Walking on Water


It is the kind of comment you hear in any shopping mall: 'You go on ahead: I'll catch up with you later.' But in this case it was different. These were the words of Jesus and he was sending his disciples off across the Sea of Galilee in a boat. 'You go on ahead: I'll catch up with you later.' They did what he said, but there must have been questions running through their minds: Exactly how and when was Jesus going to catch up with them later? After all it was getting late, and there was the small matter of getting a crowd of five thousand people to disperse. It was a strange experience for those disciples that night: crowded together in a flimsy boat, in the dark with an adverse wind that defied all their straining efforts. It was a kind of time of pointless human effort, of chaos, when that combination of water and wind was at its most infuriating.

In contrast to their exertions, Jesus, like Moses on Mount Sinai, went up the mountain by himself to pray. He was on his own, praying to God, his Heavenly Father, all through the night to the early hours of the morning. The evangelist Matthew only mentions Jesus praying at really critical moments: here on this stormy night and in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his death. It is at moments such as these that Jesus draws strength from God, sheltering in the divine intimacy of the Father's love. But what is so critical on this dark, windy night? To put it simply: Jesus and his disciples are in danger. John the Baptist has just been killed by Herod in a gruesome, barbaric beheading. That is why Jesus immediately withdrew his disciples from the towns and villages and headed off to a deserted place. To no avail--privacy was impossible as thousands sought him out for healing. That crowd ended up needing to be fed too. Such a popular movement would not go unnoticed in Tiberias, the seat of Herod's power. Perhaps that was why Jesus sent his disciples off ahead of him in the boat in order to protect them from arrest.  And he was left alone on the mountain in prayer.

The story so far is about danger, about what to do when your back is up against the wall, of how to respond to adversity when the whole world is against you, about when you have next to nothing to hand to counter the forces of injustice and evil. It is in this barren place that Jesus finds the wherewithal to feed five thousand, where despair and hopelessness are faced down, where danger is faced up to and hope triumphs. One thinks of Archbishop Janani Lawum brutally murdered by Idi Amim's regime in Uganda in 1977. Following a State Banquet in Entebbe, Lawum knew that his life was in danger, yet he continued to lead the church with resilience and courage. His martyrdom inspired many to stand up for justice and truth.

But back to that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee.  Exactly what happens next is lost in the mists of time, but we know that something remarkable happened.[1] As the disciples' boat is buffeted by the wind, in the early hours of the morning, that is between 3am and 6am, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water towards them. 'He came towards them walking on the sea.' Human beings can perform many extraordinary feats in, on, and under water. You may be an excellent swimmer; in these summer months you may revel in the pleasures of water-skiing; you might even have the nerve and skill to catch a huge wave and surf it. You may dive from a great height and plunge into the water far below; you can snorkel or go scuba-diving under water. But you can't walk on water. Your body weight and the law of gravity make walking on water a physical impossibility. Human beings know this: we talk about 'walking on air' as a metaphor of triumph and success; and when we see a ballerina like the Russian Natalia Osipova, move through the air with such graceful, extraordinary beauty, we glimpse possibilities of human movement that we never thought possible. But as for walking on water, we know that that is beyond us--beyond our human capabilities. The disciples, most of whom were experienced fishermen, knew this too.  Little wonder that they were terrified at what they saw and cried out in fear. The sea, after all, in their culture could be a place of demons and diabolical monsters--like a screaming nightmare that wakes you up, trembling and fearful.

