“The Calm Sea” by Gustave Courbet (1869). Public Domain.
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Matthew 14:22-33 New Revised Standard Version One of the pleasures of this summer has been finding a great swimming hole not too far from our house in Starksboro. It is usually not busy and is both safe and challenging for our children. On those especially hot days this year, it’s been the place to go to cool off.
For many, swimming during hot summer days is a valued childhood memory. I was in elementary school when my mother would take me with my brother and three cousins and to a nearby camp for lessons. I remember the strong smell of an over-chlorinated pool, and I remember hanging on the side of the pool and learning how to kick. A year or two later and I remember diving for rings at the bottom of the pool. While I did not become a great swimmer in those few years of lessons, but I did learn how to swim.
Today, some of us aren’t huge fans of swimming, but find being close to water restorative. I think water is a marvel and awesome to be near. When Leah and I lived close to the ocean, we would go out during storms to watch waves hit the beach. Several years ago, I had a friend whose husband received a bad diagnosis. They moved to the coast for the summer, right on the water in a quiet part of Maine while undergoing treatment. She believed that the being that close to the ebb and flow of the world – the constant sway of the ocean water, the smell of the fresh ocean air, had a hand in his treatment being successful.
Personally, I’d rather be near the water than in the water or floating above it. I’ve never felt that confident outside a swimming pool and have a touch of anxiety now whenever I am on a boat. In this way, I guess I resonate with today’s gospel reading takes place on the water and in the water. It deals with a range of essential tenets of our faith, like the unique nature of Jesus of Nazareth, fear, and comfort, and having faith in Jesus to call us out and save us. But I think we need to spend a few minutes on what water meant to people in first-century Palestine.
Imagine that you are a native Galilean living at the time of Jesus. You can’t read, but most people around you can’t read either. Maybe you are likely a day laborer, working with stone or in the fields. Perhaps you make goods like clothing or tents, or you might be a baker, kneading dough and tending the village oven.
Most likely, you are afraid of open water. You remember your stories. In the beginning, the Spirit of God swept over the waters, what Genesis calls the “face of the deep.” In this story, God created the world out of the chaos of the deep, making land, plants, animals, humans, and the like. But the open water is still considered a place of chaos. Unlike your cultural neighbors, the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Cretans, your people stayed away from the water, except those daring fishers who paddled around the Sea of Galilee. But even they would only go as far as they could see the coast.
Likely you did not know how to swim. Nobles perhaps were taught, likely by someone from another part of the world. Maybe fishers learned the basics. But you would have been a land lover, one who enjoyed the sight of the Sea of Galilee but had no interest in getting out there. If you were a disciple of Jesus, and he told you to take a boat over to the other side of the lake, out of sight of the coast, your anxiety level just when up, even if you’ve been fishing these waters all your life.
Our gospel text this morning picks up where last week’s left off. Jesus shares an incredible meal with thousands of people. It’s a meal that challenges the murderous feast of Herod Antipas and expresses the kingdom of God where people receive what they need in community.
Of course, Jesus is still grieving the loss of his cousin John, and while he dismisses the crowds, he sends his disciples ahead of him in a boat. They have more work to do in Gennesaret, on the other side of the lake. It appears that Jesus is still looking for some time to be alone, to grieve perhaps, to consider all that happened that day, and to pray.
Meanwhile, on the sea of Galilee, a storm hits, and the disciples are thrown about in their boat. Remember, water is scary. Maybe Peter and Andrew and James and John were okay out there. They were fishermen after all and had seen this before. But the others? The land-loving day laborers, a tax collector, a doctor, and a few makers from Galilee? They would have been in a panic. So, as our story goes, Jesus walks out to them, and in their stressed-out minds, they think it is a ghost. But, as Jesus says many times during the gospels, he replies, “Do not be afraid; take heart, it’s me.”
