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Matthew 14:22–33: Walking on Water
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
What just happened on the Sea of Galilee? Jesus walked on water. And let’s be clear, not on frozen water, although that’s a new theory of a Florida State University researcher, based on the lake’s rare formation of surface ice. No, Matthew says, Jesus walked over miles of wind-whipped, raging waves.
If you’ve heard this story often, it may have become like one of your favorite special effects movies, whose images have lost their startling power with repetition. Not only have we heard this story recounted in three gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. It’s also a part of a familiar chain of Jesus’ miracles that we’re reading one after another this season—and part of a pattern of water miracles in the Bible.
Moses, Joshua, and Elijah all parted the water in the Hebrew Scriptures. And holy people walking on water even appear in other religious traditions: in Buddhist texts, in Hindu stories, and in Greek and Native American myths.
Universally, this act is a sign of Otherness, of great power. However we interpret this event on the Sea of Galilee—as a literal miracle or as a metaphor of holiness—we recognize the amazing power of Jesus in this dramatic moment.
But let’s stop to take in a detail that appears only in Matthew’s account. A detail that may wake us up about what this story means to us, about our powers. Peter walks on water, too. Peter, who is clearly human like us. Peter, who only slowly perceives the presence of Jesus, only barely understands the meaning of the situation. He’s exhausted, afraid, maybe even a bit angry that Jesus had sent him off in a boat after a long day of feeding the 5,000. He walks on water, too.
How does this detail shift the narrative? Suddenly, we see this moment as a teaching moment for Peter and all the disciples—not simply as a big reveal of Jesus’ unique powers, backlit by storm clouds, with the swell of a dramatic soundtrack. In fact, I don’t believe Jesus chose to work any of his miracles for that kind of movie-magic, celebrity moment: to prove he was divine, to demonstrate his powers over nature, to attract followers, to gain power. If he had, he might have chosen to work miracles to avoid great pain and persecution.
I believe that in all his teachings—and in all his miracles of healing, calming, feeding, and resurrecting—Jesus’ aim was relationship, not recognition. I believe he walked his amazing walk because he wanted us to follow.
So how can we, like Peter, follow Jesus over life’s rough waters? And how can we, as followers of Jesus, witness our faith to others by water walking? Those are good, if hard, questions this morning when we renew our vows as Christians in our baptismal liturgy and welcome a very young, and not-yet-walking, Bella Grace into our family of faith. Let’s go back into this story to look for the lessons of relationship that Jesus teaches.
First, closeness to God. We open with Jesus at the end of a draining day: he has healed and fed a great, adoring crowd who had followed him to a deserted place. This might have been a time of glory; the people wanted to make him a king. But instead Jesus dismisses the crowds, sends away his disciples. He claims this time to honor his primary relationship with God: to pray alone and re-center his consciousness. This was not an act of selfishness, but renewal. We see this private prayer practice over and over in Jesus’ ministry: he teaches us, by example, to re-center our energy through closeness to God.
Next, compassion for the vulnerable. Jesus may have longed to remain in this safe, silent, personally nourishing space of prayer. But instead, around 4:00 am, he sets out to help his friends in trouble—friends caught in life’s journey between two shores, with hope draining away and the wind against them. Jesus is committed to go to them, across the great divide of water that separates them. He has no boat. He is moved, in all senses of the word, by compassion.
Next, encouragement and loving presence. Jesus not only shows up in the middle of a storm, to tired people stuck in fear and desperation. He immediately offers help through words of encouragement. His friends are so frozen in fear they cannot even recognize him. But he immediately says, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”
These gentle, empowering words sound to me just like the ones a loving parent says reaching out to a child trying so hard to learn to walk:
He says to Peter—not as a command, I believe, but as an invitation—“Come.” Come toward me, come with me, take steps toward a new consciousness, even though you do not yet feel sure on your feet. You can do it. You can stand with me. And Peter does—until his fears return, and he begins to sink.
For me, this lesson of fearlessness is the essence of walking on water. We are called by Jesus’ example to practice walking toward those who need us, even if we aren’t completely sure of our approach or would rather stay on safe ground.
We are called to reach out with loving presence, even if we aren’t completely sure if we will be recognized or how we will be received.
We are called to cross whatever gulf separates us from our vulnerable neighbors who are tired or lost or stuck. We are called to step forward because our love of God and our love of others are more powerful than our fear of sinking.
My personal lesson of walking on water comes from my grandmother. She is one of my many Godparents—not on my baptismal certificate, but in life—because she showed me the way of Jesus. Alice Jane Atkinson Dailey lived in segregated Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1950s. She was born into a family of very modest means, with a limited education and no professional skills, but white privilege and my grandfather’s income gave her some status in Southern society.
She saw the huge social gulf, the institutionalized racism, that separated her from the poor African Americans around her. Yet she crossed those segregation lines, naturally and fearlessly. And was met by equally fearless blacks who also transgressed those lines to meet her in friendship.
My grandmother and the black woman she employed as a domestic worker ate lunch together every day at the kitchen table because they enjoyed each other’s company. The neighbors complained.
My grandmother helped establish a day nursery at her church for the children of black domestic workers so they could have safe, steady care during working hours. Vestry members objected.
My grandparents funded the choir down the street at the black church so its singers could have robes as fine as their music. The city talked. Yet my grandmother walked across those rough waters with Jesus and with a lot of joy.
And by taking those brave, individual steps, she became part of a larger civil rights movement that eventually brought blacks and whites alike through the storms of desegregation to the shores of a better South.
My grandmother taught me her water-walking lessons by example. She didn’t take these steps for recognition. But for love. And I believe that’s the way Jesus taught. He worked his miracles not to prove who he was—but to show us who we can be.
Through closeness to God. Through compassion for the vulnerable. Through encouragement and loving presence. And through fearlessness.
The earliest name for Christianity was The Way. Like Peter, we can walk with Jesus in this new way, even over rough waters. And his words will keep encouraging us as we practice his example of love: “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.” Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Interfaith Minister, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada