When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Whenever I read the account of Jesus walking on water I remain grateful to Peter De Rosa for his insights in his book, Jesus who became Christ, which I read as part of my lay preacher’s training way back in the early 1980s. He suggests that to understand the significance of this story best we need to grasp the Jewish attitude to the sea.
“Jews thought of it, especially in moments of storm and tempest, as the unmasterable element. In their imagination, it figured as the haunt of the sea-beast and it was, in every way, capricious, menacing, restless. It was death-dealing on an unsurpassable scale. The generally peaceful Lake of Galilee is not without its victims, for, due to the configuration of the surrounding hills, fierce storms have a tendency to rise there unexpectedly.”
De Rosa cites a selection of Psalms, the source of daily prayer for Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, in which the sea is depicted as a potential destroyer. Take Psalm 69, for example:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me … With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. (Psalm 69: 1-2, 14-15)
Similarly “the boat” is a classic symbol for the Church (commonly with the Cross as its mast) – traversing the risky seas of life, with us, the followers of Jesus, as crew (rather than passengers?). Today’s reading, therefore, invites us to find reassurance in the face of all that threatens to submerge and drown us, in “deep waters” and “flood”: we do not ‘sail’ troubled waters alone but dare to believe that the One in whom we place faith walks on the lake and comes to the boat. Indeed it is only when Christ is “in the boat” that the crew have hope. In Easter faith we proclaim that he is the One who was drawn up out of the deepest waters of death and is, thereby, acclaimed Lord over even death itself.
Life can, all too often, entail facing storms. As with the Sea of Galilee they arise unexpectedly and they can involve considerable fear, stress and grief. Being part of “the crew” of the Church does not exempt us from storms – personally or corporately. Today’s reading offers us consolation and hope: for all anxious in the boat let us hear again the voice of the One who walks on the waters of fear and death, “… do not be afraid”. We are not alone – he is with us.
Jesus who became Christ, by Peter De Rosa, William Collins Sons & Co, 1977.
God, whose love is deeper than the deepest waters, bless, this day, any and all who are anxious and distressed by the storms of life.
(Pause to name people and situations engulfed by fear)
Grant them the deep and abiding peace that comes from you and rescue them from the floods. Bless, too, those whose hearts and homes have been submerged – by water or by woe – that they may find the help and hope they need.
Grant energy and inspiration to any and all who reach out to help those drowning in fear. We ask that as your boat and crew the Church may brace the storms of our time, be ever willing to be guided by your compass and come, at the last, to the shores to which you call us.
In the name of the One who walked on the water and is Lord of the Church. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke is the minister of The Crossing Church (Methodist/United Reformed), Worksop.