Jesus and Peter Walk on Water
Immediately he made the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead to the other side. . . He went up the mountain by himself to pray.
Very often in the Bible locations are symbolic. There is a kind of spiritual geography in the Bible. So it is no accident that Jesus and his disciples go their separate ways after he has fed the 5000. Jesus sends his followers onto the water, out across the lake in the boat, while he spends the evening in prayer up a mountain. The mountain of course represents everything that is solid and permanent and unchanging. “As old as the hills,” we say. There is something reliable and reassuring about mountains, even as they can be awe inspiring. Typically for Jesus he goes, to a place of quiet grandeur, to pray. The tops of mountains in many cultures, not least in the world of the Bible, are thought to be places near to God. Even the pagan gods of the Greeks and the Romans as well as those of the Canaanites who had occupied the land before the Isrealites, were often thought to live on a mountain top. The temple in Jerusalem is on the top of a “mountain.” And it is not just that a simplistic understanding of the universe places human beings on the ground and God above the sky. There is also something about the narrowness of the place. Everything else falls away. On the mountaintop there is a special kind of solitude. This is combined with a largeness of vision, a greater part of the world visible below, which invites thoughts of existence itself, of the infinite and of God.
When evening came he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.
There is a deliberate contrast that is being made. The water of the lake, the sea which the disciples are crossing, is the very opposite of mountains. For the Israelites the water of the sea, even the relatively tiny Sea of Galilee, represented instability and chaos, a disorder which threatens human existence. It is noticeable that the Jews were not a seafaring race, for all that they had become scattered throughout the ancient world, they hadn’t gone there in their own boats. It was the Philistines who were one of the “Sea Peoples” not the Israelites. And the Sea of Galilee was and is a particularly unstable body of water. It is constantly disturbed by the winds that blow down from the hills which surround it, one of which Jesus is praying on. In an instant the water could become like a boiling cauldron. Perhaps things weren’t quite that bad on this night There was wind, and the wind was against them. Their journey was a struggle, they were making very little progress toward their destination. But as yet the waves were not breaking over the boat, and they were in no immediate danger. In truth this is the disciples’ everyday life. A fair proportion of them are fishermen who had worked on this lake from childhood. This, without doubt, is not the first time they have struggled to cross the lake against the wind. Yes, the sea is an unstable and even unpredictable place, but it is also familiar. This is what they are used to dealing with. Through their lives they have acquired the skills to deal with most of what the sea will throw at them. This really is what their lives are made of, dealing with the chaos and uncertainty of water. Though at the back of their minds must have lurked the thought that sometimes human skill and determination and ingenuity is not enough. Sometimes even the most proficient sailors drown.
And early in the morning he walking toward them on the lake.
In the darkness of this night, Jesus steps onto the water of the lake and approaches the disciples in their boat. Walking on water is the very definition of the miraculous. To walk on water is to quite literally do the impossible. If you can do that, you can do anything. We still speak of those who we imagine will be able to achieve extraordinary things as “walking on water.” Walking on water defies what we know about how the world works. To walk on water is to defeat the “laws” of nature that hem human existence in. Jesus overcomes the instability and uncertainty of water, and makes it seem as solid and reliable as the dry land and the hill that he has just left. That Jesus can walk on water places him outside of what we already know about the world. In Jesus we are encountering something new, something quite unprecedented. Jesus is like us, but then again he is also utterly different from us. His presence in the world defies what we think we know about the world. Jesus walks on water!
Very often contemporary Christians try to avoid the miracle stories in the Gospels. We would really rather like to have a Jesus who doesn’t so obviously do the impossible. Not least because we worry that if Jesus does the impossible, Jesus himself must be impossible. We sometimes want to domesticate Jesus, make him fit into the world as we know it, the world where the impossible is, well, impossible. We would like to make Jesus a reassuring figure, someone who tells us what we already know, in a soothing voice. We don’t really want a Jesus who destroys our understanding of the world and our place in it. The water may be unstable, unpredictable and chaotic, but at least it is familiar. We are used to the capriciousness of life. Life is unreliable, but at least we can rely on it being unreliable in quite predictable ways. You can’t trust the sea, but at least you know that it will always be the sea. Jesus walking on water, like it is dry land throws everything into doubt. We would much prefer a Jesus who didn’t disturb our fundamental understanding like this. A Jesus who does miracles, a Jesus who walks on water is a terrifying prospect. If Jesus can do that, then nothing is certain, not even our uncertainty.
