A pastor and two deacons are out on the river doing some fishing. At lunchtime one of the deacons says, “That looks like a nice spot on the bank for lunch. What do you say?” The other deacon and the pastor agree. One of the deacons stands up, steps out onto the river, and walks over to the bank. The other deacon does the same. The pastor looks at them astounded, and thinks to herself, “If these deacons are holy enough to walk on water, then surely I am as well.” The pastor finally musters up courage and steps out of the boat onto the water and immediately sinks to the bottom of the lake. The deacons sitting on the bank turn to one another, laughing and say, “Do you think we should have showed her where the stepping stones are?” The story of Jesus walking on water is another familiar gospel story. It appears in Matthew, Mark, and John. It’s an odd story, but we often forget how strange it sounds because we’ve heard it so many times. It’s another story that challenges us to examine our perceptions about Jesus and how those perceptions have changed over the course of our lifetime. When we approach scripture, we all come with a long list of assumptions about the character of Jesus, who we think he is as a person, and sometimes in order to truly wrestle with a passage and to see Jesus clearly, particularly when it’s a passage that’s really familiar, we need to act as if we are meeting Jesus again for the first time.
If this were the first time we’d heard the story of Jesus walking on water, we would think: “Really?! What’s the point of this? No wonder why people think Jesus is strange! No wonder why people think those who follow Jesus are crazy! What an odd story! What kind of comfort does one find in a Savior who can walk on the water?! What difference does it make?” To begin to understand this story, we have to go back and remember what a powerful image water would have been to the people to whom Matthew was writing. In the ancient world, water was seen as wild and untamable; it was a mysterious symbol of chaos, darkness, and evil. In the Hebrew scripture, water was always involved in perilous stories of life and death. In creation, the Spirit brooded over the waters and created life out of chaos. God threatened to destroy the world with the chaotic waters of the flood, saving only a faithful remnant. In the Exodus, Yahweh parted the waters of the Red Sea and led the Israelites from slavery and death to freedom and life. The sea is a scene of chaos, death, and peril. When the disciples come face to face with the water, they come face to face with danger; they hover between life and death.
It is after the gruesome murder of John the Baptist and the feeding of the five thousand that Jesus commands the disciples to get into a boat and go on ahead to the other side of the water. He is still trying to get a moment to himself, still trying to have some time to pray, and he finally achieves that by sending the disciples away on a boat and dismissing the crowds! While he spends the evening praying, the disciples’ boat is battered by the waves; the wind is against them, knocking them from side to side, tossing them to and fro. Early the next morning, in the midst of this chaos, Jesus walks towards them on the water, and they are terrified because they think he is a ghost! Only gods walk on water! Who is this man? Jesus calls out to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Once again they are compelled to not fear. The words “do not be afraid” are a recurring theme in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus says, “It is I.” “It is I” is more accurately translated “I am.” These words connect Jesus with God, who revealed Godself as “I am who I am” to Moses on the holy mountain. Could it be that Jesus truly is God? We already know the ending of the story but the disciples are still figuring it all out. Peter wants to know for sure. He says, “If it’s you, Lord, tell me to come.” Jesus says, “Come.” Peter starts walking on the water, but when he sees the strong winds, his fears overtake him, and he begins to sink. The threat of drowning is real. He cries out just like the Psalmist did, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck!” Jesus holds out his hand and catches him and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” They then get in the boat; the winds cease; and all the disciples worship Jesus. It is the first time in the gospel of Matthew that the disciples confess that Jesus is God’s son.
The Greek word for doubt in this passage is “distazo,” which means, “to hesitate.” It’s a word that alludes to “personal confusion or uncertainty that prevents action or commitment.” It’s a word that connotes vacillation, not skepticism. The community that Matthew was writing to was facing great hostility and persecution; they were filled with many fears and doubts. They surely were sometimes overcome by their fear, tempted to be paralyzed, tempted to inaction, tempted to go back on their commitment of following Jesus. We are a lot like the disciples on the boat and a lot like the disciples of the early church. We too can sometimes be overcome by our own fear. It’s not so much an existential crisis of faith that causes us to be unfaithful; it’s often fear that leads us to inaction and unfaithfulness. Too often we hesitate and second-guess God’s promises and are not steady in our commitment. Often we don’t even recognize the presence of Jesus when it comes to us.
We often read Jesus’ words to Peter as a word of rebuke, but maybe they are meant to be words of understanding and compassion, words that do not issue rebuke but challenge. “Oh, Peter! It is me. Why did you doubt? I am here. I am always here. Here, let me see your hand. Let your life be more defined by your trust in me than any of your fears.” Having a little faith is not necessarily a bad thing! Jesus will soon say that even a little faith can move mountains! With his little bit of faith, Peter puts Jesus to the test. He risks by going to Jesus in spite of his fears, and his willingness to risk makes a huge difference for all the other disciples. A little faith moves them all from fear to worship.
What waters are coming up around your neck? What are your fears? What feels like it’s choking you? What do you think might drown you? Are your waters the diagnosis and declining health of a loved one, a struggling marriage, concerns for your children, the loss of a friendship, loneliness, depression, or a crushing financial situation? What is causing you to cry out this morning, “Save me, O God! The waters are coming up to my neck!” There are many difficult things we struggle with as a community, and there are also fears that are constantly put on us by our society. The whole way we’ve been taught to interact with our world is based on fear, and there are indeed many legitimate reasons to fear. We fear car accidents, cancer diagnoses, gun violence, nuclear warfare, and hate crimes. We fear not making the right decisions about education, employment, our children. We fear change. We fear not being good enough. We fear failure. We fear sickness. We fear death. We make many of our daily decisions based on all of these fears, but Jesus challenges us to not let our lives be defined by the crushing waves, and to instead see his hand reaching out towards ours, keeping us from being drowned by the sea.
