Getting Your Feet Wet
August 7 2005
Have you ever had one of those experiences where something is so uncanny, so perfect, so appropriate that you just know that there’s something or someone behind it? That’s the experience I’ve had with this text this week. This text is the perfect story for this, my last Sunday here with you before leaving for a year as a missionary in Egypt. I know we’ve all heard this story a million times before and we’re always being told that it’s about taking risks to follow Jesus, or making a leap of faith, or stepping out of our comfort zone. But I have something just a little bit different in mind this week.
Some of you may remember that about four months ago Jason and I took a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, to participate in a long weekend retreat for potential Young Adult Volunteers. During this weekend about 50 young adults between the ages of 19 and 30 came together to study, pray, and explore whether a year of mission work was for them, and if so where they were called to go. There were people who’d just graduated from college or who were about to, people who were planning to go to seminary when they came back, people who were looking for a change, people who were interested in doing something good while they figure out what to do with their lives, and all kinds of other motives and interests and backgrounds and gifts. There were site directors of a dozen countries and US sites—from Hollywood to India to Kenya to Thailand to Guatemala and everywhere in between. It was really a chance for us to just get our feet wet in the program—to meet people, find out information, and be in community for a short while with other people we might be living with later in the year. All weekend we talked, we listened, we met and chatted and ate and prayed. We worshipped twice a day, and the text we used for each of those 6 services was this very text—the story of Peter walking on the water. We heard this story 6 times, we heard it preached on 6 times, we heard what felt like every aspect of the story—from the part where Jesus takes some time out to pray and rest even though there’s a ton of work to do, to the part where Jesus walks on the water, to the part where Peter walks on the water, to the part where Peter sinks and Jesus apparently rebukes him, to the part where all the disciples worship Jesus because they finally figure it out just at the last minute. I feel like I have heard every sermon on this text that I might ever preach, and all in one weekend. When we weren’t in worship, we were often talking about this story and what we were thinking or feeling about it. The entire discernment weekend was saturated with this story of Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples and their modes of travel. So when it appeared in the lectionary for the Sunday I was scheduled to preach my last sermon before heading off to actually be a young adult volunteer, I found the coincidence too much to bear. Except, of course, I don’t believe in coincidence, so it must be providence. Clearly there is a reason that I’m supposed to bring this story to you all this morning.
Can you imagine the scene that Matthew describes? Jesus sends the disciples on ahead in the boat, and since they’d tried earlier to get Jesus to send the crowd away, they were probably delighted to get away from the crowd and have some peace and quiet. No one asked Jesus how he was planning on catching up with them, no one argued, no one even batted an eye. Now, the Sea of Galilee is not very wide—at its widest point it is 8 miles across. From the place where the feeding of the 5,000 happened up to Genessaret, the location for the next story, is basically due north, probably about 5 or 6 miles. You can see across from one side to the other. It must have been really windy, because by the time Jesus decides to join them, he can see that they’re out in the middle of the lake even after several hours. Remember, this is a boat half full of fishermen—they know how to move a boat, even in a storm. And these fishermen were straining at the oars, according to Mark’s version of this story. So when Jesus comes along, leisurely strolling by, apparently on the surface of the water, imagine what that must have looked like. The disciples have been up all night bailing water out, trying to keep the waves from swamping the boat, rowing against a strong wind, and making no progress. They’ve just had news that John the Baptist was beheaded—bad news for their own little group. And now, in the dark of the very early morning, they see this figure coming toward them, clothes billowing out behind him, face pale in the faint moonlight, hair whipping about. Between stress, fatigue, anxiety, and the impossibility of the situation, of course they were afraid! They scream, probably with the scream of a teenager in terror, and Jesus says “do not be afraid.”
Have you ever noticed that whenever the phrase “do not be afraid” comes up in the Bible, it’s always at the moment when people have every right to be completely terrified? Hagar thinks her son is going to die in the desert heat and she begins to hear voices. Moses sees a bush that’s burning up but isn’t burning up. The people of Israel come up against an army ten times their size. Jeremiah takes daily threats to his life, even from the king. Mary meets a so-called-angel that mysteriously appears in her kitchen. The disciples see a vision of Elijah and Moses with Jesus on a mountain and everyone is glowing. The members of the early church see their brothers and sisters stoned and burned to death for proclaiming Jesus as Lord. These are all pretty good reasons to be afraid, and yet every time God says “do not be afraid.” What? I spend plenty of my time being afraid for much less than this. And now I’m headed out to a place where everyone keeps telling me to be careful, often implying that I should be afraid of the people, of the situation, of some unknown thing. And that’s really what we’re afraid of, isn’t it? We’re afraid of the unknown. We as a congregation are afraid—because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, where we’ll be in a year or five years, whether new people will come or everyone here will get a new burst of energy or whether young families will move in to the new townhomes across the street. We as a nation are afraid because there are people in the world who aren’t like us. The people in those Bible stories were afraid of the unknown—what would happen when that army marched on the Israelites, whether Jeremiah would be killed or not, what this angel might require or what seeing God face-to-face might do to a person. Now, intellectually we all know that what we really fear is the unknown, and we know that the unknown thing usually turns out not to be very frightening at all—sometimes it’s even pleasant or rewarding!—but we are still afraid to move toward it, to get our feet wet in that unknown and risk getting in over our heads. So perhaps, in this light, “do not be afraid” makes some sense after all. Perhaps that is Jesus’ way of telling the disciples in the boat that he is not the unknown, but is someone they know and love and trust. Perhaps the phrase “do not be afraid” is almost a form of identification, a way for God to say “hey, it’s me! Not a stranger, but a friend.”
