As we look at today’s gospel reading for the next few minutes – I invite you to let your imagination pull you into the scene. As you think about the story, ask yourself if there is some person, or some idea, or some words that grab your attention. Are there words that seem to be saying something directly to you? Or is there a particular person that you identify with?
Here’s how the story goes – first some background and then the story itself. Try putting yourself into the action.
This story comes immediately after the one we heard last week where Jesus and his disciples feed more than 5000 people with just a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread. This miraculous dinner obviously causes some excitement. Then, it seems, that in order to bring emotional levels back down to some kind of reasonable level, Jesus makes the disciples go away, get in a boat and head for the other side of the lake. And he graciously pushes the crowds away – tells them to go home so he can have some alone time.
Jesus heads up the mountain to pray, and while he’s up on the mountain by himself, the disciples find themselves in the boat – out quite a way from land – in the middle of a horrific storm.
Are any of you boaters – or have you had some experience being out on the water? Imagine yourself onboard with the disciples in this story – on a sailboat – probably about 25 feet long and 7 feet wide, with only enough room to hold about twelve people – the twelve disciples, in our case.
The sea of Galilee is actually more like a lake. It’s fairly shallow – about 150 feet at the deepest point. And because it’s shallow, the winds can whip up the water fast and furious without much warning.
The potential for dangerous storms is made even worse because of the high mountains right by the shore. When the cool dry air off the mountains meets the warm, moist, semi-tropical air around the sea, it creates strong funnel shaped winds that drop down onto the water and cause violent waves. This makes for serious danger for anyone caught out on a boat during a storm.
The sea of Galilee is only about 64 square miles so you’re never really out of sight of land when you’re out on the water – never out of sight of land when it’s daytime, that is. And remember: as we’re out here with the disciples, it’s night time, and there is no artificial light 2000 years ago when this story happens. So as you’re imagining yourself in this boat – imagine pitch black – in the middle of a scary storm. And it seems that we’re in a whole lot of trouble!
Back on the mountain, it turns out that Jesus has been monitoring our treacherous voyage. Then, somewhere around 4:00 o’clock in the morning, as we’re out on the stormy sea, we look out into the darkness. We see – we think we see – Jesus walking on the water. With the terror of the wind and the waves, we’re not thinking very rationally at this point – so we don’t quite know what to make of this vision of Jesus out there in the middle of a storm.
Then we hear – we think we hear – Jesus’ voice saying “Take heart, it is I – don’t be afraid.”
I hope you’re still with me – still imagining that you’re sitting in this boat, taking this all in. You may want to take some time at this point to try to make some kind of sense of this scene. But, of course, none of this makes sense – rationally. We’re in the land of the miraculous here, most likely suspended for the moment between faith and doubt – suspended between faith and fear.
But our friend Peter, impetuous Peter who always seems to have something crazy to offer – Peter hops up and asks Jesus to command him to walk on the water too. Sounds like a pretty stupid idea! But Jesus says: OK – come on out of the boat.
Now, as you’re watching this – what do you think? Should Peter have kept his mouth shut and stayed in the boat? . . .
Stay in the boat – actually, this is exactly the conclusion many early Christians came to when they read this scripture. Stay faithfully in the boat! For early Christians, the boat represented the stability and safety of the church . . . and, they thought, “That’s where we’re supposed to ride out the storm!”
But Peter, being Peter – he hops out of the boat . . . and he actually does start walking toward Jesus. At that moment, he’s doing exactly what Jesus is doing – he’s walking on water. And doing what Jesus does – isn’t that part of our commission as Christians?
But then, as we’re watching all this from the boat, we see Peter start to sink as he realizes what he’s doing: He’s doing something that he can’t possibly do – and in the middle of a deadly storm at that. He’s scared – he takes his eyes off Jesus – and he starts to go under.
But from some innate sense of knowing where true safety lies – from his deep, yet still-young, still-developing faith – he knows where salvation comes from. Peter cries out for Jesus to save him – and Jesus reaches out to him and pulls him up.
So – who do you identify with at this point in the story: Peter or the other disciples – the impetuous, risk-taking Peter or the rational disciples who see their best chance of survival in the safety of the boat?
Should Peter have stayed in the boat? He could have saved himself the embarrassment of failure by just stopping to think before he hopped out. He could have avoided being publicly chastised when Jesus said to him “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
About ten years ago, I came back to the church for the first time in more than thirty years. I grew up in the Methodist Church. But then I went off to college: I was on my own and life got much more complicated and busy – I was exploring new ways of living, new ways of thinking. And then I found myself on a career path that consumed pretty much all my attention and energy. My husband and I worked together – as musicians. We lived a wonderful and joyous life together for about thirty years.
But when Dave died suddenly in 2004, my life – my whole world was shattered. I was alone, broken and hurting. That’s when I found Jesus – or, perhaps, he reached out and found me – and that’s when I found refuge in the church. I found stability and safety in the church – a place “to ride out the storm!”
During that period of grieving and healing, I was in a loving place where I began to connect with an inner spiritual center, realigning my energy and heart with a truth much deeper and more profound than I’d ever known before. But as I was continuing to live and grow in the church, I started hearing voices – voices from the church family, as well as a voice inside myself. I started wondering about the possibility of ordination . . . and going back to school, to seminary.
There was also the entirely rational voice in my head that said: “You know, that sounds like a pretty stupid idea! Going back to school at the age of 54 isn’t going to be easy – you may fall flat on your face. And besides you’ve just now found a nice, safe place to “ride out the rest of the storm” – the rest of your life. Why jump out of the boat at this point?
But I did end up jumping out. It was risky – an impetuous move, maybe . . . I wonder if that’s what it was like for Peter.
Like Peter, I’ve taken my eyes off Jesus lots of times. I’ve gotten scared and started to sink. But Jesus has always been there to grab me, to catch me, to support me . . . and set me up straight again. That’s the thing about the gospel, I think – it doesn’t just tell you to do something. It makes it possible to do it. Sometimes, it actually makes it seem impossible not to.
So what do you think: should Peter have stayed in the boat?
Actually, the good news is that Jesus is always with us wherever we are – and he works through all of us wherever we are. Jesus is both in the boat and on the water outside the boat! But you know what The Spirit is saying to me in today’s gospel story?
“If you’re even going to begin to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!”
What boat might you be called to step out of ?