Matthew 14:22-33 – Jesus walks on water

a reflection by Dan Spragg

Each year we make our annual pilgrimage up the south island to the golden sands of Kaiteriteri. The sun shines, it’s warm, it’s relaxing and the beach and the water are beautiful. If you’ve been to Kaiteriteri you’ll know about the bridge on the main road where the river estuary meets the ocean. Every year without fail, corresponding to the high tides throughout the summer there will be a lineup of people waiting their turn to jump off the bridge into the water that’s flowing underneath. Once the tide starts turning the water can flow quite quickly under the bridge which is generally the favourite time to jump. You jump in and then get taken with the current under the bridge and into the lagoon just before the line of the beach. Every year there are at least a couple of kids, usually smaller, who end up getting into a little bit of trouble and have to be caught before being sucked out into the bay. The current is strong. Even when it doesn’t look like it’s moving there is a lot of power behind it as the estuary drains into the sea.

I remember going bodyboarding at Waimairi Beach when I was around 12 years old. The day was overcast and the waves were big. There were a number of times when I got ‘dumped’ on by a wave crashing straight down on top of me. Getting dumped by a big wave essentially means that you’re then underwater getting tossed around like you are in a washing machine until such a time as the wave decides that you’ve had enough. It was pretty full-on! We probably shouldn’t have been out in the waves that day. Water is a force to be reckoned with and as we know can be incredibly hard to control. We have seen earlier this year on the North Island what this looks like with the unbelievable amount of water and the damage that was done by the multiple rainfall and cyclone events.

Water can be unpredictable and hard to control. We’ve done ok at containing it in swimming pools and pipes and hoses – they’re reasonably safe, and 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 even then, 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 generating massive amounts of electricity.

20th Century theologian 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;” and, “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. We can understand where their understanding was coming from… water, needed yet dangerous, unpredictable, and uncontrollable, yes, something to be feared and easily understood as a representation of all that would seek to work against God in the world. Symbolically water represents this well – water, a symbol of chaos and uncontrollable force and power, and a symbol of the unknown depths and what lies beneath. It’s interesting, then the relationship we see that God has with water. In the Old Testament, water is this uncontrollable unpredictable destructive force, but God is the one who tames it into submission. In the creation story, this chaotic deep is formed 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). Water may be representative of uncontrollable chaos but their God is the one who rules, even over this.

Jesus’ first recorded miracle makes use of water – water into wine. And he talked about water as a living spring. Which is a different approach than fear, and here today in our Gospel story, Jesus walks on water. In the middle of what seems like a raging storm, with the boat being battered by wind and waves alike; in the midst of the unknown uncontrollable chaos rising up, 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 came walking – now that’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, makes for quite a scene.

I have a friend who went on a trip to Israel and while visiting the Sea of Galilee walked up to the edge of the water, had a quick look around to see if anyone was looking, and made a tentative step out onto the water… unfortunately his foot continued straight through the surface… Jesus did it, so, you know…maybe he could too… Peter did it as we know. Perhaps this is not surprising. Peter is often the spontaneous, impulsive one. Perhaps Jesus would have said what he said to Peter, to my friend too… who knows! He says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Quite often we hear this as an accusation. We imagine Jesus waving his finger at Peter, telling him off once again for his failure to have enough faith. What if we heard it 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? ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt? Why are you getting upset? Come on, let’s get back in the boat…’ Without accusation, things feel different. What if we also heard 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? Jesus came to them on the water and announced ‘Don’t be afraid, it is I’ which in the original Greek was the same phrase that they used to initially translate what God said to Moses at the burning bush, ‘I AM WHO I AM’. Commentator 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 were 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. I’m interested too in the idea of ‘little faith’. Jesus mentions small amounts of faith more than once. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Yeast works its way unseen and silently through the dough. 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 at 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.

I think the disciples are reminded here of God’s rule over the water and the waves and the storm. God’s holding all things. God’s grace is in and through and above and beyond. They witnessed a powerful symbolic action. Jesus walks on water with not only a powerful display of his at-one-ness with God but also and perhaps more so, the symbolic message was that through Jesus they saw God who is above and 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, and it can hinder our embracing of all that the world has to offer us. What is the face of fear for you? Is it a physical thing like water, 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 a 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.

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 authority 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 the tradition we stand in. God is over and above even the forces of unpredictable chaos. God ultimately delivers through the many moments where shalom is not present, where evil seems to be what is true. 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’. As I’ve said many times before, we are called to trust, for God is holding it all.

This moment these early disciples faced seems to be 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. In the midst of fear that stops us from 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.