A Reflection on Matthew 14:22-33 – Jesus walks on water

Reflection by Dan Spragg

Growing up in New Zealand, it is almost a Kiwi kid’s rite of passage… jumping off some bridge, or some rock, or cliff into the river flowing far below! I remember doing it once when I was about 14. It was on school camp at Mount White and on the afternoon of the first day we all headed down to the river. The rock/cliff face wasn’t exceptionally high, but it was high enough to give you a sense of – ‘you’d better get this right!’ The river itself was not in a completely placid mood either, there had been some rain and so there was some flow to it. We all followed each other up the little worn track to the top of this cliff and then one by one we jumped in. I was a bit nervous but a girl who I had a bit of a thing for had already jumped by the time it got to be my turn so there was really no backing out! I jumped… and landed in the river… it was cold enough that it took my breath away for a moment, and it was moving quick enough that it was a bit of a scramble to get back to the bank of the river. I only did it once – that was enough!

Some people live for these sorts of experiences, they lap them up, seek them out… to be honest, jumping off a cliff into a river, I could give it a miss. It wasn’t that thrilling. And, if I’m honest, it was a little frightening.

I do find there is something about water, rivers in particular that I’m a little hesitant about, there’s something a little unnerving about them for me. Swimming pools I’m really ok with, the beach I’m fine with, lakes I’m mostly ok with, but rivers? They seem to be different. I have identified for myself that perhaps it is because they are a bit unknown and unpredictable… there’s also something about the idea of drowning that really doesn’t appeal to me… it seems so uncontrollable. Water has that kind of characteristic in general. It’s a bit unpredictable and hard to control to a certain extent. We’ve got ok at containing it in swimming pools and pipes and hoses – they’re reasonably safe. We’ve tamed it on a bigger scale with irrigation schemes. We even make use of it quite well in power stations and canals that take it from one lake to another, but if you stop and think there is something quite immense and terrifying about the power of that water as it races from one lake to the next and as it pushes itself through the power turbines then cascades down the water race out the other side. Even that majestic view looking over Lake Pukaki up towards Mount Cook has a sense of immensity and chaos just waiting to be let loose, just waiting for its chance to be unleashed!

Water as ‘uncontrollable chaos’ is a very understandable image even when we think of our own Heathcote River in flood for example, this is still something to be wary of. Or, imagine in your mind Birdlings Flat – even on a good day you don’t want to mess with it! Once I witnessed the Rakaia River in flood from bank to bank, the height of the river sitting about one metre below the bridge… now that was a sight to see and take caution with! Symbolically it is easy to see water as representing a lot of things. Yes it often represents life and vitality – we can’t live without it, but it also can be a symbol of chaos, uncontrollable force and power, a symbol too of the unknown depths and what lies beneath.

A good friend of mine, Karl Barth, makes the observation that in the first biblical creation story, water, is “the principle which, in its abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation;” “it is a representative of all the evil powers which oppress and resist the salvation intended for the people of Israel.”[1] In the minds of the Hebrew people throughout the Old Testament water represented unknowable depth, an uncontrollable force of power. The sea with unfathomable depths and relentless rivers. The all-consuming deluge that leads to flood and destruction. The waves that come out of nowhere during a storm on a dark and windy night. I understand where the Hebrew understanding was coming from… water, needed yet dangerous, yes, something to be feared and easily understood as a representation of all that would seek to work against God in the world. It’s interesting then the relationship we see that God has with water. In the Old Testament while water is this uncontrollable unpredictable destructive force, God is the one who tames it into submission. In the creation story this chaotic deep is tamed and filled with life.  God makes a promise to Noah that water will never again flood the entire earth. God delivers Israel out of Egypt through the middle of the Red Sea. And finally they enter the Promised Land through the waters of the swollen Jordan River. In the book of Job God walks even in the recesses of the deep (Job 38:16). Who then is God to water, who is God to this unpredictable, untameable force of nature? God is Lord, over even this.

And here today in our Gospel story, Jesus walks on water… Jesus, walks, on, water…In the middle of what seems like a raging storm, with the boat being battered by wind and wave alike, Jesus comes walking to these disciples… and with him ultimately comes a calm, peaceful presence. The Lake was rising up against them and out of the darkness a figure comes walking – It’s not a normal thing to see, no wonder the disciples were terrified… Jesus walks on the water – an action only reserved for God, which combined with the palpable presence of fear, it is all quite a scene.

