Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Walking on Water”
Rev. Art Ritter
August 9, 2020
Mathew 14: 22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
While on a run the other day I noticed a young girl who was learning to ride a bike with the help of her father. The pair caught my eyes because the girl, while young, seemed older to me than most first time bicycle riders. She still had training wheels on her bike and her dad was holding onto the seat as they moved along slowly. The girl’s face portrayed a look of terror that offered an indication of the great risk that she was taking.
I couldn’t help but recall the experience of my youngest daughter Amelia. She too was a bit timid of riding a bicycle for a long time. I remember that when we took the training wheels off and went out to tackle the sidewalk with just two wheels, Amelia did pretty well. But she didn’t trust herself at all. I walked along behind her, holding onto her seat as she pedaled. She would yell, “Daddy, daddy, don’t let go!” Right about then I would let go. And Amelia would pedal down the sidewalk safely for a few feet. Then she would glance back and notice and I had let go. Immediately her successful ride ended. She either fell to the ground or simply put her feet to the ground. “Daddy, why did you let go? I told you not to let go! I can’t do this unless you hold onto me!
This morning’s Scripture lesson is from the gospel of Matthew’s account of the disciples facing a challenge much more formidable than learning how to ride a bicycle. They were battling a terrible storm at sea. Weary of the day’s activities of healing and teaching, Jesus had gone ahead and was praying from the safety of the peaceful shore. The disciples were on a boat, facing the wrath of the wind and the waves as a storm front passed over the Sea of Galilee. In the midst of the storm, Jesus came to his disciples, walking on the water. At first they believed he was a ghost. Perhaps they were more afraid of him than they were the wind and the waves. Jesus then told them, “It is me. Take heart and have no fear.” Peter still wasn’t reassured. “If it is really you, let me walk on the water with you.” Of course Peter took only a step or two, noticed the wind and the waves, became frightened and began to sink. He cried out to Jesus who reached out his hand saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got back into the boat, the wind and storm ceased.
There are two common ways of contemplating this piece of Scripture. One view is to say “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat.” That was actually the title of a best selling book by John Ortberg back in 2001. If you have enough faith to trust in Jesus in all circumstances, then you can find the courage to do great things for God. When you really get to know Jesus, when you follow his command to step out of the boat, you get to walk upon the waves, and that is when you show the world what your faith is made of. Ortberg teaches that Peter’s initial faith is something to be applauded and that his later doubt is something to be avoided. Ortberg calls those who would hang on timidly to the shelter and safety of the boat, “Boat Potatoes.”
The problem with this interpretation is that at the end of hearing the teaching, most of us will feel worse about ourselves and our faith. Most, if not all of us, fail at these tests. Some might feel motivated about the walking on water thing, ready to give it a try. Yet one commentator notes that after hearing a sermon on this scripture, we know that the whole walking on water thing will fail before we even leave the parking lot. We want to believe, but rationally and emotionally we just know that we will sink immediately after leaving the boat. Walking on water is beyond our capability of faith.
The other view is that Peter should have just been quiet in the first place. When he demanded that Jesus show him how to walk on the water, he put Jesus to an unfair test. He asked Jesus to prove he had the divine power, he challenged his authority, instead of remaining faithful, quiet, and obedient in the boat. According to this perspective, faith means staying in the boat, trusting that Jesus put your there and will keep you secure there. Peter has no chance alone against the wind and the waves of chaos.
The problem with this view of the story is that we know that a life of faith should demand some courage and resolve. Faith can’t be exercised without encountering something akin to a storm or tested without some wind and waves. Trusting Jesus surely must mean more that hiding quietly in a boat without anything to offer to the situation.
As I read this passage over again in the midst of a world wide pandemic, I embrace a different interpretation. It is not one that tells me that the only way to find Jesus is to get out of the boat with faith strong enough to walk on dark and raging waters. And it is not one that tells me the only way to be truly faithful is to trust that Jesus will control everything while all I do is take an occasional peek from the security of the boat. When I hear this story today I find the lesson is that somehow in the midst of that dark and stormy night, somehow in the midst of tremendous vulnerability, the presence of God was there. God’s own Son stood right in front of the disciples. Jesus didn’t require the faith to walk on water. Jesus didn’t demand faith that would trust everything without even trying. Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he was there, and that he would be there with them in the midst of trial and fear. That assurance of that presence was enough. Faith was not to be proven in leaving the boat or to be failed by hiding in the boat. It came simply through trusting in his presence.
In a Fourth of July weekend sermon at Washington National Cathedral, columnist and commentator David Brooks talks about faith as the ability being able to see beauty in a storm. He quoted Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who understood how bumpy faith is, especially in moments like we are living through now. The popular ideology is that religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate. But on the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous and tortourous. Religion is not a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and the desperate, or an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous turnt of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. What keeps faith alive during storms like now is the awareness of the essential goodness of life and the one who is with us through it all.
The disciples came to understand that in the midst of following Jesus they would sometimes float and sometimes sink. Sometimes they would have moments of doubt and fear and sometimes they would feel perfectly capable of surfing through the highest of waves. In each of those times, in every time, Jesus is there, with arms outstretched, ready to provide us whatever is needed to remind us of the promise of life and to get us to a safe and secure place to understand it all.
Calvin Seminary’s Scott Hoezee writes, “if you want to walk on water, you have to indeed get out of the boat. Now and again the community of faith needs the courage and vision of people who step out in faith. But there are times when life in the boat requires nothing more than recognizing your doubts and your fears and to keep rowing against the wind and the waves to where you know the presence of God resides.” You press on- not because your faith has removed all of the doubts and storms and fear. You press on- not because you are confident that can handle the wind and the waves alone. You press on- because you believe in Jesus when he said, “It is I. Do not be afraid! I am with you.”
In that same sermon I mentioned earlier, David Brooks writes that storms are a part of life. We can have a normal body response of fight or flight. Perhaps fight is trying to walk on the water triumphantly and flight is hiding in the boat helplessly. But another style of response emerges from the part of us that doesn’t have any shape or size or color or weight. Our soul. It is the part of us that gives meaning to things. It is the one that calls us to hunger for beauty, to pay attention to compassionate actions, to sacrifice for a neighbor, and to keep a neighbor safe. Brooks says these actions are the kind that Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount, vulnerability in the face of danger and gentleness in the midst of bitterness. They are acts that move us closer to the divine in the midst of storms and open the hearts of others who ride the waves with us.
In this time we find ourselves helpless upon the waves, tossed about by the uncertain winds of forces beyond our control. Yet we are assured that the very presence of God is always with us, even in such darkness, even in ways that surprise us and startle us. In our fear and confusion, someone walks toward us who chooses to be with us. The lesson of this story is that God, through Jesus is always trying to be with us even in the midst of our storms.