Rev. Sam Pendergrast

Walking on water

Published Aug 12, 2017 at 4:00pm

Most everybody likes a good story. The most prominent shelves in the library are for new fiction. Book groups are a good way to explore the meaning of life. When we read a good novel, we realize that the story doesn’t have to be factual to tell the truth. The events need not literally to have happened to speak of what’s real about life.

Much of the Bible is like that. It’s about the truth of the human condition, the reign of God, the relation of God and people. If that statement offends you or confuses you, maybe you’ve lost touch with centuries of Christian tradition. Many modern people seem to have settled for a literal reading of a highly symbolic and metaphorical collection of writings. Our ancestors centuries ago didn’t have such trouble appreciating the power of stories to communicate truth.

Take the story of Jesus walking on water, for instance. One time someone asked me if they had to believe that Jesus really walked on water to be a Christian. The thing is, it’s not really a story about Jesus walking on water. It’s a story about you walking on water. Except it’s not that either. Walking on water is a symbol of the life of faith. The story is about whether or not people who follow Jesus are going get out of the boat.

Those fishermen were stuck. They thought they had two choices. They could stay in the boat where it was safe, trying to row to shore, where it was safer. Or, they could stay in the boat and die if the storm swamped them. Suddenly here comes Jesus, doing the impossible. The ever-impetuous Peter jumps up and asks to join him, steps out on the water. Suddenly he looks around at the storm and the waves and is afraid. He starts to sink. Jesus takes his hand and he’s all right. But still, he’s out of the boat. He’s taken that all-important first step. 

That’s what it’s like for us in Christian discipleship. Matthew knows this. It was his struggle too. So he tells this story about the struggle with doubt and fear. There are times when Jesus asks us to do what seems impossible. How can we even begin to do what he calls us to do? Love our neighbor, care for the poor, build communities of hope in a frightened and angry world, tell the truth in the face of greed and polarization, tell those in power that love is stronger. Jesus got crucified for doing those things. 

We are going to be afraid. If we look only at the waves and the wind, we will conclude that it’s impossible. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus, and if we take his hand, he will steady us, give us courage, and help us to do what seems impossible.

The important thing is to get out of the boat and go where our Lord goes. And, in the end, following him seems far more full of truth and good stories than staying in the boat where our only choices are safety or drowning.

In my experience, safety can be pretty dull. Jesus calls us to something far more exciting, life-giving and hopeful. Our call is to follow him, even if it seems crazy at times.