A priest, a rabbi, and a minister went fishing. When they reached the middle of the lake, the priest realized he had left his cooler on the shore. He jumped out of the boat, walked across the water, retrieved his cooler, and walked back to the boat. When the rabbi realized he had left his bait on the shore, he got out, walked across the water, got his bait, and walked back to the boat. The minister was intimidated and thought, “If they can do it, I certainly can.” He announced, “I forgot my lunch on the shore,” stepped out of the boat, and immediately sank. The priest asked the rabbi, “Do you think we should have told him where the rocks are?”
Israel’s National Parks Authority announced in February 1999 that it had authorized the construction of a 13-foot-wide, 28-foot-long floating bridge in the Sea of Galilee. The bridge was to be submerged two inches and could accommodate fifty tourists who would simulate Jesus’ walking on water. Interestingly, there would be no handrails on the bridge, to enhance the “walking on water” effect. However, there would be lifeguards and boats nearby in case anyone fell off. Naturally, there would be photographers available to capture the “miracle” for posterity.
I thought of this joke and bridge as I reflected on today’s passage. Perhaps they’re both ways of coming to terms with what is certainly a challenging story about Jesus and Peter walking on the water. Although the story appears in Matthew 14, Mark 6, and John 6, only Matthew includes the details about Peter walking on water at Jesus’s invitation (v. 29).
There are several important aspects to this story. In each of the three Gospels, the “walking on water” story occurs after the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21). Some interpreters have concluded that the connection recalls God feeding God’s people in the wilderness and leading them through the waters to freedom. Also, there is Jesus’s answer, “I am,” (v. 27) in response to the disciples’ fear, reminiscent of God revealing God’s name to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Some have suggested the story is a theophany (revelation of God), even a post-resurrection appearance story that has been relocated.
In Matthew’s account, Peter boldly says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Jesus says, “Come” (v. 29). That simple command is evocative of Jesus’s invitation, “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22; see also Matthew 16:24; Mark 1:17; Luke 9:23). To his credit, Peter stepped out in faith and walked on the water. Matthew doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked, only that he did. Peter’s action in getting out of the boat at Jesus’s command is a striking picture of faith.
Then Peter noticed the strong wind and became frightened. Suddenly the story shifts from faith to fear. Isn’t that a realistic portrayal of every believer who chooses to follow Jesus? We step out in faith, eager to respond to Jesus’s invitation, but we soon take our eyes off Jesus and focus on the storms of life swirling around us. We doubt and find ourselves sinking.
Why did Peter doubt? That’s a good question, especially considering this story occurs immediately after the disciples saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with only five loaves and two fish. Consistently throughout the Gospels, Jesus provides, rescues and saves. What kept Peter from trusting in Jesus? Indeed, what keeps us from trusting in God’s goodness? We all have repeatedly experienced God’s power and grace.
On family road trips to visit our grandparents, we sometimes spent the night at a Holiday Inn. I remember the thrill of swimming in the pool on a hot summer evening. When I was a little boy, I would stand on the edge of the pool, scared to jump in, even though I really wanted to. My father would stand in waist-deep water and encourage me, “C’mon, jump. I’ve got you. I won’t let anything happen to you.” I knew I could count on my father. When I focused on him, I let myself take the risk and jump, even though I was still scared. I’m glad I did!
Instead of focusing on Peter’s sinking, let us remember that Peter responded in faith to Jesus’s command, “Come.” When Peter’s faith faltered, he still trusted enough to cry out, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus did just that. There’s something about taking that risk that demonstrates our relationship with Jesus, even when we notice the strong winds and forget to rely on the Living Stone.
Questions for reflection:
- What are the “strong winds” that tempt you or your church to take your eyes off Jesus?
- In the midst of fear and anxiety, what mighty acts of God’s power, grace, and goodness can you remember that will strengthen your trust in Jesus?
- How does this story speak to you and your church about what it means to step out in faith? How can Peter’s actions (getting out of the boat, walking on the water, crying out for help) inform your response to Jesus’s invitation and command to come to him?