Common English Bible (CEB)
22 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone. 24 Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. 25 Very early in the morning he came to his disciples, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.
27 Just then Jesus spoke to them, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
28 Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
29 And Jesus said, “Come.”
Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”
31 Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind settled down.
33 Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
For the past few weeks here at the church, it’s kind of been what I like to call “the calm before the storm.” Most of the big summer programs we’ve hosted here at the church have ended, to make way for the next season’s events. Many of you, if not most of you, have had your vacations by now, and if not, you’re planning on one last one coming up soon before the dreaded beginning of the school year. We all seem to be waiting with bated breath for that one first drop of water to fall from the sky, and deluge of busy-ness that comes with the new school year descends upon us. The clouds above us are heavy with potential rain.
Much like the whirlwind of activity we all will be facing in the next half of the year, there is another storm in this scripture, a far more literal storm, if you can imagine. Have you ever been on a boat in the middle of a lake or ocean during a storm? It can be pretty scary, to tell you the truth. The winds pick up. Water is collecting in the floor of the boat. Waves get rockier, and it’s harder to control the boat. You’re risks increase exponentially. As it happens, this is the stage that is set up for us today.
In this story, we see Jesus sending the disciples off in a boat while he goes into the mountains to pray. All appears to be calm at this point; Jesus has done this kind of thing before in going off alone to pray. The disciples, many of whom were competent sailors, probably felt that there was nothing to worry about in sailing across the sea. This, I imagine, is how most of us feel at the moment. We’re settling in for the next season, ready for what we’re going to do, experienced b years past and eyes peeled for the unexpected to arise. Sure enough, it does, as a storm overtakes the boat. The boat, while in competent hands, was still a difficult situation in the best of circumstances. The chances of being knocked overboard are high in a storm, even for the most seasoned of sailors. The disciples were holding on for their lives, ready for anything.
That is, ready for anything but the impossible.
Late that night (or early in the morning, probably around 2 or 3 am), whoever was on watch looked out on the water during the storm and saw… something. Rather, someone was out there… floating? No, there’s too much of them out of the water to be floating. They’re…they’re walking! Who is that? WHAT IS THAT! The gospel account reads almost as if the whole crew of disciples turned into the Scooby Doo gang, leaping to the conclusion that, “It’s a g-g-g-g-ghost!” But sure enough, it wasn’t a ghost, but rather their teacher, their rabbi, Jesus, walking out there on the water, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t he be walking on the water? Why isn’t anyone? At least that’s the attitude Jesus seems to have. In disbelief, Peter, the perennially impulsive disciple, asks that if it really IS Jesus, and he’s not a g-g-g-g-ghost, he should invite him onto the water. AND THEN JESUS DOES.
What does it feel like when someone calls your bluff? It’s happened to me countless times playing poker with my grandma or with my college friends. I’m also a terrible liar, which makes it even worse. I have the worst poker face, and frankly, I imagine old Petey had a bad poker face too. When someone calls your bluff like that, you wind up feeling sheepish; now you’ve gone and bet it all and you’re in a lot more trouble than you originally wagered. For Peter, it was actually putting his money where his mouth was, and getting out of the boat.
So, he does. Probably with a bit of hesitation, and quite a bit of fear and trembling, though. He gets out of the boat, and wonder beyond wonders, he actually starts walking on the water. He actually does it! As long as he had his eyes on Jesus, he was able to walk on water—a surface not known for its capacity to hold up under great pressure. Only until a strong wind came and knocked him off balance did he start to sink into the water. Probably he was scared to death when that started to happen. Things got to be too much. All the variables came crashing in around him: am I going to make it? Am I going to be knocked over? Will I sink? Will I die?
Here’s where we need to really pay attention. At that moment, when all seemed to be overwhelming, when everything crashed down around him and he started sinking, Jesus reached out and grabbed him, helped him up, and took him back to the safety of the boat. Jesus playfully chides him, saying “Why’d you do that? You were doing great! Where’d that faith go, Pete? You had it!” Meanwhile, the other disciples are all googly-eyed and in shock, saying “Surely you are the son of God!” Jesus, smiling, probably shook it off. I don’t imagine Jesus in this moment as stern teacher, but more like that good natured but ridiculously talented friend and mentor, willing to invite you out to do something outside your comfort zone and stay there until you can’t do it anymore, helping you when you need it, and cheering you on all the way.
I wanted to tell you all about this story because it’s the best representation of how it is in the church when it comes to service. Jesus is out there, doing his thing. 11 out of 12 people are just going to hang out in the boat watching the events unfold, and 1 out of the 12 is going to have the guts to volunteer to go out and walk on the water. The good news is: it actually is possible to go out and do what Jesus calls us to do. You just have to keep your eyes on Jesus when you do it.