Walking on Water Is Not What It Is Cracked Up to Be – August 9

A sermon based on Matthew 14: 22-31

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 9, 2020

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Before the story of Jesus walking on water was told, at least two other religions already had stories of walks-on-water.  In a Greek story the god Hermes, who provides messages from heaven to the world, walks on water. 1   In a Buddhist story a disciple on his way to visit the Master, found a river in the way and with meditation and trust started to walk across the water, but, like Peter, the disciple lost his concentration, became frightened and started to sink. Then he regained his composure and finished the journey walking across the water.  2    

In today’s Lectionary reading we heard the most famous walking on water story at least to modern Western ears.  Jesus – Christianity’s messenger from God– walks on water, and one of his disciples, Peter, does too with trust and concentration, until he loses both and begins to sink, but, regains his composure with Jesus’ help and gets back into a boat.   We all tend to remember and focus on the miracle of walking on water, but it is not the crux of the lesson. It never has been. We get lost in the idea of the magic of Jesus walking on water. That’s about all most remember. Which is ironic since Jesus’ walking on water scares the disciples. They thought he was a ghost and cried out in fear.

Some scholars think this story originally started out as a post Easter recollection of experiencing Jesus after he was crucified, thinking at first that he was a ghost. 3  Ghost or not, who can blame the disciples for being afraid?  It is stormy, they are in boat and a man is walking toward them over the water.  I have mentioned before how water in Biblical times represented ominous scary chaos.   In Bible stories water terrorizes and threatens God’s people and God helps them overcome the terror and threat.  Like when God warned Noah of the flood and told him how to rescue creation from it. Noah, conquered chaos with God’s help.   Another example is when Moses and the Hebrew conquered chaos with God’s help. The Hebrews were trapped by the Red Sea. God gave Moses the ability to part the water, so that God’s people could walk through chaos to safety.   One theme of the Bible is that through God the faithful have power over chaos in life.  

In that same general era, the Greek god Hermes and Buddha’s disciple are also have said to have conquered the chaotic deep and scary waters by going over them. So too a little later Jesus. The story of Jesus walking on the water – whether we believe it happened or not– symbolizes that even in the most chaotic scariest storms that life can toss at us, Christ will come over to us and give us a hand, help us and calm the storm.  It’s that coming to us, NOT the means of getting there, that is the story’s main focus.  Faith in Christ can defeat any chaos that threatens to overwhelm us.  Deep troubles are overcome with God’s help.  The take away is supposed to be about that, not so much, the walking on water. 

If we are the disciples out on that boat in that storm (and symbolically we are) what good would it do to see someone walk on water?  Someone doing magic does not calm the fears especially in the midst of utter chaos.   And sure enough, what calms the disciples and makes them believe is not Jesus’ ability to walk on water it’s three other things. (1) Christ’s reassuring words; (2) Christ’s reassuring actions; and (3) human responses to Christ.  We are told that when the people in the boat expressed fear “immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  The “it is I” in ancient Greek can be heard as short for the name God gives to Moses in the burning bush, “I Am.” So, Jesus’ words can be understood as “Take heart it is I Am (God); do not be afraid.”  The claim of being God alone is not enough, though, action toward others is required and Peter requests it, prays for it. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And Jesus answers the prayer with action. He said to Peter, ‘Come.’  So, Peter responded and got out of the boat. He started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 

Hearing a call from God, and then having faith in that call, faith I Am – in Christ  Jesus–  gave Peter the ability to walk over water, to conquer chaos.  And he did . . . if only for a minute. 

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?”

Holding on to Jesus in the middle of chaos – even as we are scared and in doubt –  matters! 

But alone with Jesus, Peter can only be safe from the storm momentarily. What he needed was to get back in the boat with others.  He needed others to support his faith to give him the buoyancy necessary to stay afloat and get through the chaos.  Boats were an early symbol for the Church. When Peter got back to the boat with the others and Jesus there (think the church), relative calm arrived.  All of them together were out in the deep with chaos around them, but the storm ends:  “When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.”  We are also told that once Jesus and Peter got in the boat and that calm arrived, “those in the boat worshiped [Jesus] saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”  

