Windows On The Word
Jesus Walked On Water But He Normally Went By Boat
'He intended to pass them by.’ Mk 6.48 NRSV
A mysterious night
Three gospels record this extraordinary story of Jesus walking on the water, during a storm, towards the disciples who - not surprisingly - feared that they were going to drown. It seems that storms suddenly spring up on the Sea of Galilee, even today. It seems that predicting them is difficult. It seems that on this trip the disciples were just unlucky. The disciples were heading for Capernaum, where Jesus’ home was located - if indeed he had a proper home. Jesus had asked the disciples to go ahead without him, and reluctantly they agreed.
The disciples had been straining at the oars for hours but had only covered about three or four miles (Jn 6.19), such was the force of the adverse wind. It was now early morning (Mk 6.48) and as tiredness set in so did desperation. Their boat was a long way from land so heading back to beach it somewhere was not an option. At this point Jesus walked to them over the water. It is easy to write those words but they conceal a great mystery. So, I repeat: Jesus walked to them over the water - and it was not like a glassy mirror. It seems that he had come to them to save them from almost certain death by drowning.
If all this is not mysterious enough the Gospel of Mark adds another terrible detail. Having walked towards their threatened boat Jesus, it seems, ‘intended to pass them by’. How could Mark or any disciple present know Jesus’ intentions amidst the watery chaos? Why would Jesus, having made this incredible display of not being like other men, then proceed to pass them by? Why let them flounder? Why frighten them out of their wits?
This is a story that needs some unpacking.
Jesus on the mountain
While all this drama was unfolding Jesus had taken the opportunity to trek some way up a lake-side mountain in order to pray. In all three gospels which record this episode it immediately follows the feeding of the multitude. So we can safely assume that Jesus had gone to find peace, to refresh Himself in prayer (Mt 14.23), to feed His connection with His God. From his mountain vantage point He could presumably see them straining at the oars amid the storm (Mk 6.48). So we can only wonder why He chose not to go to them sooner. The Gospel of John adds another strange note that it was dark ‘and Jesus had not yet come to them’ (Jn 6.17). Dark. Doomed. Without Jesus.
When Jesus did finally approach their boat across the heaving waters the disciples thought it was a ghost. A couple of the Gospels record this detail. And why would the disciples not jump to that conclusion? Since human beings weighing 70 or 80 kilos do not have the capacity to glide across water they could only surmise that it was some sort of astral figure. When you are desperate all kinds of imaginings come to mind. You try to find some sort of explanation no matter how far-fetched it might be. Only the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter, seeking some sort of urgent confirmation of the ‘ghost’s’ identity: ‘Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water’ (Mt 14.28). Last throw of the dice!
It is no surprise that Peter got very wet. No surprise that he began to sink. No surprise that he began to panic. No surprise that he called out to the Jesus ghost: ‘Lord, save me!’ It is a surprise that he succeeded at first, ‘started walking on the water’ (Mt 14.28). It is perhaps a further surprise that Jesus rebuked him / was disappointed with him / was quick to respond to Peter’s ‘little faith’. ‘Why did you doubt?’ Jesus asked. But then it all depends on the tone in which the words were said or shouted. We have no Gospel record of that. I would imagine it was a fierce tenderness. It is no surprise that ‘Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him’ (Mt 14.31).
Meanwhile back in the boat...
But the surprises were not over. As soon as Peter and Jesus were back on board the boat the wind died down. When this happened the disciples were ‘utterly astounded’ (Mk 6.51) …again. They found themselves confessing that Jesus was the Son of God (Mt 14.33). They were probably a little surprised at the words coming out of their mouths. Certainly they would have been shaken by their brush with death. Probably only the fishermen among them would have felt totally comfortable on the water. And then suddenly they reached dry land – just as suddenly as the storm had arisen. It was not just the solid ground under their feet which settled them. It was when He said while the storm was still raging: ‘Take heart, It is I; do not be afraid’. Mt 14.27 NRSV.
Another day, another storm
The Gospel of Luke surprisingly omits this story. But it does have a similar one. On this occasion Jesus was in the boat with them as they made their way to a place on the opposite side of the sea of Galilee from their usual stomping ground. Jesus was not absent from them but, almost as bad, he was asleep. On this occasion they were also afraid that they were going to drown. So they woke him up. And He calmed the sea. Again he left them shocked by his astonishing - even frightening - powers.
And so what are we to draw from these remarkable stories?
Jesus usually went by boat
Although Jesus did on this one occasion walk on the water there was no repeat. Jesus clearly did use the boat of his fishermen friends during his ministry. That was the normal way of moving from A to B around the lake shores. This case is obviously the exception. So we can expect God’s will to unfold in the natural course of events in everyday life. We are unwise to expect dramatic interventions by God in our everyday lives. To do so may even be an act of unfaith.
Jesus was watching from the hillside
Jesus did come to the disciples in their great distress…eventually. He had been watching from the hillside but left it a long time before he intervened. It may have been eight or nine hours from the time the disciples set off to the time when Jesus intervened. It is easy, and probably true, to say that Jesus was seeking to teach them a lesson about trust. He was trying to teach them a lesson about trust in Him. But this is not the sort of lesson which is learnt through a single experience. Jesus was trying to teach them the habit of faith, the habit of trust. And habits take a long time to form. And they are sometimes cemented into deep instincts by difficult experiences where we are at once vulnerable and teachable. Sometimes all we can be certain of is the assurance: ‘I am with you’. That is all there is to hang on to.
Life and faith are full of very ordinary things. It is very easy to develop a wish for the dramatic, the miraculous. It is our responsibility to weave the thread of faith through the fabric of everyday life.
There are some strange things in this story. My comments above do little to resolve some of the mysteries. The gospel writers no doubt had their own reasons for including or omitting details, and in Luke’s case omitting the main story altogether. No doubt those reasons had to do with the needs of those different groups who first heard these Gospel stories many years after the event. Perhaps the major thing to draw from this storm narrative, and the companion story in Luke, is that we simply cannot fathom some of the things which happen in our lives. But that while we are struggling with our confusion we can know that God sees. We also know that just as a parent of adult children is often wise not to rush to their assistance, so God also waits. And most of all perhaps, the response of faith is a habit learned through repeated practice, sometimes involving failure. We all have to grow up in faith. We all have to learn to accept responsibility for our lives.
In a strange way we can be glad that God sometimes appears to be remote or even asleep. It is the opportunity to grow up in faith. It is often painful. But it keeps us from mere superstition.
The assurance to us is that He is watching from the hillside. That is what parents of adult children so often do. Watching but engaged. Emmanuel – God with us.