Scriptures: Matthew 14:22-33; Matthew 8:23-27
The question I have about this story is not whether Jesus could walk on water. If Jesus can heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead, he can certainly walk on water. The question I have is why. Why would Jesus do something like this? If Jesus needed to get across the lake, why didn’t he ask the disciples to wait for him and go with them in the boat, like he did all the other times they crossed the lake? Or if Jesus really wanted time by himself, he could have sent the disciples ahead and later walked around the shore. That is how the crowd got to where Jesus was in the prior story. Matthew 14 says that Jesus and his disciples came to this deserted place on the lake by boat, but the crowd followed him around the shore and beat him there.
All the other miracles that Jesus performs have a humanitarian purpose: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind and comfort to the bereaved. But this—walking on water—doesn’t that seem like showboating? (Excuse the pun.) It reminds of the temptation story when Satan tempted Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, just to show off. If Jesus refused to do something like that earlier, why would he do it now?
Clearly, this miracle has a different purpose than the other miracle stories. In this case Jesus performs a miracle not to accomplish something but to teach something. This story is an acted-out parable.
Let’s review the situation. Verse 22 says, “Immediately he (Jesus) made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” Once out on the lake, the disciples are hit with a storm that threatens to swamp their boat. It is not the first time this has happened to the disciples. In our first scripture reading we heard about an earlier episode when the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up threatening to swamp their boat. But in that case Jesus was with them in the boat. They could wake him up and say, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And Jesus could stand up in the boat and rebuke the wind, and it would stop.
But this time, Jesus is not around. This time the disciples are on their own, and they are in trouble. What are they going to do?
This is a relevant question to us here today. We are, so to speak, in the same boat as the disciples. Jesus has sent us off to be his witnesses in the world, while he has gone off to heaven. We are on our own here, or so it feels. Like the disciples, we must face the storm on our own.
But then comes the miracle. Jesus comes walking to them on the water. Now again, let’s ask why Jesus does that? After all, Jesus could have calmed the storm from the shore, couldn’t he? Couldn’t Jesus have stood on the shore and rebuked the wind, just like he did before, and it would have stopped? But this time Jesus comes walking to them on the water. Why?
Because this time, Jesus wants to show us something crucial. By walking to the disciples on the water, Jesus shows that he can come to us wherever we are. Nothing, not even storms, can separate us from his love. Jesus can come to us wherever we are, and—here’s the crucial point—Jesus comes to us on the very waves that threaten to swamp us. The very storm that seems so ominous can be the highway by which Jesus reaches us.
William Barclay, a famous British Bible scholar, once preached a sermon on this passage on the BBC radio. After the broadcast, a listener wrote in and asked, “Dr. Barclay, what do you believe really happened historically in that episode?” Barclay responded, “I have tried to understand what happened historically. I have tried to look at the text and its history, and I have many unanswered questions. But this I know: when my young daughter died a tragic death, this Jesus came across the sea and stilled the troubled waters of my soul.”
That’s what this story is about. No distance, no barrier, no storm can stop Jesus from reaching you. And in fact Jesus can reach you on the very storm, on the very waves that threaten to swamp you. The very things that threaten to take you down can be the road on which Jesus comes into your life.
Unfortunately, Peter did not seem to understand that. To me, Peter seems kind of cheeky in this story: “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Peter assumes that if Jesus can walk on water, so can he. If Jesus never sinks from discouragement or fear, neither should we. If Jesus is always on top of things, always self-confident and in control, then shouldn’t we be the same way?
I have known Christians who thought that, who even preached that. Positive thinking! Victorious living! If you have enough faith, you will claim all of God’s promises and never have a bad day in your life. That’s what Peter thinking. But he sinks.
Friends, we are not Christians because we can walk on water. We are Christians because Jesus can walk on water. We are not Christians because we can brave any storm. We are Christians because Jesus can come to us on the storm, reach out, grab us, and get us back in the boat. And if you see the boat as the community of disciples, then getting us back in the boat is one of the ways Jesus rescues us and brings us to the promised shore.
Some years ago there was a best-selling book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It was written by Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi, whose young son Aaron died of a disease called progeria, or “rapid aging.” Basically Aaron got old quickly, losing his hair, becoming shriveled and weak, and finally dying two days before his 14th birthday.
Out of that experience, Rabbi Kushner learned that many of the things we say to people going through something like this are actually damaging: like “God meant it for good,” or “God will make you strong because of this,” or “God needed an angel, so he took Aaron home.” Maybe that helps some people, but it did not help Rabbi Kushner. In fact the whole experience made him question his belief in God, until he began to look at it in a different way. He writes,
Where do you get the strength to go on, when you have used up all your own strength? Where do you turn for patience when you have run out of patience, when you have been more patient for more years than anyone should be asked to be, and the end is nowhere in sight? I believe that God gives us strength and patience and hope, renewing our spiritual resources when they run dry. How else do sick people manage to find more strength and more good humor over the course of prolonged illness than any one person could possibly have, unless God was constantly replenishing their souls? How else do widows find the courage to pick up the pieces of their lives and go out to face the world alone, when on the day of their husband’s funeral, they did not have that courage? How else do parents of a retarded or brain-damaged youngster wake up every morning and turn again to their responsibilities, unless they are able to lean on God when they grow weak? … One of the things that constantly reassures me that God is real, and not just an idea that religious leaders made up, is the fact that people who pray for strength, hope, and courage so often find resources of strength, hope, and courage that they did not have before they prayed (pp. 127-128).
The miracle is not that Christians can walk on water but that Jesus can walk on water, and that Jesus can reach us on the very storm that threaten to overwhelm us.