But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
Jesus walks across the water and comes close to the disciples struggling in the boat. When they see him they are, quite predictably, frightened. At first they think they are seeing a ghost. Or perhaps, a fear they won’t voice, they are seeing a demon. As frightening as the sea is, as difficult as their struggles have become as the night has worn on, someone walking on water is worse! Until they recognise Jesus. Perhaps when we are worrying about the Jesus who does miracles, and who could turn our world upside down, we would do well to remember that it is Jesus we are talking about. What Jesus can do is frightening, but as we come to know Jesus we know that he loves us. At the same time as being the one who can walk on water, the disciples recognise that Jesus is the one who has shared the intimacy of their lives. They have eaten together. They have travelled together. They have talked together. They have struggled on this lake together. They have laughed and cried and slept under the stars together. Their relationship with Jesus is, as anybody’s relationship with Jesus should be, a mixture of awe and affection.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
For now Peter’s fear of the sea, and his fear of what Jesus can do, is dispelled. He is inspired by his faith in Jesus. Typically for Peter he turns his knowledge of Jesus, and his faith in him into immediate, even premature, action. He heeds Jesus’ announcement of the Bible’s most frequent commandment: Do not be afraid. And he is inspired to attempt the impossible for himself. What plays out in the following moments dramatically illustrates the interplay between faith and fear and doubt that any of us might experience.
Peter answered, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And he said. “Come.”
Peter accepts Jesus’ invitation and climbs over the side of the boat. This is the ultimate act of faith. Peter attempts what he knows to be impossible, whilst trusting that Jesus will enable him to do it. And his faith is well directed. Trusting Jesus does indeed enable Peter to do what would otherwise be impossible. Peter walks on water as well.
Perhaps at that moment Peter also experiences something like vertigo. He is dizzied by what he sees himself doing. A moment or two after stepping out of the boat Peter’s attention is turned away from Jesus and toward himself. He begins to wonder how he is doing what he is doing. And at that moment uncertainty returns. Peter begins to doubt himself. What he is seeing now is not Jesus but only the wind and the waves around him and no solid boat to keep him safe. And now he becomes afraid. It is perhaps hard to say which really comes first. And it is difficult to tell which is more destructive to faith. Does Peter doubt because he has become afraid? Or does he become afraid because he has started to doubt? Whichever way it is, Peter’s faith, the connection between him and Jesus, is interrupted. Peter begins to sink into the water. At this point he becomes once again bound by the limitations which rule over everyone who has to live in the material world. He can’t walk on water. Water and dry ground do not work the same way.
But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
What is also clear, however, is that fear and doubt cannot completely banish Peter’s trust in Jesus. Peter cries out to Jesus. This is hardly less of an act of faith than stepping out of the boat in the first place, even if it is motivated by desperation rather than confidence. He still looks in the right direction for help, even in this impossible situation. Peter knows and trusts Jesus well enough to know where to turn in this crisis. And Peter’s faith is still not misplaced. Jesus being Jesus, and being all compassion, reaches out and takes Peter by the hand and leads him back to the boat. As soon as Peter and Jesus are back in the boat the wind ceases, and the journey to the other side is no longer as difficult as it has been. Not for the first time in a boat the disciples are awed by what they have seen Jesus do.
And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
What has played out on the mountain and on the lake, and between Peter and Jesus, this night is the whole gospel in miniature. Jesus has come from the place a stability and certainty, from nearness with God, and joined human beings in the place of their lives and their struggles. Jesus stepping onto the chaotic waters is the incarnation. That God can be human is impossible and it is terrifying. But it is also wonderful and reassuring because it is Jesus. And faith in Jesus makes the impossible possible. There is nothing which cannot be accomplished in and through and by us with an undivided focus on Jesus. A focus which may be interrupted but never completely destroyed by the fears and doubts life creates in us. Faith in Jesus is what will take his disciples safely to their journey’s end.
Perhaps there is an epilogue to this story. Later, early on another morning, Peter is again in a boat on this lake with the other disciples, at the end of another night of fruitless struggle, when he sees Jesus. This time Peter realises that he doesn’t need to do the impossible to be with Jesus. Again he climbs over the side of the boat, but this time he swims to be with his Lord.