Visitors to the Holy Land like to take a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, the sea on which Jesus walked. A certain tourist wanted such a ride and the boatman told him the fare was one hundred dollars. “One hundred dollars!” exclaimed the tourist, “No wonder Jesus walked!”
As in both Mark and John, the miracle of Jesus walking on the water occurs in Matthew immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. The effect of these successive narratives is powerful. They portray Jesus as the one who can provide for the needs of all peoples and one who has control over the elements of nature and even over all demons and evil itself.
There are some who interpret the walking on the water to mean walking by the water. To do so would be to miss the point that Matthew wants to make. Matthew does not intend to portray Jesus as defying the law of gravity. By showing Jesus walking on the water, he reveals a Jesus who has power over the sea: he walks upon the deep as God alone does, and the sea respects his wishes. If the Israelites regarded the sea as the domain of evil powers then the terrifying experience of a storm at sea in the dead of night becomes even more symbolic of the human experience of evil. The fear of the disciples is like the fear of all who are threatened by insecurity in the face of the unknown. But when Jesus appears to those in extreme need and in the darkest part of the night, it is as one who has sovereign power, not only over the forces of nature but over evil itself. Thus the words of Jesus, “Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.” are not empty or meaningless. Fear is unwarranted where Jesus is present. The very presence of Jesus banishes all fear. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This blessed presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might face the storms of life with God’s help.
In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that the storms of this life cannot hurt us, even when we are outside of the safety and comfort of the Church. Peter’s lack of faith is caused by a failure of concentration: he is distracted by the fierce wind. He removes his gaze from Jesus. His mind became more affected by the circumstances than by faith in the power of Jesus, and once again he became filled with fear. This is why he begins to sink and cries out in desperation: “Lord, save me.” Peter realizes that in the moment of most dire human need, there is but one cry, just as there is but one source of salvation.
We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.
Then we will see, with Peter that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our chagrin, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, and in fact take us outside of his care and concern. This is important. For even when we are back inside the boat of the Church, when the waters about us appear to be calm, we find that we are still in the midst of a storm. We have to cast aside any fear that there might be limits to the abundance of God’s grace, and that with this grace given freely we cannot achieve the impossible, or that we can’t change the world. Who would have thought it possible to walk on water, or to discern the voice of God as Elijah does not in the strong wind or earthquake or raging fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence?” Faith is not merely being able to walk on the water but daring to believe in the face of all the evidence that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.
The Jesus who multiplied the loaves and fish and who appeared to the disciples walking on the water and who saved Peter from sinking, this same Jesus is the Lord of the church who has brought salvation and who stands similarly prepared to save his people, even when they may doubt, from the evils that beset them. This Jesus who rules over nature and even the realm of evil is rightly worshiped as “truly the Son of God.”