Going back to the origins of the story, surely AFTER Jesus’ was executed his followers felt adrift without him and experienced chaos in the scary storm that roiled in during his brutal execution and haunted them afterwards.  We know though that somehow, there was a resurrection,  the followers soon experienced Jesus as still with them.  The lesson today may be a vestige of some mistakenly thinking Jesus was experienced a ghost.  Whatever they thought in those first post Easter days,  some reached out and grabbed onto Jesus in his mystical return and in the chaos, together with Jesus and one another as church they experienced calm.  Alone they could not maintain that calm. They found they needed both Jesus and the faith community in the boat of the Church.   Once Jesus was back in that “boat,” the followers of Jesus together experienced calm in the midst of chaos.   That scary part of the dark storm of life ended – even as they still floated in the never-ending chaos of life. 5  

That may have been how the story began and got passed down, but by the time Matthew incorporated it into the Gospel there is not a post-Easter reference to Jesus being a ghost. Which is fair enough, because that is not what the resurrection experience was and is about.  The story in Matthew has Jesus personally present and tending to his followers and performing miracles. They are in a boat afloat in chaos. They are fearful. Being a Christian back then was reason enough for fear.   After Good Friday there was fear of being prosecuted for being with Jesus, the criminal who was executed.  And as time went on there was reason to fear being persecuted as a member of an oppressed minority religious cult, the early Christians.  

Marcus Borg suggests Matthew’s version of the story offers these five faith centered meanings:1) Faith and fear are opposites;  2) Faith and courage go together; 3) Faith enables us to overcome the stormy sea;  4) Without faith we sink; and 5) Faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God.    Dr. Borg notes that Matthew took Mark’s story of Jesus walking on water and added Peter walking on the water  “until he became frightened. . .”   Dr. Borg sees this as “insightfully amplify[ing] Mark’s meaning.” 6   

Indeed, Peter’s part of the story seems to be the crux as Matthew tells it.  We envision ourselves out there in the storm on the water. Trying to walk it with Jesus close at hand.    Peter calls Jesus “Lord” even if there is doubt.  He asks for a command and when he gets it . . . to heck with any doubts, even about the impossible.  Peter follows the Lord’s command. He exemplifies a good disciple.   He does not ask for superpower to walk on water.  It turns out that he already has the only superpower he needs,  faith, which puts Christ (the incarnate “I Am”) by his side.  With that, the impossible becomes probable, doable. He can do what Jesus did.  It is humanly possible to do so with Christ by his side.  Peter learns both his strength and his weakness. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like this: 

Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith . . . . The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics. 7

If Peter had not trusted Jesus’ call he would never have experienced the miracle of doing the impossible.  Peter takes the risk.   Sure, he becomes overwhelmed by the chaos and begins to sink, BUT, HE DOES NOT SINK.  

After Peter’s walking on water miracle is over another miracle occurs.  In his time of trouble Peter reached out and held tight to Jesus, the I AM, and together – TOGETHER– they reach safety.   Jesus can be heard to instruct – not scold– Peter saying, “You of little faith . . . why did you doubt.”  As if to say “You just need more faith, less doubt and you’ve got it, my friend.” Jesus does not let Peter sink; he brings him to safety. 

It turns out a little faith and courage is enough to be saved from the chaos of life. When Peter and Jesus get in the boat together with all the rest–who have even less faith than Peter – the storm dies down even in the midst of being surrounded by chaos.  And all of that faith and courage in the face of fear and sinking leads not just to a rescue,  but to human response to it–worship. Worship in community.  Regardless of the strength of the followers’ faith – to a one– “‘those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”  

See, faith and courage lead to rescue by the life saver.  And together – TOGETHER– in the boat of the Church with Christ close at hand Jesus’ Followers can experience a calmer ride over chaos than we would without each other and Jesus.  THAT’S THE GOOD NEWS IN MATTHEW!  And we respond to that Good News with worship, just like they did in the boat. Just like we are doing right now.  Have faith my friends, and we will ride out this chaos together in the boat of the church with Christ and one another by our side! AMEN


* Based in part on a sermon I first preached in 2011

1.Funk, Robert, The Acts of Jesus, (1998), 207.

2. Ibid. 

3. Hales, Douglas, Interpretation Bible Commentary on Matthew, 168

4. Feasting on the Word, 334

5. See, Marcus Borg, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark (2009), 62-63.

6. Ibid.

7. Texts For Preaching, Proper 14, quoting The Cost of Discipleship; New York: Macmillan Co., 1960, pp. 53–60. Many of the ideas in this section of the sermon on Peter are derived from the Text for Preaching commentary for this week’s text.