It is not helpful at this point to try to figure out how Jesus walked on water. Nor is it useful to dismiss this incident as a fabrication or illusion on the part of the disciples. What the evangelist Matthew is inviting us to do is to ask the question: Who walks on water particularly when it is stormy? This invites us to turn to scripture and there some answers begin to emerge. In scripture, it is God who commands the sea and stills the storm. It is God alone who can walk on water. Psalm 77 is a psalm pleading for help from God which calls to mind the awesome power of God in the crossing of the Israelites through the Sea of Reeds:

'When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled...Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.'[2] 

So on this storm tossed night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus reveals himself uniquely as the one endowed with the power of the creator God, the one to whom he has prayed all night, and in whose strength he now walks on water. This is none other than the divine power of God who overcomes the chaos of the deep, turbulent waters and is totally unafraid of the raging of the sea. The disciples find themselves in the divine presence, encountering the divine power in all its strength and protection. On one level, the words of Jesus, 'Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid' are the words of a leader taking command. But on another level, the words invoke the divine name of God, the great 'I am' creator of the heavens and earth. It is little wonder that the disciples, like the wise men at his birth, respond to Jesus, the one who walks on water, by worshipping him. Exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they make the first profession of faith in Matthew's gospel: 'You are the Son of God.'

But the story doesn't end there. Vital though it is to have a profound spiritual awakening to discover who Jesus really is, the evangelist Matthew presses on, introducing something new. Peter asks if he can walk on water too, and Jesus encourages him to try. Leaving the safety of the boat, Peter ventures out on the waves, makes some progress, and then loses his nerve. As he plunges down into the water, he cries out, 'Lord, save me.' Jesus stretches out his hand and rescues him. Peter's action is not just that of an impetuous friend. Rather the evangelist is demonstrating that the divine power revealed in Jesus is not just to be confined to God, but is to be shared by God with those who follow Jesus. In his inaugural sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, encouraged the church to be like Peter and to get out of the safety of the boat. "We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ." Archbishop Welby is in no doubt that what Christians need most today is courage: "the present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage."[3]

With faith and confidence in God, the chaos of life's stormy ups and downs, the demons of disappointment, setback, injustice and evil, can be overcome. Though as a world we might feel weak, broken and vulnerable, and facing very real dangers, the divine power of God, revealed in Jesus, is there for us to draw on. If we flounder, help is at hand. As Jesus stretches out his hand to rescue Peter, we are reminded of God's action as recorded in Psalm 18:

'God reached down from on high and took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.' (Psalm 18:16-19)

There are times in your life when you may feel overwhelmed, when you may be out of your depth, when you feel you are drowning under a multitude of problems. Don't lose heart. For it is at times like these that Christ will draw you out of your turbulence and calm the storms of your life. As we near the end of our lives, you and I will have to step out from family and friends and walk through the waters of death. It is then that we are invited to fix our eyes on Jesus, to trust in Him, and to know that he will draw us safely back home to our Heavenly Father.

The virtuoso pianist and composer, Franz Lizst, for the most part was not religious. But towards the end of his life, that changed. Lizst was particularly drawn to the story of St Francis of Paolo--a story which in turn was inspired by Jesus walking on the water. St Francis had hoped to get a boat across the Straits of Messina from the coast of Italy to Sicily. But he had no money, and the boatman refused to grant him any favours. Indeed he taunted him and told him to make his own way across the strait. Francis put his cloak on the water and stepping onto it, began to walk. In 1863, Lizst composed his piano piece, St Francis Walking on the Water--a piece of music that remains a great challenge to any emerging classical pianist. It is a profoundly spiritual work: a strong melodic hymn begins the piece; but then the whole piano is gradually and frighteningly caught up in a ferocious storm, through rushing scales and tremolos. Gradually, tentatively, the hymn of faith fights back, resolutely walking on the waters of this terrible storm and finally emerges in a glorious fortissimo of victory. Faith, justice and love have triumphed over the infernal elements unleashed against them.

Walking on water? A human impossibility. But with faith and God-given courage both as an individual and as the church, you can move mountains and walk on water! 

Let us pray. Help us, O Lord, when the storms of life assail us, to entrust ourselves to your mercy, that you might draw us out of the waters that engulf us, and place us in the safe harbour of your love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


[1] The story is recounted in Matthew 14:15-33; Mark 6:45-52; and John 6:16-21.

[2] Psalm 77:6 & 19

[3] http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5038/we-will-see-a-world-transformed-the-archbishop-of-canterburys-inaugural-sermon#sthash.L7NwO82T.dpuf