Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Jesus Walks on the Water
16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified.20 But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.
A few years ago, I remember seeing an article in a magazine about an Israeli businessman who bought a little piece of beachfront property on the Sea of Galilee and installed a steel pier that ran out into the lake just below the surface. So tourists could pay to have their pictures taken “walking on the water” just as Jesus had.
Maybe it was inevitable. This is one of the best-known stories from the life of Jesus – it’s one of the stories from the gospels that’s found its way into our common language. If we want to say someone is widely admired – maybe even too widely admired – we say people think that person “walks on water.”
It’s an accepted part of our understanding of the gospels that the miracles Jesus performed were signs or ‘previews’ of the kingdom of God. Actually, we said that just yesterday when we were thinking about the story where Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with some kid’s lunch. Taken together, the miracles of Jesus paint a picture of a heavenly kingdom in which those who have suffered in this world will be provided for and made whole.
But this story seems a little different. It seems like a miracle, even though nobody gets healed or fed or raised from the dead. Walking on water obviously isn’t something any of us can do on a regular basis. Still, it’s not immediately obvious how walking on water is connected to the kingdom of God. We don’t expect that in that kingdom we’ll all be walking around on water. So how would this story be a ‘sign’ of the kingdom?
Well, let’s start with this: The ancient Hebrews thought about the sea in a different way from us. There were some Israelite ocean-going merchants and sailors, but the Hebrews were not generally a sea-going people. The Sea of Galilee, where Peter and the others were fishermen, is actually an inland lake.
When the ancient Hebrews thought about the ocean, they thought of it as a realm of danger, of waves and storms, a place of chaos where the normal order God had established didn’t really apply the way it did on dry land. When they went to the shore, they noticed that strange and scary creatures washed up there, and between the scary creatures and the waves and storms, it all seemed like chaos to them. In fact, if you look at the description of the heavenly kingdom at the end of the Revelation, it literally says, “there will be no sea there.” In other words, they thought that in God’s kingdom, there will be no place for the waves and storms and general chaos of the sea.
When you keep that in mind, it seems to me that the point of this story was that in walking on the water, Jesus was giving a sign of God’s power over the wind and the waves. He was signaling that God had the power to impose order – to impose his peace – over the forces of nature.
In the story, the disciples are terrified by the ordeal they’re going through out on the water. But then Jesus speaks a word of reassurance to them. And that word of reassurance is even more significant than our NIV Bible makes it seem. The text says that Jesus said, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” But the actual Greek is better translated as “I am; don’t be afraid.” This is one of the several places in the Gospel of John where Jesus refers to himself using the phrase “I AM” – which is understood to be the ancient name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. So, as he had with a Samaritan woman in one of our readings last week, Jesus is identifying himself as God in human form.
The presence of God with the disciples meant they didn’t need to be afraid. And we’re told that once Jesus was with them, they were immediately able to return safely to shore.
In the history of Christian art, the church has often been represented by a boat. That has always struck me as a pretty good symbol for the church. We sometimes feel like we’re struggling through stormy waters, rowing as hard as we can but not getting anywhere. So maybe that’s what this story is meant to be a sign of – the power of God to bring us through every storm.
When God is with us, there is no need to be afraid. When we are genuinely open to the presence of God among us, genuinely willing to take him into our boat, when we give up on relying on our own efforts to get where we want to go, then the struggles and challenges of our life together become much more manageable. Then we find ourselves able to deal with every challenge – even with storms and chaos – without fear.
Let’s pray. Lord, you know that we do sometimes feel like we’re struggling to get anywhere in the midst of storms that threaten us. In those times, help us to remember what Jesus did on that night, and renew us in our trust in you. In his name we pray. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 25 and 91; Jeremiah 17:19-27; and Romans 7:13-25. Our readings come from the NIV Bible, as posted on Biblica.com, the website of the International Bible Society.)