One wintry day during my seminary years, I trudged to class with my friend Elizabeth. “Are you okay?” she asked. Her question rattled me, because I realized she could see my inner turmoil. The summer before, I had fallen in love, with Jen. Then she left for Zimbabwe for six months. Our communication was limited: snail mail letters, a few emails, a very occasional phone call that shocked me out of bed in the middle of the night. All this was wonderful, and at the same time, completely disorienting. I hadn’t thought I was gay, or bi. I hadn’t yet told my family about this new relationship. I didn’t have a clue what my future would be in the church. I missed Jen desperately but wasn’t sure what life would hold when she came home. “Are you okay?” my friend asked, and I knew it wasn’t a flippant question. It was her way of reaching out her hand to me across those turbulent waters: the steady hand of friendship, even the saving hand of Christ.
That hand, reached out to steady the disciple sinking beneath the waves, caught my attention as I studied this morning’s Gospel text. The truth is, I’m not all that interested in the part of the story where Jesus walks on the water. Some say this feat is about Jesus proving his divinity. Because he has the ability to overrule the forces of nature, he must be God, or have a unique connection to God. But I know of many storms that God does not seem to control or calm: Storms at sea and storms on land; storms of sickness and need;storms of violence that tear apart homes and families, neighborhoods and nations. So that kind of God, with that kind of power, doesn’t help me navigate my life or walk with others on their journeys. Some readers of this text insist on a logical explanation, like the cartoonist who quips “You just have to know where the rocks are.” I guess I’m not interested in a completely rationalized faith, either. I’m willing to live with the mystery of it all. I accept the possibility that this water walk might have really have happened even as I also entertain the possibility that this text is not a factual account but does tell a true story.
After the feeding of the crowd of 5000, Jesus stayed alone on the mountain. He “made” or, more accurately, “forced” the disciples to get into the boat without him and go on ahead. It’s like the other sea-taming story, in which Jesus falls asleep in the boat during the worst of a monstrous storm. As Jesus prayed in solitude all day and all night, the waves battered the disciples’ boat. Professor Marilyn Salmon explains: “The Greek basanizo [translated “battered”] literally means torture, tormentor harassment; figuratively it means severe distress.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=123) The disciples must have been exhausted, frustrated, and afraid. Their terror only enlarged as they observed a ghostly figure striding toward them across the water.
“Immediately”, the Gospel writer notes, “Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Or, more literally, “Take heart, I am.” “I am” is the divine name revealed to Moses in the wilderness, when he turned aside to look at a bush that burned but was not consumed. Jesus revealed his divine identity not by walking on water; but in the gift of peace he offered to the disciples. Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid. Yes, the storms are powerful and their turbulence is dangerous and sometimes they bring destruction and death. But the hearts of Jesus’ followers are at peace even in amid the wind and waves. Karoline Lewis muses, “I wonder if Jesus is saying to them, to us, faith means living out of your heart…. Deep down in your heart, you know me and you know I will be there. Trust yourself. Trust your heart.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3297 Christ is our peace: the peace of God’s own being, the vitality of life lived from our hearts.
“Take heart, I am, do not be afraid” Jesus greets the disciples. But they were afraid. And Peter was suspicious. “If it is you,” Peter replied, “command me to come to you on the water.” There’s a lot of room to criticize Peter here. He put Jesus to the test: was that really his place? Why did Peter think he needed to walk on the water, too? What was he trying to prove? And then, when Peter got into trouble doing this thing that was his idea to begin with, he ran to Jesus for help. Like Peter, we want to be people of peace amid turmoil. We yearn to live from our hearts, with courage and authenticity. But sometimes, we just can’t do it. And it doesn’t help to be told that we must do something we’re not able to do.
Professor David Lose suggests:
“Instead of emphasizing Peter’s failure, look to Jesus. No, I’m not kidding, look and see what Jesus actually does when Peter takes his eyes off his Lord and begins to sink. It’s right there in verse 31: ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.’ That’s the thing about the gospel, you see, it doesn’t just tell you to do something, it makes it possible to do it. Sometimes, it actually makes it seem impossible not to. ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him.’ Yes, Peter should have kept his eyes on Jesus…and so should we. But when we don’t, when we falter, or even fail, Jesus will be there to grab us, to catch us, to support us and set us up straight again, ready to give it another go. Jesus, finally, isn’t simply our guide or life coach; he’s our Savior, the One who does for us what we cannot.”(https://www.workingpreacher.org /craft.aspx?post=1594)
In Grace (Eventually): Thoughts On Faith, Anne Lamott describes such a moment of salvation.She writes this:
“The first spoonful of the New York Super Fudge Chunk was more than good: it was excellent. So were the next ten, the next twenty. By thirty, though, I couldn’t really taste much, so I took a break. Then I moved on, to the Mint Milanos. And they were good. Especially the top four cookies in their little paper panties; especially dipped in milk. I was so lost. I couldn’t follow the breadcrumbs back to the path of mental health, because I’d eaten them all. So I ended up eating junk, off and on, until bedtime.
“Back in bed, I remembered an old sermon of [my pastor] Veronica’s in which she said that when we are with other people, they should be able to see Jesus’ love in our faces, his tender compassion in our hands. Sometimes I think that Jesus watches my neurotic struggles, and shakes his head and grips his forehead and starts tossing back mojitos.… But this time, I decided to fake it and pretend that I had believed what Veronica said, and respond to myself as gently as I would to you; this is all I am ever really hungry for….I was finally able to call a couple of friends….‘But why didn’t my faith protect me?’ I asked one friend. ‘It did,’ my friend pointed out. “You found your way out of danger—and disgust—through humility, and even confession to the love of safe people. Now you are safe again.’ This was true. I had been in such a toxic pond. But I wanted my faith to be an edifice that I could run to. Strong, clean, pure. A mighty fortress is our God? Haha. Thanks for sharing. ‘You’re a hero to me,’ my friend continued. ‘You struggled through something really miserable. You told the truth, when it’s so tempting to cover it up and disguise it. You said, “This is the mess of my life, and I need help.” And now you are being helped.’ Grace arrived, like the big, loopy stitches with which a grandmotherly stranger might baste your hem temporarily.” (p. 55-58)
Whatever the facts of our Gospel story, its truth is this: Though the storms do rage all around us and within us, Jesus extends a hand to us. In many ways, through many people, he reaches out to us. And in turn, we reach out to others as Jesus’ own hands. “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid.” God is with us: tosteady us, save us, and mend us with grace. God does for us what we cannot do ourselves. Even amid the wind and waves, God gives us hearts at peace. Thanks be to God.