Unsurprisingly Peter is the one who says and does something in this story and in response comes Jesus, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Quite often we might read that phrase and hear it as an accusation. We imagine Jesus waving his finger at Peter, telling him off once again for his failure to have enough faith. But I’d like to suggest that we read it today in a different tone. What if we were to imagine Jesus saying this with a smile on his face, in an amused tone of voice? Almost saying, ‘You ning nong… you of little faith, why did you doubt? Look at where that got you! Come on, let’s get back in the boat…’ It starts to look a little different without the presence of accusation. Along with this angle on things what if we read Jesus’ question of Peter’s doubt and his possession of ‘little faith ‘as if it were aimed not at Peter’s inability to walk on water but rather at his earlier reaction to Jesus appearing to them on the water. Jesus came to them on the water and announced ‘don’t be afraid, it is I’ which by the way in the Greek language was the same phrase that they used to initially translate what God said to Moses at the burning bush, I AM WHO I AM. Iwan Russell-Jones writes: “Jesus is using the divine name to announce his presence. I AM is here, trampling victoriously over the waves. In these brief but charged words and in the awesome vision that unfolds before the disciples, Jesus is identifying himself with God, the liberator and redeemer of Israel, who is at the same time the creator of the world and the victor over chaos.”[2] What if the intention of Jesus’ question to Peter was aimed not at his trying to walk on water but at that earlier moment? Perhaps Jesus was saying – with a smile on his face – ‘Come on! Did you forget for a moment who is really in control?’ Perhaps Peter’s doubt and little faith in this story was not really about whether he could walk on water or not. Perhaps rather Peter’s doubt and little faith was aimed at who it was that was ultimately in control, drawing near and making their presence known. Perhaps Peter had simply lost sight for a moment that God was Lord over even this situation of storm, chaos, and fear. What makes this even more amusing is this idea of ‘little faith’. Why would Jesus launch an accusation at Peter here for having ‘little faith’ and then a little bit later on talk about having faith the size of a mustard seed that can move mountains? And, just previous to this over 5000 people were fed with only a small lunchbox full of loaves and fish.  ‘Come on! You of little faith, I AM (is) here with you! I’ve got this!’ Even in this moment, with the presence of ‘little faith’, God is revealed to them who in the face of all unpredictable fear and chaos is one who comes towards them and meets them right in the middle of it… not in condemnation, but as one who comes alongside and encourages, one who brings peace and calm in the middle of the storm with saving word and action.

The disciples are reminded here of God’s rule over the water and the waves and the storm and it is fair to say that those early disciples thought a lot more symbolically in everyday life than we do. So, I wonder if we see here not just Jesus walking on water with a powerful display of his relationship with God, but also and perhaps more so, we see God acting through the words and actions of Jesus to remind them that God rules not only over the forces of nature and water itself, but indeed over all the faces of fear that confront and seek to consume us.

Experiencing and witnessing something unpredictable, uncontrollable, unknowable and uncontainable certainly does raise fear up in us – sometimes for a good reason – If the river is in flood it probably isn’t a good idea to head on into it… fear helps keep us safe in many situations, but, so often we let fear into the driver’s seat – fear can paralyse us, it can make us too afraid to step into something, it can hinder our embracing of all that the world has to offer us. What do you identify with that is a face of fear for you? Is it a physical thing like water, or the dark, or the earth moving? Is it a big situation like nuclear missiles? Or is it a small thing like a tricky conversation with someone? Is it new experiences? Is it change? Is it the loss of something that you no longer have or can do? There are many faces of fear to us and they all at a certain level represent things that are unknown or uncontrollable. What is it for you?

Up against the faces of fear, comes the name and face of God seen in Jesus. If in the Old Testament God is demonstrated as having lordship over the overwhelming faces of evil then in this, here today, we like those first disciples are reminded of who God is in congruence with our long tradition. God is lord even over the forces of evil. God ultimately delivers through the many manifestations of evil. God is one who comes to us in the midst of our experiences of fear, God pursues us and strides over the water into the middle of the storm to remind us of the all-encompassing scope of God’s reign and all we need is even only ‘little faith’. We are called to trust, for God is holding it all.

Jesus comes to the disciples in the middle of a terrifying moment, a moment that seems as if the outcome is unknowable and uncontrollable. And Christ, the prince of peace, the face of love comes to us when we are staring into one of the many faces of fear. When it seems to have its grip on us and won’t let us move forwards to where we are meant to be headed, Christ is alongside us, God is Lord over all. In the midst of fear that stops us moving forwards, the presence of God calls us to trust and to keep sailing. You of ‘little faith’ – the size of a mustard seed – God is in control – the storm will subside, the wind and waves will calm. The journey continues with us reminded that God is always with us no matter what we might be afraid of stepping into.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/1, p105, 147.

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 2, Proper 14, Theological Perspective, p334.