In the mid-1990s I worked five summers at Carol Joy Holling Camp, a Lutheran church camp in Nebraska. Toward the end of my time there, our program director became enamored of the works of John Ortberg, particularly a book entitled If You Want To Walk On Water, You Have To Get Out Of The Boat. I will admit to being a sucker for a clever book title, particularly when it comes to books about the church. Some of my favorites are Sacred Cows Make Great Hamburgers and When Bad Christians Happen To Good People. But as much as I admire Ortberg’s title, and as much as I admire my program director, there has always been one assumption made by this title that has bothered me: who said anything about any of us wanting to walk on water?
I’ll confess right away that this story has never been particularly inspiring to me. I never wanted to walk on water. When I read the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I get very uncomfortable when they tell of the disciples doing miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons. I’m perfectly comfortable with Jesus doing all those things. He is, after all, the Son of God, divine and human all at once, the anointed Messiah who comes to bring God’s kingdom into our reality. Jesus gets to be special (not that I really have anything to say about that). But the disciples? Paul? Silas? Timothy? They’re as human as you and me. There’s nothing special about them – and I find it harder to believe they could do miracles than to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
And so, I wonder what’s going on in this story. First off, Jesus put the disciples in the boat himself. Did you notice that? This tale is just a fragment of the larger story of Matthew 14. Herod had killed John the Baptist, and when Jesus heard it, he wanted to be alone to pray, and we usually assume he wanted to mourn as well. But the people followed him and wouldn’t leave him alone. So, after feeding the thousands of men, women and children who kept following him when he wanted to be alone to pray, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead…” It makes you wonder if either Jesus knowingly sent his friends into danger, or he decided the possibility of danger wasn’t as important as his time alone. Either way, we are left with a Messiah who makes decisions that might be contrary to our desires, even to what we think are our needs. It’s like that moment when you discover your parents have lives that are completely independent of your own childish demands – the realization of the Other shakes your entire world.
Secondly, when we read and hear carefully our search for the hero goes wanting in this gospel reading. Usually we hear that Peter at least had faith enough to step out of the boat – thus the title of Ortberg’s book. But Peter said, “If it is you…” Jesus only got that kind of question one other time in his life: when Satan was tempting him by saying “If you are the Son of God…” How is that faith, to demand proof through miracles? At the same time, Peter’s the only disciple who does anything other than hold on to the boat for dear life: is there anything particularly heroic or faithful about surviving a storm?
Where are you? In the boat? On the water? What’s the “faithful” response? How do you “believe” when the storm is raging? Does anything change once the storm has come and gone?
Some can and will be called to step out of the boat in faith. Even if we ask the question wrong, it is no sin to believe and go when we hear Jesus say “Come.” It is also no sin, when we falter and start to sink, to cry out “Jesus, save me!” Matt Skinner, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, writes:
It is the nature of faith -- humble, active faith -- to be willing to throw oneself into a disorderly world and expect to encounter Jesus there. It is the nature of faith, even "little faith," to want to transcend the normal "rules" and see what possibilities might be brought into being. It is the nature of faith to wonder what other supposedly unalterable outcomes Jesus might want us to take part in messing with. It is the nature of faith even to waver from time to time, when it has stepped into stressful, unfamiliar terrain.
But staying in the boat can also be faithful. Jesus asked, “why did you doubt?” not “why did you stay in the boat?” It could be that God allows us to risk in faith, but also to hold on when we can’t step out. Maybe God acknowledges that storms come – and that it is possible to be afraid and faithful at the same time?
Faith comes in different forms at different times, and I don’t think there was any one response Jesus was seeking from his disciples that night on the water. I wonder if Jesus might have even been surprised to find Peter willing to step out of the boat onto the water. A friend of mine gave me a card a few years ago that read something like this: “Peace is not the absence of storms, but to be calm in the midst of them.” I would say that in this sense, faith and peace are closely related. One who believes Jesus believes whether she is in the boat or on the water – it is seeing and trusting Jesus that makes all the difference, not where you are when you see him!
When I worked at that camp all those years ago, we had printed plans for emergency situations of every conceivable kind: what to do in case of tornado, severe thunderstorm, what to do if a child got off camp property, serious injury, and everything else. You probably have something similar in your house or in your workplace. Why do we do these things? So we can prove how awesome we are in crisis? So we can be heroes? Not at all: we prepare so we can survive. So we can tend to what’s been entrusted to us. So everyone understands what they’re supposed to do and get across the sea safely. So everyone is “ready for the storm.”
I remember one summer thunderstorm in particular – we got all our kids inside, then I and another counselor decided to go back out, against our policies, and help tie down the tents. We almost got lost, and it took almost as long to hook up with our support team as it did to do the extra work. We didn’t believe in what we’d been told. Is faith in Jesus any different?
I often tell my students and other members of our church that the majority of our pastoral care happens long before I make a visit in the hospital. In the best of situations, any words of comfort friends, family and pastors have to give at the side of a deathbed is just a reminder of the truth we already know. The same goes for when we lose jobs, when our kids suffer, when we are attacked unfairly, when life just does what it sometimes does and randomly damages us ourselves or the people we love. Storms come out of nowhere: if we aren’t being reminded of God’s love and care for us when the seas of life are calm, how can we possibly expect to believe in that same God when the storm is raging?
To me, this is what it means to believe: to trust Jesus even when the storm is raging. I’d love to say I’ll always step out boldly onto the water, and I have done that before, but just as often I’ve only been able to hold on for dear life, and I’m coming to understand that this is also faithful. Look around you – this sanctuary, like many in our churches, looks like a boat turned upside down. That’s no accident. One of the ancient words for a worship room is nave, a Latin word related to the hull of a ship. You are a community of faith, a group of believers riding this particular sea together. Perhaps some of you will find yourselves called out onto the water – or perhaps you’re going to be holding on for dear life. Wherever life calls you now, believe in the one who walks over the water toward you – cling to him with all you have – and you will be ready for the storm.