“Nope, I’m not really interested in walking on water, even if I could.”
A friend of mine blurted this out defensively– surprising herself with the strength which she stated it — when her friend expressed so much confidence in her as to feel overwhelming… like a set-up.
Simmering down, she laughed and explained her reaction, “Walking on water is going to get you dunked, if not drowned. What’s worse, you might end up crucified.”
As she told me about this interaction later, she pointed out that the friend with whom she’d had the exchange is Jewish and might not have made any connection between Jesus and “walking on water.” Instead, he may have known the phrase only as a useful figure of speech describing super-human capabilities.
My friend, the one trying to shy away from water-born perambulation, is Jewish too. But for a number of reasons, she is familiar with Christian theology. Hence, she made the final threatening connection: if we do what Jesus did… when we step out of the lesser expectations of creatures fashioned from dust, we not only end up over our heads. We also gain the negative, destructive attention of powerful, jealous neighbors whose fears we threaten.
I think she’s right: when one is too much like Jesus, one risks ending up like Jesus.
But her deeper and more important point was about having realistic expectations for ourselves. We are only human. We can’t walk on water. Our fear is too great. Our faith is too uneven, sometimes just too weak. Our center of gravity and weight are all wrong…
That’s not any put down. Or disrespect. Instead, it’s permission for a more forgiving anthropology: to allow ourselves to be limited, imperfect, unfinished, HUMAN… Being human is being fragile and faulted, but in nonetheless, precious, sacred, loved.
I often paraphrase a twist that happens in the fourth verse of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That hymn says, “As Christ died to make us holy, let us live to make all free.” Do you hear what happened there? Jesus’ death translates not into some negation of our own lives, but into ‘what more’ we can do with our lives.
My take from it is that Jesus went to the cross that we might not have to. Ok, if Jesus shows up, and he asks you to give your life in an act of martyrdom… But, mostly, understanding his sacrifice and what he means about “giving your life,” it’s all about freeing us up, literally and figuratively.
There is Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus walking on water. In the other two Gospels’ versions of this story, no one but Jesus walks on water. But in Matthew’s telling, Peter steps out on faith.
The disciples have left Jesus behind. They are in the boat trying to sail across the Sea of Galilee when the wind picks up. That’s when Jesus comes skating across the waves. The disciples are unsettled, no frightened.
But Peter says, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.” Peter, it seems, wants to walk on water, as a way to prove Jesus, himself or both.
You probably remember how it turns out. Jesus responds, “Ok, step out of the boat.” And at first, in some boldness of faith, Peter is walking on water too.
But then he’s struck by the strong wind, and his fear blows up, and he begins to sink. He asks for Jesus to save him. Jesus does. And as they both get into the boat, the wind dies down.
I’ve never liked that story very much. I know the point. That in faith we can do all things. Just like saying that with faith the size of a mustard seed we can say to a mountain “move over there,” and it will. But — here’s Jesus’ insistence — our fear undercuts or overwhelms our greater abilities.
Like my friend, I find myself saying, somewhat defensively, “I do want my faith to propel me to do things I could not do without it. But I don’t want to walk on water. I’m not Jesus.”
My faith in Jesus invites me to hold tight to that humility. I’m not Jesus. I’m human.
Without the fear that Jesus helps me cast aside — including that I have to be God! — my walk of faith can be taller and more full of service, albeit ON THE DRY LAND where I live my life.
Of course, the Biblical story was a graphic example, a startling illustration for people in an oral society, so they could grasp and remember the dichotomy between faith and fear.
But in order to grasp its real depth, in order not to let it sink us!, we need to be clear about what it is saying and not misinterpret it to set up an false expectations. Peter walking on water was almost a literary convention…
It doesn’t contradict another crucial nuance of our faith, one we need not lose sight or hold of: we’re not called to be Jesus! We can’t save ourselves. That’s why he’s different, and we need him.
We are to place our faith in Jesus — we need Jesus — because we’re only human.
And, at least for me, that means I aim too high sometimes, and I sink sometimes, I get scared and I get hurt and I need to be carried when I can’t hold myself. And all that’s ok. Indeed, because I don’t want to be Jesus, don’t have to be Jesus. That’s the way it is to be…
See you in church,