Walking on Water

A Walk in the Water   The Rev. Joanna Seibert

 August 13, 2017 Searcy

14A, Matthew 14:22-33

The story of Peter's brief water excursion appears exclusively in the gospel of Matthew. Mark includes only the story of Jesus walking across the sea and calming the storm. John has an even shorter version.  Luke leaves the story out entirely. The three gospel writers who do tell the story all agree that it follows the feeding of the five thousand, and that Jesus' calming of the storm at sea is a miracle worked only for the disciples--- an unusual occurrence in the New Testament.

There is something so appealing about Peter, brash, passionate, always rushing into things, saying what others are only thinking, doing what others would not dare. It is Peter who asks Jesus to explain his parables, answers Jesus' questions first, understands Jesus' true identity, but fails to understand the cost. Continually Peter is the disciple who takes risks, makes great leaps of faith, stumbles, but keeps brushing himself off and gets up totry again. Like the seed sown on rocky soil, he sprouts rapidly but dies back quickly.  It is easy to love Peter, for he is so much like most of us, full of faith one minute and full of doubt the next. He is real. He wears his heart on his sleeve. What you see is what you get.

But let's get on with our story. After feeding five thousand men, besides women and children, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him.   Herbert O'Driscoll tells us that Jesus is always pushing the disciples and us toward independence. He is always encouraging initiative, pushing us ahead of him.

While Jesus goes alone to pray, the disciples are caught in a storm. In their distress, Jesus appears to them walking on the turbulent water.

At first the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost. How frequently do we do the same? Christ is often a shadowy figure. We consistently fail to recognize his over powering presence in our lives.  We allow the Christ we are expecting to dim our vision to the Christ who is standing right beside us.

As Jesus gets closer, Peters says to him, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water."  Now this is a strange thing to say. Barbara Brown Taylor believes Peter is testing Jesus. If this is so, why doesn't Peter say, "Lord, if it is you, make this storm stop right now?”  But the test that Peter proposes is: "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water."  Peter asks to duplicate what Jesus does.  "Teach me to do what you can do. Take away my doubt. Make me have faith."

"Come," Jesus says. So Peter swings his legs over the side of the rocking boat while all the other disciples watch with their hearts pounding in their throats as he places his feet on the surface of the  turbulent water. With the waves crashing against the side of the boat, the wind whipping his hair into his eyes-- Peter puts his feet flat on top of the water, takes a huge trembling gasp, and stands. He takes a few hesitant steps towards Jesus across the heaving surface, like those first steps he took as a toddler. He is doing fine until a gust of wind almost topples him. Peter gets scared, and feels his feet sinking into the black waves below. He goes down like a rock.

Even if you have never tried to walk on water, you know how Peter feels. You are learning to ride a bicycle, and have gained enough speed that suddenly you stop wobbling and start flying.  The wind is in your hair, the scenery is whizzing by, when just as suddenly you lose your confidence. You drop one foot to the ground and the whole adventure comes crashing down on top of you.

Or maybe you are standing up in front of a meeting to say something you passionately believe. At first the words just flow from your mouth, exactly the words you need at right moment, and then you look at all those blank faces staring back at you, and you lose your nerve. Your brain turns to mush.  You quickly sit down, your cheeks burning, your hands sweating, and your heart throbbing in your ears.

"LORD, SAVE ME," Peter cries out, and Jesus does, reaching out his hand, catching him, hauling him out of the cold water like a big, frightened flounder, dragging him over to where the other disciples pull him back into the boat.  And then the awful words: "O man of little faith, why Did You Doubt?" So why don’t we name Peter, doubting Peter, the name Jesus gives him, instead giving Thomasthe name?

These are the same words many of us ask ourselves every day. Why don't I have more faith? Why can't I trust God? Why am I afraid to let go and let God care for me? Why do I doubt? I believe I am in God's hands and they are good hands, but then the person I most love dies. The lonliness goes on and on, I lose faith, and I begin to sink.

I believe that God is present and active in the world, but how do we reconcile all the innocent suffering occurring with heart wrenching regularity around us?/   Believing that bad things will not happen to good people of faith is like/ being in a bullring and thinking that the bull is not going to attack us because we are vegetarians./

Let us suppose this story had been told differently. What if Peter jumps out of the boat with perfect confidence, lands splat/ with both feet flat on the water and smiles across the waves at Jesus, surfing towards him without a moment's hesitation?  What if the other disciples follow suit, piling out of the boat after Peter. All of them, with perfect faith, romp and run on the surf while the storm rages and the wind beats the sails, and lightning splits the dark night above their heads.

This is how Cecil B. DeMille would have written this story. It might even be a better story, but it would not be our story. The truth about us is that we are so like Peter. The truth about us is that we obey and fear, we walk and sink, we believe and doubt. But it is not like we do only one or the other. We do both. Our faith and our doubts are not mutually exclusive; they both exist in us at the same time, buoying us up and bearing us down, giving us courage and feeding our fears, supporting our weight on the wild seas of our lives and sinking us like stones.

Which is why we need Jesus. Which is why we would not be caught dead on the water without him. Our fears and doubts may paralyze us, but this is often the time we STOP/ long enough to catch a glimpse of him beside us in the storm.  We take one step to God and God takes a million steps towards us.

One more point about what Jesus does when we are in the storm?   He gets into the boat with us.  He does not give us directions from offshore by short wave radio. He gets into the boat of life with us.

My image of God when we suffer was given to me by the grandmother of a young patient I visited who was dying.  I remember reluctantly entering the room of that little girl at Children’s Hospital whose body had been disfigured by cancer and its treatment.  She was in constant pain. As I neared her bed, I was overcome almost immediately by her suffering--so unjust, unfair, unreasonable.  Even more overpowering was the presence of her grandmother lying in bed beside her with her huge body embracing this precious, inhuman suffering.  I stood in awe, for I knew I was on holy ground.  I was in the presence of the living God. I will never forget the great gentle arms and body of this grandmother.  She never spoke while I was there.  She was holding and participating in suffering that she could not relieve, but somehow her silent presence was relieving it.  No words could express the magnitude of her love.  I know this is where God is when we suffer, and I think this is where God calls us to be as well.

What does all this mean?  We do not have answers to suffering and doubt--but we are given the promise and the experience of a relationship with a God who hears us and walks beside us. When we are in a storm, Christ comes to us; sometimes in a form we may have difficulty recognizing. He reaches out to us and gets into the boat with us. And every time we step out of the boat, attempting something that seems impossible,  Jesus' hand also will be there to keep us afloat. So... let's go get our feet wet.

    * Barbara Brown Taylor, "Saved by Doubt," pp. 21-26, The Seeds of Heaven, 1990.

    * Herbert O'Driscoll, The Word Among Us, pp. 84-85.

    * Fred Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 31-36.

    * Ralph Groskoph, Worship that Works, 11th Sunday after Pentecost, year A.