walking again. That same hand is there for us as well. When we try something new but fail, when we imagine a world as it could be but others don’t share in our vision, when fear overtakes us, Jesus is there with us in the chaos. Jesus is just over the side of what we know, what we’re comfortable with, telling us, “Come, step into the torrent, I’ll be here if you start to sink.”