Last Sunday, our Gospel reading was about Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5000 men and their families with what initially appeared to be only a small boy’s lunch. In 3 out of 4 gospels, this episode is immediately followed by our today’s reading: Jesus heals and feeds everybody, now it’s evening time, and he tells them to go home. Interestingly, the Greek word here for “sending away” means, “setting them free”. To his disciples, who don’t like to leave Him, Jesus says (in fact, “strongly compels”) to go ahead to the opposite shore of the lake, in a boat without him. John’s Gospel offers a “twist” on the story, in which the crowd is so impressed by Jesus’ powers that they want to make him a king. To avoid their misdirected worship, he tries to slip into the hill, unnoticed.
The so-called Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias, or Kineseret) is a substantial lake: about 13 km wide and 21 long, so it does look like a sea when you’re near it. This great lake is highly susceptible to sudden and extremely violent storms, caused by the collision of the cold air rushing down from the mountains and the warm, moist air rising off the large body of water. Now imagine yourself in a little row-boat trying to go straight towards the other side of the lake in such a storm. The sea is rough; the wind is contrary. This being the fourth watch of the night (3-6 AM), and presuming you’ve started at sundown, you might have been rowing for 9 hours… and yet you’ve only come about 5k. It’s pitch black; your strength and hope is failing. Then suddenly -- an apparition, a ghost, gliding towards you across the water!
We can be hard on the disciples when we read this story, thinking they were lacking in faith -- as though they were somehow to expect Jesus to follow them in this manner. But really, after having fought for your lives for many hours, what would be scarier: to notice that you are now hallucinating out of exhaustion, or to entertain a possibility that this is not a hallucination? Of course, the disciples first fail to recognize Jesus. As far as they are concerned, a man cannot walk on water – not in real life, and not even in a single story from the Torah. Even Moses had to wait until God made dry land appear, before he led Israel across the Red Sea and the river Jordan!
Why did Jesus decide to join his disciples in this way and scare them out of their minds? They would have gladly waited for him until he had sent home the crowd, or he could have walked along the shore the following morning to join them then. A common interpretation of this episode involves Jesus somehow setting up the whole scenario to test the emerging faith of his companions, especially Peter; to find it lacking, and then once again to demonstrate his divinity, and while he was at it, also conveniently to fulfill a prophecy or two from the Old Testament.
This kind of an approach to the accounts of Jesus’ life has always troubled me: I can’t conceptualize God as needing to prove something to us. I feel that the primary impetus for every miracle of Jesus is always compassion, even though he might afterwards state that such incidents ought to open the eyes of our hearts. And so here, I think the main reason for Jesus’ sudden appearance is quite simple: yes, Jesus needed a quiet moment, yes, he was likely going to join his friends in the morning, but he saw that they were in danger, and he came to save them.
Of course, regardless of Jesus’ original intent, it was likely his walking on water that must have impressed the divinity of Jesus on his disciples more than any other miracle that he performed. In their Jewish scriptures, only God is said to “tread upon the waves of the sea” (in the poetic language of the book of Job), to be “above the waters of the river” (in one of the visions of the prophet Daniel), and to “hover over the face of the waters” in the primeval pitch-black darkness before the emergence of light and life (in Genesis). Remember, Jesus had just refused to be made King by the people he had fed. To the initially disappointed and now terrified disciples, to see Jesus’ power over all Creation must have been greatly reassuring. To strengthen their intuition, Jesus used the words “I am” that would be familiar to them as Torah’s holy name for God. And finally, they experienced an immediate deliverance out of storm and to their destination – something that would be rivalled only by the ancient story of Jonah!
Indeed, ships and boats, and the stormy seas, and the potential for drowning are all archetypal and recurring symbols in Judeo-Christian writings. Curiously, of these stories, there is only one where the movement of a boat across the water is described uniquely as “walking” – not floating or gliding, as used elsewhere – and that is referring to Noah’s Ark. That is, the first humans to start over in a renewed relationship with God after the universal death brought by the flood were said to essentially “walk” on water! And now Jesus, the first human who fully defeated the power of death, has walked without sinking right over the forces of chaos and destruction, so that to bring salvation not only to the select few gathered in the Ark, not only to his closest companions in the little row-boat, but also to those “outside the boat” – to the multitude he’d earlier fed and healed on the shore.
The crossing of the lake in the boat is of course a wonderful metaphor for Christian life, and that’s why many of us seem to love and readily identify with this story. The boat may stand, metaphorically, both for the church collectively and for each soul individually. The sea represents the world into which Jesus sends us forth, while he ascends into heaven (i.e., up the mountain). The opposing wind blows by the power of systemic and personal evil forces of this world that prevent us from sailing straight. The rough waves are the afflictions and tribulations, the trials and temptations which assail us until the latest hours of our lives. Yet, even before it occurs to us to seek or invoke God, s/he comes over to meet us – both in the troubles of today, and at the end of all times, when all storms will be made calm, and all boats will safely reach “the other shore”.
Over the centuries, philosophers and theologians developed different opinions re. the origins of suffering in our lives. Perspectives range from viewing human suffering as a test of faith (either sent by God, or only allowed), to it being nothing more than random instances of collision of the powers and principalities. But many of us are fortunate to be able to recall the moments in our lives when, despite the storm and darkness (or perhaps even more because of it!), we suddenly have a strong sense of God’s presence with us. It is during those times that we, overcome by the strength of our response and gratitude towards our Creator, are suddenly moved by an impulse to surrender our will to God. We desire to walk with God as closely as possible, and occasionally, we even dare to do so!
Then suddenly, like Jesus does with Peter, God takes us up on our offer. It could be to priesthood or lay life, to be married or come to terms with being single, to have a child or to accept being childless, to study or embark on a new job… Whatever it is, this decision will one day bring with it the unexpected perils, the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”, as we say in our traditional late night prayer. And if it wasn’t for God’s grace, combined with our own perseverance, we would never be able to stay safely on course. But Peter could do the impossible, both because the Lord granted him power and also because he hoped in the Lord. So faith is a constant interaction between God and us. It has limits (these are called doubts, and it’s a good thing because it teaches us humility), but the presence of God is not circumscribed by them.
So tomorrow, when you go through some sort of a trial and feel tired, lonely, and ready to give up, remember the Gospel of today and say to yourself: "I am sailing in the boat towards the Kingdom, and the Lord is not only somewhere up there on a high mountain, but also in eye of the storm -- right here with me". Thanks be to God.