Peter’s not entirely sure it’s Jesus, so he asks that if it is him, that he be able to come out of the boat and walk with him. And he does for a little while until he takes his eyes off Jesus and begins to sink. When I was little, I remember hearing this story in church and thinking about the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The Coyote would often be tricked into running off a cliff, but he wouldn’t fall until he noticed that he had run off the cliff. Is that what’s happening here?
As Peter begins to sink, he calls out to Jesus. And Jesus saves him. And Jesus says something about “You of little faith,” which we often interpret as Peter’s lack of faith until we realize that Peter was the only one to leave the boat, and Jesus talks about having little faith like faith the size of a mustard seed as a positive thing. Once everyone is in the boat, including Jesus, the storm calms, and the disciples worship Jesus, calling him the Son of God.
I’ve sat through many sermons on this passage. And for those of you who have as well, many a preacher's refrain is, “If we only keep our eyes on Jesus, we can do miraculous things.” Sometimes it’s put negatively, “We struggle in life when we take our eyes off Jesus.” But I think that there’s more to it than a simple call to faith or a dangerous way of describing why we face struggles. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience that would have a similar background to these native Galileans. They also saw water as something primordial, something chaotic and dangerous. Psalm 69 is a great hymn that uses the imagery of drifting out at sea to describe life’s peril:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God… But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me… For the Lord hears the needy, and does not despise his own that are in bonds. Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.
Perhaps, we can relate to this feeling. There are times in our lives, or maybe during this pandemic when we’ve felt like we’re drifting, treading water, and wondering if we’ll see land again. Perhaps we’re even getting a little tired, and we’ve become worried that we’ll sink. This is how one ancient Psalmist described the feelings of being overwhelmed and entering into a new territory of uncertainty, anxiety, and danger. And yet, the lament doesn’t end without hope. God hears the needy and doesn’t forget them. And because of this, even the sea, which is causing all this trouble, praises God.
Back in our gospel, we often focus on Peter and what type of faith he expressed in the story. He has enough to step out and surf with Jesus but loses it at some point when he’s standing on the water. Recently, theologian Mitzi Smith argued that his lack of faith happened in the boat when he asked, “Jesus, if it’s really you, let me come out.” Perhaps, Smith argues, Peter should have stayed in the boat with the other disciples because that is where disciples belong. And especially Peter, the skilled fisherman. When he left the boat to surf with Jesus, the boat lost one of its best leaders, one who had real experience handling storms on the water. Sometimes, faith is seeing the boat for what it is, a shared experience and opportunity to lean on one another, to encourage each other in the storm while waiting on God. But Peter was eager to leave his shipmates and to join Jesus, rather than to wait for Jesus to join everyone in the boat. In this light, maybe we need to leave the walking on water to Jesus because our role is to stay in the boat and work together, to support one another with our gifts and wait on the miracles of God.
One of my greatest temptations during the ongoing pandemic is to forgo my own faith community. These are the clergy groups and valued relationships with fellow colleagues that I learn from and support – my fellow shipmates. Like others, I often struggle with the technology needed to remain connected and feel that our video chats, texting, and email threads are poor stand-ins for being with others in person. Like some, I’ve taken to more time in personal prayer, and study, seeking out more quiet time alone.
Our faith has a long history of folks that try to go it alone, to retreat to the hermitage of personal spirituality and study, who find something valuable in being alone with God, a few good books, and some work to do. Maybe there will be a time for all of us when we are ready to venture out of the boat and go surfing with Jesus – to develop that connection to the divine that pulls us out of the constraints of this life and into something only the mystics of our faith have begun to describe.
But right now, we probably need all hands on deck. Every person on board in a faith community is essential, especially during this stormy time. We need the faith, talents, and experiences of one another to keep the ship afloat and weather the storm of this pandemic so we can reach our destination. Communication is harder right now, but we do have tools. Connection feels different these days, but it is still possible to feel connected to one another. Community feels lost right now, but it really isn’t, it’s too much of a necessary thing to really go away.
May God give us patience enough to stay in this boat together. May God be gracious with is when we struggle to stay afloat. And may Jesus not take too long in reaching us.