Once the disciples have heard this declaration, this identification, of their friend and Lord, Peter asks what seems like a silly question to me. He says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Now, if it was a ghost, wouldn’t the ghost also say, “come” just as Jesus does? Granted, the ghost would assume that Peter would sink, but why not? It doesn’t seem like a very good test. However, you may remember the phrase from First John: “test the spirits to see whether they are of God.” Maybe Peter was confirming that it was his friend and, somehow, also displaying his trust that what Jesus commands is possible. In any case, Jesus orders Peter out of the boat, and the exhausted and frightened Peter obeys. Somehow he defies all logic, gravity, laws of physics, and everything else and manages to step out onto a non-solid surface that is heaving and spraying and swirling all around him. Maybe it was magic, maybe it’s a metaphor for stepping from comfort into chaos, maybe it somehow really happened, but in any case, the story tells us that Peter began to walk toward Jesus—and THEN he noticed the wind? Uh, no, he knew about the wind, he’d been in a boat, straining to make headway, desperately trying to keep the boat afloat against the waves. He hadn’t been comfortable in the boat to begin with—he had been anxious, bone-tired, soaked to the skin, and most likely decidedly uncomfortable. He knew what was outside the boat. He knew he might get even wetter, that it might not work…but he also knew that if Jesus called him out of the boat then it must be worth it. And he chose to get out of the boat and try his luck at walking on the water because that’s where Jesus was. He was more comfortable being close to Jesus than being on a solid surface. He was willing to get his feet wet in order to be close to the Lord he knew. And yes, he became afraid, and he began to sink—he may have even been in over his head—but with God all things are possible and Jesus held him up. Remember from Psalm 139—at the edge of the sea, in the depths of Sheol or the heights of heaven, even there your right hand shall hold me fast. Or the psalm for today, Psalm 23—even in the depths of fear, sinking into the middle of the very symbol of chaos, Peter was comforted by the Shepherd. Oh yes, Peter knew what he was getting into, and he was afraid of what might happen, but his friend and Lord came through for him, just as he always had and always will. Jesus is Lord even of the elements and of the laws of nature, as we see so often in the gospels, and he was not about to let Peter fall. Jesus walked Peter back to the boat, to the stunned disciples who by now had probably forgotten to bail or row because they were busy staring open mouthed at Peter, and the wind stopped when they were all together again, and the disciples worshipped him—because what else could they do? There is no other response than awe and praise when something so completely bizarre happens, much as there is no other response than following when you are called.
In that moment, the moment where Peter stepped out of the boat, I think he got a little glimpse of what it must be like to be in the Kingdom of God. To be more comfortable being close to Jesus than being on solid ground, to do something strangely impossible, to so closely obey the command of the Lord, to forget the worldly rules and follow a new set of kingdom rules. I must admit that I’m not quite in the same place Peter was. When I was in a boat on the Sea of Galilee in the broad daylight when the wind and water were calm, we joked about who would prove their faith by stepping out—and neither I nor anyone else was willing to do so. And I will definitely be careful when I’m in Egypt—I don’t plan on going places alone at night, going anywhere with random people I just met at a coffee shop, or doing anything silly. Because it seems to us that what Peter did was really kind of silly, kind of bizarre, kind of rash and thoughtless. But in a way I think that’s kind of what we do at church, especially on days like today. We come together to proclaim something impossible has happened and is happening—that God became human, that a human being died and was resurrected, that being in community matters, that water, bread, and wine mean something beyond what they look like, feel like, or taste like. Every time we come to this table we act kind of silly, claiming that eating specific foods together in a specific place in a specific way brings us closer together, creates and re-creates the Body of Christ, feeds us with God’s own body and blood—that it is life-giving in both physical and spiritual ways. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t always comfortable, and it makes us the subject of ridicule sometimes. And yet we do it; week after week millions of people around the world enact the same ritual we will enact here today, they eat bread and drink wine, they say the same words and they believe that in doing so we are all made brothers and sisters—even with people we don’t know or like, even with people we are afraid of, even with the one we call Lord. This immensely silly and seemingly impossible thing that we do, though, is like getting our feet wet in the Kingdom. We believe that we come closer to Jesus in this ritual, in this symbol, in this act of communion. And so we leave the solid ground that is strangely uncomfortable and we enter into something different, something swirling and mysterious, something holy. And we find that there is comfort there, even amidst the challenge, even in that place of uncertainty that is the place where Jesus often is.
Today I invite you to listen for Jesus calling your name, and to step out of the boat, which is not a comfortable place, not the place where we are at home, and step into the holy place where Jesus is and you can truly be at home. Go ahead and be silly! Get your feet wet here at the table, and keep them wet out in the world that God calls us to live in and to serve. Amen.