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 towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, 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 towards 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 worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. –Matthew 14:22-36 (NRSV)
We had a boat when I was a child, an old converted Coast Guard boat with a big inboard engine and a canopy over the “cabin”. It wasn’t a luxurious boat like a lot of them on our river, but it was ours. Often on weekends we would pack up the little camp stove, the picnic basket, the lawn chairs and the fishing poles and off we’d go primarily to do some fishing but also to be together with family and enjoy being on the water. If we hadn’t caught fish, Mama could pull out the fried chicken and always packed enough food to do more than keep body and soul together. At the end of the day, we’d disembark, slightly (or more than slightly most of the time) pinker in complexion than when we’d embarked on our journey, but tired, refreshed and, somehow, soothed by a day being rocked by the little ripples and the waiting for the fish to jump on the hook we dangled for them.
There was the day, though, that a sudden storm caught us. It was a typical eastern thunderstorm but somehow on that little boat it seemed like we were in the fiercest hurricane in the world. The boat rocked and bounced, and even though we pulled down the oiled canvas curtains that could enclose the cabin and keep us dry, we could still see the grayness through the front windshield and feel the anger of the wind and waves in the constant rolls and rising and falling of the boat’s hull. My sister-in-law, pregnant with my first niece, regretted ever taking this trip and was miserably seasick. I, of course, had all the faith in the world that Daddy wouldn’t let us get into something he couldn’t get us out of, and my big brother was strong and as capable a mechanic and waterman as Daddy was. All in all, except for the retching of my poor sister-in-law (with whom I had not a lot of sympathy at that time and which I now regret), we got home safe and sound.
The disciples, a lot of them, anyway, would have been familiar with storms on the water when they were out fishing. How could they help it? Storms happen, and they didn’t have NOAA to warn them to stay home and let the fish fend for themselves because a storm was due. In this case, though, it wasn’t the battering of the boat in the stormy waves that frightened them but rather the sight of someone actually walking on the water, heading in their direction. Now THAT was something you don’t see and not doubt your own sanity.
Jesus was constantly challenging their thinking and their perceptions. Stories that should be simple took an entirely different direction when Jesus told them. Sometimes it seemed he talked about one thing when he really meant something quite different. Now here he comes, walking on the water as if out for an evening stroll, shaking his disciples’ perceptions to their cores. But then there was good old solid as a rock while sometimes seeming to have concrete between the ears Peter, jumping into action before really considering all aspects of the situation. He did just fine — until he realized what it was he was doing and then he sank, sort of like a rock. Luckily for him, Jesus saved him, getting him safely back into the boat he’d so precipitously left. Peter’s enthusiasm got the better of him until he realized what he was doing and that it went against all the rules of normalcy. He had Jesus to pull him out of his predicament, though.
When things get stormy in life, it’s hard not to try to figure out ways to get out of the boat and walk off to find better, safer, calmer waters. Sometimes I get out of the boat only to realize what I just did was really stupid and clamber back in. Sometimes I get out a bit further and have to swim like mad to get back to the boat that suddenly seemed like so much better a place than it had just a minute or two before. Sometimes there’s a piece of flotsam to grab on to and hold on until things calm down and I can get back to my boat, and sometimes a kind soul will fish me out of the water and into the safety of their boat, carrying me safely to land.
Jesus was demonstrating to Peter that if you have faith, you can walk on water, maybe not always literally but figuratively. I know that if I try to walk across a mud puddle, I will be up to my ankles in wet stuff. Still, it’s a worthy thing to consider how strong and how deep my faith is when it comes to bouncing boats and rolling waves, the ones that I encounter in the course of my daily life if not in actuality.
I also have to ask myself a question that I don’t think Peter thought of — “Who am I testing, Jesus’ power or my own faith?” I wonder what his answer would be. I wonder, what about my own?