We join Jesus and the disciples just as the close of the feeding of the 5000. When all the people had been fed and the leftovers picked up we hear that 22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. 25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. 27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
Steven McConnell once showed me a picture that made me quiver in discomfort at the very sight of it. It was him standing on the Skydeck on what was once called the Sears Tower, now called Willis Tower. The Skydeck’s website proudly proclaims; “The Ledge transforms how visitors experience Chicago. At 1,353 feet up, The Ledge’s glass boxes extend out 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s Skydeck on the 103rd floor, providing never-before-seen views of the city.”[i] You see, at twelve years old I made the bright choice to jump off the roof of our garage shattering my left wrist. Ever since then I have had a mild – okay, maybe not so mild, fear of heights. I could not imagine paying for the opportunity to stand 1.353 feet about the street below. I’m glad Steven enjoyed the scenery and could marvel at the tiny people and cars below, because I would have been frozen in fear.
It is important to note that our story begins with a reaction of fear. Those in the boat were like me on a ledge, frozen in fear. I think, if we are honest, there are moments when we all have been gripped by fear. For some it was born in the midst of a relational conflict. For others it is when the whispers ripple through the company that layoffs were near. For still others that feeling of fear emerged when something happened that twisted your plans and turned your world upside down. But hear that what makes this moment of fear so powerful is that those in the boat were not strangers but disciples. They knew Jesus. They had seen Jesus heal the blind, raise the dead, and make the lame able to walk again. They had just witnessed Jesus feed the multitudes. They had seen Jesus calm these very waters. They were scared because this was more than a miracle – it was an act of supernatural power…it was more than their mind could comprehend. So they found themselves frozen in the boat with fear. But hear that we are not intended for lives of fear. The good news is that the story does not end in here. Fear is not the final answer.
I can almost see Peter leaning out on the edge of the boat calling out to Jesus, wondering how he might respond. He pleads with Jesus to calling him out on to the water with him. 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” This is a well known story but in our effort to chuckle at the sinking Peter we can miss the impact of the event. Peter was BOLD!!!! In this moment Peter understands the power of God and wants to experience it more personally. He wants to see what happens when he leaves what he knows through the power of God. Jesus calls and he steps out of the boat. The passage tells us that he doubted. I have listened to other preachers declare that his problem was that he took his eyes off of Jesus. But there is more to it than that. The best way to understand the word “doubt” in this context is that Peter was “double minded.”[ii] His faith is mingled with fear; one part of him longing to walk with Jesus and the other part of him felt the wind and waves and his fear overtook him. Before we find ourselves laughing out at Peter as he begins to sink we should ask ourselves how many of us would have been willing to get out of the boat? How many of you would have been like the other disciples and think Peter was crazy? Can you recall a moment when they took a personal risk? Can you recall a moment when you took a risk for/with God?
But recently I saw something more in this passage. I know that it has been here all along, but it was new to my eyes and resonated deep within my heart. I want you to take a second look at the story. Hear again; 28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” 29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. Did you see it? Jesus invited Peter on the water with him and Peter began to walk on the water to him. Through faith Jesus expected Peter to be able to walk on water.
The story wraps up; 32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret.35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. Those that never left the boat offered great words of faith. They fascinate me because we are so much like them. Our faith is easiest to proclaim from a safe place, a place that we are sure of, a place where we have something to hang on to. They wanted to be with Jesus, but wanted Jesus to be where they were, where they were safe and comfortable. They had seen the divinity of Christ and the faith of Peter and in awe and wonder they worshipped. But, they had missed the moment, if you want to walk on the water with Jesus you have to get out of the boat. Soon enough they land and the crowd returns. It is back to normal for the disciples. There is Jesus again healing and teaching. There is Jesus again, doing his thing. But Peter will never be the same because of this day. Soon he will offer his great confession that Jesus is the Christ. Soon Jesus will commission him for leadership. His life and walk with Jesus will never be the same again because he got up out of the boat and for just a moment walked on the water with Jesus – did the impossible with Jesus – went to where Jesus beckoned him rather than waiting on Jesus to come to him. Peter knew what it was to walk on water with Jesus and to be rescued by Jesus when he wavered and sank. For just a moment Peter knew what it was to really walk in faith with nothing to hold on to but Jesus.
If Jesus was walking on the water it is exactly where his disciples should be, have we been too timid, too cautious, too careful when Jesus meant much more for us? What it would look like to walk with Jesus on the water in our lives? What kind of boldness of faith and the absolute dependence a life of water-walking demand? Where are the waters that Jesus is calling you to? Where are the waters where Jesus is calling our church family? What grand impossibility does he desire for you and for us? What life shaping moment awaits you? We are meant to walk on water with nothing to hold on to but Jesus. Get up from the boat – step out of your comfort zone – move out from your safety net and step into the water with Jesus. It will call you to a single minded faith that will change everything. You were meant to walk on water, but to walk on the water with Jesus you have to get out of the boat and take that first step to Jesus.
[i] Available online at http://www.theskydeck.com/the-tower/facts-about-the-ledge on November 1, 2013
[ii] Ben Witherington III, “Matthew,” Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary, (Smyth and Helwys: Nashville,2006),p. 293