I have never walked on water, but I have walked on walls while on the water. Serving in the navy, especially in the area in and around the North Sea in winter has given me the opportunity to see what the forces of wind and current can do to churn up waves and almost casually smash them against a 400 foot, four thousand ton vessel and rock it sideways until the walls – we navy types called them bulkheads, were just as convenient as the floors (or decks) to walk upon. To eat we would sit on the floor and munch on sandwiches hoping that our stomachs were sturdy enough to hold everything down. The buffeting of wind and wave got so intense near the English Channel one winter that our main radar sheared off its mounting and crashed into the sea. Having witnessed men clinging to safety nets like spiders on a web as wave after wave pounded and flooded the aft deck of our little ship while we were trying to secure a tow into port during a vicious storm has made it much easier for me to understand how the ancient people of the Bible saw the churning seas and waterways as the primordial forces of chaos at work in the world. The sea represented all of the dark and fearful forces, powers and anxieties that threaten the goodness and peace of life.
In our passage this morning the disciples are alone for the first time without Jesus many miles from shore, Jesus having stayed behind to pray in solitude. The waves were literally torturing the boat, buffeting it back and forth, the very forces of chaos threatening them. But a number of the disciples are sturdy fishermen who for generations have worked this lake in storm and darkness and fear comes not from the pounding waves, but from their seeing Jesus walking towards them on the water.
In college I had to take a unit of Physical Education in the art of wrestling – I remember very little from those painful and humiliating weeks, except this, if you were on top you were in control. The same idea is at work in our scripture this morning – It is not that Jesus couldn’t find a boat in the wee hours of the morning and walking was the next best alternative – rather, Jesus walking on the water would represent to all who saw it God conquering the forces of chaos, for in Scripture only God could hold the forces of chaos at bay.
So, we have the disciples on a boat being tortured by the waves far far from land in the early morning darkness before dawn and here comes Jesus embodying the very power of God walking on the water, to show them who was in charge, that they need not worry, and the first thing they feel is not relief or elation – “It’s JESUS! – YEAH!” but rather, fear strikes their hearts and they think that Jesus must be a ghost. Why – because only God can walk on eater and have power over the chaos and they in their hearts continue to fail to understand who Jesus is.
It’s been 25 years now since my friend Lisa died, died young, not even 18, died after lingering for a week in a coma as her body slowly shut down, organs failing after she went into cardiac arrest due to a severe asthma attack. I had been away, overseas on a school English Department spring break trip – and this was before cell phones and Facebook and even a public internet and as expensive as it was to call home, I didn’t and had no idea that anything had happened at all. No idea until my parents met me as soon as I had arrived back, they having driven from New York to Annapolis Maryland to take me home to see her one last time before the death spiral of her organs was complete, to say good bye.
Having driven hundreds of miles my parents turned around and drove hundreds more back to New York and after a brief stop at home to the hospital. Alone, I went in to the ICU first meeting her nurse who told me that they were just waiting for the drugs to wear off so that the doctors could officially declare her brain dead, then her mother who had a walkman in her hands – a cassette player and earphones with a tape of her most recent choral concert, to try to wake her up, she explained to me. Go in to her, she said. Speak to her. If she hears your voice, maybe she’ll wake up. Talk to her, please.
The room was noisy, not from people, for I was alone, but from the beeps and huffs and gurgles of monitors and respirator and other equipment fighting the losing battle to keep her alive. And I looked at her and saw the effects of organ failure upon the human body rendering it unrecognizable, for no amount of imagination could transform the person laying in that hospital bed back into the young woman who I had help teach to drive or tutored in math or had spent countless hours talking and talking and talking. Who had just a few months before wept at the idea that time and life might soon be drawing us apart as college and careers would add distance.
Talk to her, her mother said and perhaps she will wake up, as if the sound of my voice had the power to push back death fast closing in, as if the love shared in a deep and meaningful friendship could provide the miracle needed. Fear absolutely seized me – what to do, what to do?
So there’s Jesus walking on the water, coming to the boat, to the disciples. The waves are torturing the boat, crashing one after the other, pounding. Peter, standing in for every disciple, a mix of faith and doubt, calls out Lord, if it is you – the doubt here expressed in a word that means vacillation – faith to doubt to faith to doubt – back and forth. Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water. And it is Jesus and Jesus says “come.” If Peter had in faith recognized Jesus he never would have left the boat – for Jesus would have met him there in his moment and place of need, right there in the boat.
In our own faith, so often the faith of Peter, vacillating back and for between faith and doubt, fear and strength, do we believe that in our time of need when chaos is not just knocking at our door, but smashing against it, torturing it, that Jesus, our Emmanuel, will be present and not just present, but present in power, walking on the water, Lord of heaven and earth, even over the power of death itself? Faith for us is not about us being able to walk in the water, only God can do that, but rather in the face of all evidence, that God in and through Christ Jesus, is with us on the boat as it makes its way through every storm of life. Amen.