A Legendary Fish Tale
In my family there are a few stories that over the years of being told have morphed into family legends. One of them involves a fishing tournament, my aunt and uncle and me.
One Saturday when I was a kid, my aunt and my uncle decided we should take part in a fishing tournament for my aunt’s work. It was taking place on Lake Monona, so we didn’t have to go far. The weather was a bit windy, but we were hopeful as we got in the boat with our fishing rods. Pretty soon though the wind got worse and was so bad we were pushed across the lake into an area where we didn’t want to be– surrounded by concrete barriers- we couldn’t get out of there and the water wasn’t deep enough to use our motor, so we ended up having to pull out the oars and push up against the concrete so our boat didn’t turn over. I remember the waves were coming up and over the sides of the boat and looking at my aunt and uncle who were calmly dealing with it all. We finally got out into the middle of the lake where the water was calm and we could relax and started to fish. My aunt got a fish on her line and stood up to reel it in, but my uncle decided to turn the boat at just that moment and my aunt fell in!
I still remember her foot kind of hovering over the water before she went into the water. Luckily she wasn’t hurt or anything. And I remember my uncle calling out to her, “Laurie, why did you jump in?” thinking she wanted to go for a swim or something. It took awhile to get her back into the boat because we were all laughing too hard. After we got her back in the boat, things just kept happening, the motor wasn’t working right, my aunt got a fishing lure stuck in her shorts and my uncle had to get a pliers to get it off. When we finally headed toward the tournament end, we were worn out and as we pulled our boat alongside the pier where we were supposed to dock we accidentally took out a chunk of it. And it was my aunt’s boss’ pier! By this point we were pretty much done.
On the bright side, we did in fact catch a couple of fish and we won a couple of categoris, but that isn’t really what we remember about that day. And we definitely laugh about it now when we retell the story because it doesn’t seem real. Some members of my family who weren’t there don’t necessarily believe all the details, but I swear that is what happened.
Did that Really Happen?
I imagine when the author of our gospel story (Matthew 14:22-33) today asked around about this legend of Jesus walking on water, he might have questioned some of the details, just like we do.
Could it really have happened like this?
Did Jesus really walk across the water?
There are two ways we can hear the gospel story today. One way is simply as an unbelievable account of Jesus, a human being, walking on water and the other is to take a deep dive into the words and images in this story, for a more full understanding of all that happened and what it can mean for us as followers of Jesus.
To hear this story simply as a miracle isn’t wrong. But according to my favorite Bible commentary, a miracle is defined not as throwing out all laws of nature, but instead as any event that breaks through our own dullness and despair to convince us of the power and presence of God. To us, the walking on water is the miracle, but there are other parts of this story that are miraculous, too.
Jesus isn’t with his disciples out on the lake because he is off by himself resting. Jesus needed time with God to rest and pray and grieve the loss of a loved one. Remember that John the Baptist had just died, and with all the preaching and feeding of thousands, Jesus hadn’t had much time to rest and grieve.
To me the humanness of Jesus in that moment is a miracle. It does break through my own dull self-centeredness and leads me to where even God grieves the loss of life and the hurt of death. Even God sees Jesus’ need for renewal and hope in the midst of what his despair. Isn’t it a miracle that Jesus rests and grieves?
Rest and Self Care
This week I have heard from several members about what they are grieving during this pandemic time. All the changes and all the things we are missing right now leaves us feeling sad. And there is comfort not only in Jesus walking on the water, but also in the miracle of Jesus taking care of himself. He takes time to be with God, to renew his spirit, to grieve and sit with it for awhile before heading back into the world among the people. And it is OK if we need to do that, too.
Even if we feel like there are too many problems and there is nothing we can do about it right now, we can still be gentle with ourselves. We can pay attention to our souls, we can pray, we can rest. Isn’t that a miracle too?
Time is doing weird things right now too, if you are unaware of the day or time, that is OK. This story makes me wonder if Jesus knew what time it was when he went back to the boat. Matthew tells us it was really early morning, probably between 3-6 a.m. It is unclear why this was the moment Jesus decided to go back to his disciples. Did he lose track of time, or just realize his disciples needed him? Whatever it was, he walked across the water toward them. Matthew describes how far out the boat was and how bad the waves and wind was that night. I can imagine the disciples feeling weary and alone far from shore.
Isn’t it a miracle that when they were feeling alone and weary, Jesus shows up?
Isn’t it a miracle that he doesn’t wait until they are back on the beach? He walks on water toward them because that is how much he loves them.
Ready to Follow
And we know seeing Jesus do this, seeing him walk on water (certainly inspired Peter’s faith), it broke through his despair and inspired him. Because when he realized it was Jesus walking on the water, he was ready to follow. Peter is willing to give of himself to follow wherever Jesus leads. The problem for Peter, though, it’s our problem, too. We start thinking about our own pride in the situation, even a situation where we are following God’s direction and will. When our motivation goes from doing what God wants us to do, to talking about how much better we are than others, well, we might just start to sink too.
But we have to appreciate Peter’s failure in this scene because unlike the others at least he stepped out of the boat.
Or would we stare too long at the water and Jesus’ feet and be too afraid to swing our legs over the edge?
It is easy to compare Peter’s dilemma over the call to walk on water to any call we get from Jesus. The call to have compassion and grace for others, the call to be generous, the call to turn the other cheek and shake off the dust when something isn’t working.
In those moments when we have the chance to do any of these things, do we actually do them?
Or do we think and look too long that we miss our chance?
Do we start to doubt our own ability instead of trust in God’s will?
Trust in Jesus
In Peter’s courage and in his doubt, at least he took a leap of faith. Isn’t it a miracle that God calls Peter and us in this way? And isn’t it a miracle that even when Peter failed, when he doubted, Jesus was there to catch him, save him and straighten out his priorities?
After all, how many times does Jesus warn the disciples, and us about this life we are choosing. He says following him is going to be hard and dangerous, maybe even lead to our deaths. Being a Christian doesn’t free us from any hardship happening to us. We still have wind storms that we can’t control and they might scare us and we might forget who is ultimately in charge, but isn’t it a miracle that even then, we can’t go wrong by putting our trust in our Savior.
The surprise ending for this story is yet to come. Because in this section Jesus walks on water and saves Peter, but he is really pointing to the other saving he is going to do on the cross in his death. We are surprised and moved by the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, but how much more surprising is it that Jesus dies on cross and conquers sin and death for us?
Jesus is inviting us to trust in him on the water and on into death. That is the life of a disciple, a life not without storms, but without fear.
Isn’t it a miracle that Jesus loves us through it all?