The wind is frothing the waters and whistling in their sails, and the sailors have been rowing against it all night. They’re tired and frightened. Their shoulders and arms are sore. They’re straining to see land, but instead they see a ghost-like figure walking across the water.
Put yourself in that boat, exhausted and scared and watching a person walk across water when he ought to sink. Wouldn’t you be terrified?
But Jesus — who is, of course, the mysterious figure walking on the water — immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
The rest of the disciples are apparently dumbstruck, but you know that never happens to Peter. “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
The wind is still whipping. The waves are still crashing into the boat. But Peter swings one leg over the edge, and then the other, stepping out onto fluid ground that should not have held him.
Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
This story raises an interesting question, for those of us who are currently learning to be disciples, which I assume is all of us: Where did Peter go wrong? Jesus calls him one of little faith, but surely it takes a good amount of faith to swing over the edge of the boat and onto the water.
Consider this, though: You aren’t called to do anything that you aren’t equipped to do.
I think this is a very hopeful point, for you and me. God gives us the gifts that we need to do our work in the world. That’s part of the promise of the Gospel. We’re given teachers and caretakers and visionaries as we need them.
So it would follow, then, that if God wanted you to be able to walk on water, then you’d have legs and feet like a water bug. You don’t, to the best of my knowledge, so you can safely assume that walking on water isn’t your calling. If it were, God would have equipped you for the task.
Peter, likewise, was never called to be a waterbug. So consider this, as well: had Peter trusted the voice that he heard, when it said “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid,” he wouldn’t have asked about leaving the boat in the first place.
Think about it. This isn’t a story about the Ice Capades, or a floating ballet, or some other water-based performance art. The disciples are in a boat.
A boat is a mode of transportation, like a bicycle or a truck. The whole point of being in a boat is that you’re going somewhere.
Jesus sent the disciples, in the boat, to travel across the sea. He stayed around on the mountain awhile to pray, then set out over the sea after them. He gets in the boat with them, they reach the shore, and they go on with the work of ministry. That’s the story.
Peter doesn’t get out of the boat because he’s stepping out on faith. He gets out of the boat because he has forgotten the story, because he has lost the plot.
Jesus appears in the storm, overtaking the boat by foot, and immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
And here’s Peter’s moment of doubt: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
Lord, if it’s you… if. There’s the doubt. If. If it’s you. Peter wants to set a test.
Let’s not come down too hard on Peter. The wind is howling. The boat is creaking. He’s scared, and his friends are scared, and a big act of faith is being asked of him.
But the act of faith being asked of Peter is not the courage to get out of the boat and walk on water. It’s, more simply, to recognize and obey the voice of Christ.
One of the biggest challenges we have, as faithful disciples, is to center ourselves in the midst of a storm and truly listen. Charles Hummel calls this the tyranny of the urgent. We’re ruled, if we’re not diligent, by the whipping wind and the waves sloshing overboard — by all that seems urgent in the moment — and, in attending to each urgent detail, we lose the larger picture.
We’re too busy mopping the deck, adjusting the sails, hatching an escape plan, to lay aside the urgent in favor of the truly important. And so Peter hears the Savior’s voice and offers a test — if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water — rather than stopping and asking the Savior what ought to come next.
It’s an easy mistake to make. We’ve all done it, and we’ll probably all do it again, and when we start to sink the hand of the Savior will be as quick to grab us as it was to grab Peter. Mercy is not a finite resource.
It takes practice, though, and discipline, and more courage than you might have thought that you had, to sit tight in a storm and listen for the voice that you recognize in the deepest part of your soul. When your heart is pounding, when your brain is screaming for a plan, any plan, however reckless, just for goodness’ sake give me something to do…
… it’s the hardest thing in the world, perhaps, to simply sit and listen.
I don’t know, friend, what sea you’re on or what storm may be overtaking you. But, from this story, let me offer you two pieces of Gospel advice: listen courageously, and stay in the boat.
Listen courageously. God may be doing something unexpected. Listen to those whose voices are ignored. When others are speaking, open your heart to the wisdom that they bring to the discussion.
It’s hard work. You’ll need a snack afterward. But it’s so beautiful, when you do it, and so worthwhile. Don’t let fear plug your ears. Listen courageously. You’ll hear something that you need.
And stay in the boat. This one’s a bit more tricky, but it’s true. We have here, in Matthew, the story of a pack of disciples in the middle of a storm, and Jesus coming to travel with them. Peter jumps out of the boat and messes up the story, but Jesus hauls him back inside the boat so they can all get to the shore.
Boats are communal transport, like a bus or a plane. Getting to our destination means all of us getting there together.
We’re not called to the shallow challenge of escaping the boat by jumping out onto the water, tempting as that might seem. We’re called to the deeper work of staying in the boat, together, and listening to the voice of Christ. May we listen with courage and with love.
Julie Rudd is Pastor of Wilmington Friends Meeting.