The story of Jesus walking on the water is, like the Feeding of the 5,000 last week, one of those stories where it is very easy to get caught up in the “how did He do that”. That can be good conversation to have but this morning I am much more interested in the question of “Why did he do that?”
This is a slightly strange story but when we get to Peter it makes a lot more sense. The disciples are in a boat in a storm. It is night and the storms could be violent. The last thing they expect to see is someone out on the water, least of all someone walking out on the water. They are naturally scared stupid, but Jesus reaches out to reassure them.
The next piece of the story is pure Peter – jump first and think about it later. “Let me have a go!” he says to Jesus. Only Peter would go from being scared of a ghost to thinking that it might be a good idea to get out of a boat on a stormy sea and start walking. But this is exactly what he does and it is not long before his fear and doubt catch up with him and he starts to wonder what on earth he is doing and begins to sink.
This is a great parable for the Christian life and this is almost certainly why Matthew has included it. This idea that we want, so desperately, to follow Jesus wherever he leads, and we jump in with both feet and then find ourselves wondering what we have done? Well partly. Peter has an impulsive nature and many of us do not – the real key to the story is not the jumping in headlong but the fear and doubt which soon become a part of the journey.
Doubt and fear are normal responses. They pop up all over the place, the first day of school or a new job, the hospital waiting room, watching the news. We second guess ourselves, or we wonder whether we are good enough. We look at the world a feel a sense of hopelessness as disaster after disaster opens up in front of us. We doubt our ability to do anything, we are afraid of what will come next and we begin to give up hope that God has anything very much to do with anything.
In other words we begin to sink. If you have done lifeguard training you know that the worst sort of person to approach is one who is drowning and panicked. I remember being told that I should try to find something heavy to knock them out with or wait until the passed out. We were taught lifeguarding at school and I spent the next few weeks somewhat hoping that my annoying brother would need rescuing so I would have an excuse to knock him out.
Well let’s go back to the beginning of that. First of all there is nothing wrong with doubt, in fact I suspect that if we never doubt we won’t really be able to grow very much. Doubt happens when we are pushed out of our comfort zone and we begin to look at our beliefs and ourselves in the light of new information. Fear often comes along hand in hand. We do not like being on our back foot, we feel off balance and uncertain and we are not sure where this is going, fear is natural.
But somewhere in this consumer culture of ours we have got it into our heads as a society that we should live a grinning commercial of a life and if we are not grinning from ear to ear, if we are fearful or doubtful or lost or sinking it is only because we have not bought the right product or taken the right pill. Sometimes there is some truth in that, sometimes, of course, but there really is no way to insulate ourselves from every piece of negativity and we are not failing if we are doubting of fearful.
Well let me try the story again. The disciples were in the boat on the lake. They had seen on the radar that a storm might come in but it looked like it would miss so they decided to go anyway. They had a good supply of food and a rescue dinghy, which was nearly as big as their boat, but it gave them options. The coastguard had their crossing plan on the computer and they all had waterproofs and the super-duper new life jackets which Andrew had found in the marine supply store. The storm kicked up pretty badly and they were scared silly when they thought they had seen a ghost, but then it turned out to be Jesus walking on the water. Peter, of course, Peter thought he would have a go and asked Thomas if he had a cell phone signal so they could get a picture up on Facebook right away – that would get views, really he was just checking that they could call the 911 if they needed to…….
Do you see what I mean? Peter jumped out in full trust of Jesus, yes his own doubts and fears got the better of him but there was nothing else between him and the Lord on that stormy sea. When he began to sink he did not have the reassurance of a lifejacket or the knowledge that Thomas was calling the coast guard - his only hope was to reach out and trust that Jesus would pull him out of there. He did not go into that situation with a lot of reserve plans, that made him self-reliant, he jumped in with both feet to a situation which made him totally dependent and totally vulnerable.
Sometimes in a world where there are arguments that we don’t understand between people we don’t know we look for answers and the answers which assuage our doubt and fear the quickest are often the simplistic ones which base themselves on the idea that in everything someone is wrong and someone is right. We make life jackets and rescue boats to save us from our own fear and doubt out of these thoughts.
What makes those arguments palatable is the fact that, sometimes, it is true that someone or a group of people are wrong or stupid of even evil so we convince ourselves in all sorts of situations that the people across the world or across the street are “those people out there” – we become angry at them and distant from them but we do not doubt who we are any more neither are we afraid of such inferior people. That sort of life jacket, that sort of reassurance it damaging.
Sometimes we just want to feel safe and in control, we do not want to go off walking on water when we can stay in a boat. But if we give into that need to simply stay away from things, to choose a lowest common denominator kind of understanding of the world, to label people and, worse, demonize them – then we are impoverishing ourselves and everyone else.
If Peter had not jumped out of the boat he would have been fine, he would have been drier possibly, Jesus would have come to them, the storm would have died down and they would have carried on with their day. But if Peter had not jumped out of the boat he would not have been enriched by that experience of grappling with his own doubt and fear and finding that there was rescue as he sunk under the water. He had not learned his lesson either, because when it came to the doubt and fear of the courtyard he gave into it again and this time sunk into a pit of untruth which resulted in enormous grief at his own denial.
The real question is whether any of us dare to get out of the boat and simply trust. Whether we dare to leave our carefully woven life jacket of assumptions in the boat and trust ourselves to the safety of Jesus, do we dare to let that walk on the water challenge our assumptions about where our safety truly lies and do we dare to live in the possibility of sinking into inhospitable water and being totally vulnerable. It is a big ask. That is what makes Peter so great, he jumps in feet first with the big ask and then messes things up spectacularly later on.
In Acts Peter is still struggling to learn that there are different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. But he has that base experience of knowing that he has to have faith in Jesus – faith will not save him from the discomfort of life, but it will be allow him to live into the discomfort of those moments which are difficult and listen not to his own doubt, but to reach for the hand which will guide him out of the water.