The church writ large has a lot of fear too. We identify with those disciples out on the lake being battered to and fro by the wind. We often feel like we are being beat up, that our very existence is being challenged. We often feel uncertain of God’s presence. Many of the things we once took for granted are in question. Patricia Brown, a leader in the Presbyterian Church USA, says that it feels like the church leaders of our day are driving into the future “with hands clenched on the steering wheel and eyes firmly planted in the rearview mirror.” In her description, fear is the driving factor for decision-making; vision is clearly focused on the past instead of the present and the future. We often don’t recognize that Jesus is right in front of us walking on the water, stepping on the thing that we’re afraid of, holding the chaos under his feet. No one wants to step out of the boat and risk walking on the water with Jesus. We are all too paralyzed by our fears – our fears of failure, our fears of getting it wrong, our fears of change, our fears of uncertainty, our fears of not wanting to do what Jesus calls us to do, our fears of feeling uncomfortable, our fears of being challenged, our fears of taking risks, our fears of not being in control, our fears of letting go and letting God lead us into something new. Often I think our fears about taking risks in our faith and in our church life center around the fact that we are more concerned about perpetuating the institution than we are about being faithful. We let our fears hold us hostage because we are tethered to the wrong things.
Many of us are filled with fear after watching all that unfolded in Charlottesville, VA yesterday at a Unite the Right rally, where white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klan members called out to “Take America back” as they protested Charlottesville’s decision to remove a confederate monument in the city square. I watched in utter horror as I heard the chants, “You will not replace us” and “Jew will not replace us” and saw the fiery torches and the hate that fueled this rally. I watched in worry as I saw many of my seminary colleagues posting pictures that let me know they were walking the streets. It felt like it was just getting worse and worse, as the car drove through the crowd, killing one and injuring many others, as the helicopter crashed. The fear was thick; the fear was paralyzing; it seemed like fear would win the day. But in the midst of all this, I saw other things too. I saw the group of UVA students who stood around the university’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, holding a banner that read “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy.” When a group of protesters moved toward the statue with their torches waving, they were met with this sign from students who were bravely standing against hate. The protesters with their torches made it across the street, too, where faith leaders gathered at St. Paul’s Memorial Church to pray together. One of the bravest preachers of our time, a black woman pastor named Rev. Traci Blackmon, the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ, stood in the pulpit of that church and preached God’s word while white supremacists stormed the church grounds with their torches. She challenged those in the congregation, saying, “Prophetic witness is only possible with those who can still dream. White supremacy is defeated by love.” Rev. Blackmon and all the clergy who gathered with her took unimaginable risks; they showed bravery and courage; they demonstrated the capacity to keep on dreaming God’s dream in spite of all the odds. They showed that their faith in God was stronger than their fears. The next day they showed up locked arm in arm on the streets and peacefully but strongly showed their opposition to the forces of evil in our world.
In order to find our way into God’s future for us, risk will be involved. When we discern what those risks are, we have to be willing to let our faith in Jesus be stronger than our fears, stronger than our desires to perpetuate an institution. Stanley Hauerwas says, “Often the church finds herself far from shore and threatened by strong winds and waves. To worship Jesus means that fear will not dominate our lives. Fear dominates our lives when we assume that our task is to survive death or to save the church. Our task, however, is not to survive, but to be faithful witnesses. Fear cannot dominate our lives if we have good work to do.”[i] The church is most certainly being battered by the wind and the waves. After yesterday, we can’t keep acting if we don’t have great work to do to call out the racism that still runs deep in our blood. Those white supremacists aren’t monsters. They are our fathers, our brothers, our nephews, our co-workers. Many of them claim to worship the same God that we do! Are we brave enough to speak the truth in love or are our actions governed more by our fears, by our apathy? Sometimes I think we are so scared of being accused of the mere suggestion of politics in the pulpit that we are afraid to do what Jesus calls us to do. We are more motivated to make people comfortable than we are to invite them out of the boat and onto the water with Jesus. After yesterday, we can’t keep thinking that we don’t have work to do. We can’t let the wind and the waves keep us from stepping out of the boat. Jesus calls us out of the boat, into the uncomfortable waters of dealing with the skeletons in our nation’s closet, in the church’s closet, into dealing with the most difficult and scary issues of our day. If we can’t risk talking about things that matter, the church will surely die because we will have just worked to maintain an institution instead of doing the hard work to make God’s kingdom possible. I want to remind you that here in this sanctuary we are in an upside down boat. Look up at the ceiling. That creative Lutheran architect who built our beautiful sanctuary was closely tied to biblical symbols. It feels like we are inside that beautiful boat but also being dumped out of it – dumped out of it onto the water with Jesus who is asking us to come.
We do have good work to do. We have both risky and exciting work to do – being a disciple of Jesus is both risky and exciting! The good news is that all we need is a little faith, like Peter. Jesus can take a little faith and turn our terror into worship, into peace, into love, into an exciting adventure in following where God leads! When our ship is battered by the waves on the stormy sea, God’s words through the prophet Isaiah call out to us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (43:1-3) Our faith is stronger than our doubt. Our God is stronger than hate. We will not hesitate. We will not vacillate. We will not be paralyzed by our fears. We will meet Jesus again for the first time, not as a weird, magical Jesus who floats on the sea, but as the Son of God who holds the chaos at his feet, the one who will reach out his hand and catch us and show us where God is asking us to go. Jesus calls out to us on the choppy, chaotic seas of our life together and says, “Take heart, it is I. Do not fear.”
[i] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible – Matthew, __.