Our Gospel reading for this morning is puzzling. In every other miracle story, Jesus helps people. He heals, and he feeds. Once he calms a storm, which keeps his terrified disciples safe. At his mother’s insistence, he turns water into wine to keep a wedding party going, but even that has an obvious benefit for others.
Our story is the only example of what we might call a miracle of convenience. As best I can tell Jesus is just taking a shortcut to get where he wants to go, and his shortcut happens to be across a stormy lake. Strange.
Peter’s behavior is strange, too. If I saw Jesus walking across water in the middle of the night, I doubt it would occur to me to ask for permission to get out of the boat with him.
In one more puzzle, Jesus agrees to Peter’s weird request! Jesus does not say, what strikes me as the most reasonable response, “Peter, stop being a bonehead. Of course you can’t come to me on the water, you fool. You would sink!” Instead Jesus invites Peter to give it a shot even though Jesus surely knows what will happen.
What are we to make of this strange story?
Well, here is my own water experience from last weekend.
Carrie and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary by taking a two-day white water kayaking clinic on the Deerfield River.
I figured I didn’t really need a clinic. But I thought Carrie could use a few pointers.
I have paddled a lot. But I paddle on the Connecticut River, which is nice and flat. It turns out, whitewater kayaking is an entirely different beast. I learned that the hard way.
So our instructor would tell me and Carrie to try something: to ferry across the river, or slip in or out of an eddy, or something like that. We’d give it a shot. Then he’d correct us.
Carrie would press him for details, trying to figure out what she had done wrong. Meanwhile I sat back, happy with my performance and wishing that she would get with the program a little more quickly. Finally, our instructor would tell Carrie that she had actually done it perfectly, that she should keep doing exactly what she was doing. I was the one with the problem.
That happened multiple times during our first morning.
When we finally started down the river after lunch, we saw how right our instructor. Every other rapid, I fell out of my boat. Once I fell out when there wasn’t even a rapid. I’m not sure how I did it!
On the second morning, before we got started, Carrie decided she needed to practice what our guide called the “wet exit,” which is to say, getting out of the boat when you flip over. That was one thing I did not need to practice!
Later that day, as I swam through yet another rapid, a woman asked me if I was OK. I told her I was doing the only whitewater thing I was good at!
Finally, at the end of our second day, our instructor gave us the option of paddling through the biggest rapid on our stretch of the river. Carrie considered it. I did not. I knew what would happen. And I did not want to float on my back through those waves or get slammed against those rocks. Carrie was too sweet to do it without me or to press me to do it. We called it a day.
I learned two things last weekend. The first and more obvious lesson was humility. I am not nearly the paddler I thought I was. There are things I cannot do, or at least cannot do well.
The second lesson only came to me after we got back home. Even when I failed, I was still OK. I was wearing a life preserver and a helmet, and our instructor didn’t take us to any really dangerous rapids. If I had attempted that final rapid, I probably would have fallen out of my kayak, and I might have gotten a bit banged up. But I would have been fine. And I would now have bragging rights. Knowing that I would be OK even if I failed should have given me the courage I needed to try that last rapid.
Now, I still don’t know why Jesus walked across the water in the first place. And I don’t know what inspired Peter to propose joining Jesus on the water. But I think Jesus agreed to Peter’s request because he wanted Peter to learn those same two lessons.
Start with humility. Peter seems to have been Jesus’ number one disciple. Peer is the disciple who gets by far the most airtime in all four Gospels. After Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, Peter emerges as the single most important leader in the new Church. Among the disciples, Peter was clearly a big man.
On several occasions, the disciples debated with each about which one of them was the greatest. I suspect that Peter loudly made his own case. And Peter probably was the greatest of them.
But in this story, Peter learns a little humility.
Almost as soon as he got out of the boat, Peter panicked and started to sink. Peter had to be rescued in front of all the other disciples. And when Jesus got Peter back in the boat, Jesus fussed at him, again in front of all the other disciples. I am guessing it was at least a few days before Peter claimed to be Jesus’ greatest disciple.
This episode forces Peter to see the truth about himself, which is the truth about all of us too. Peter is not great on his own. Without Jesus, Peter can't do much of anything. Without Jesus, Peter would just sink beneath the waves. That is true for us too, and every once in a while it is good for us to be reminded of that fact.
But that is not the only lesson for Peter. With Jesus, Peter was OK, even when things got to be too much for him, even when he failed. With Jesus in front of him, Peter could get out of the boat in a stormy sea in the middle of the night. That’s impressive. With Jesus as inspiration, Peter could walk on water, if only for a minute. And with Jesus’ help, Peter got safely back in the boat.
Ironically, the experience of failure may have been the most empowering thing that could happen to Peter. Here, and from lots of other similar experiences that we can read about in the Gospels, Peter learned the lesson that I failed to learn in time last weekend. Peter learned that even when he fails, Jesus is still there with him. Knowing that, as he eventually will know it, Peter can attempt anything. And with that kind of courage, Peter emerges as one of the greatest heroes of our faith.
Probably none of us will reach Peter’s level. And we should certainly remember the lesson about humility. We need Christ. But with Christ’s help, we can be bold. We can move out of our comfort zones. We can step out into the stormy waves. And we will fail some times. But Christ will always be with us. And with Christ’s help, and a little courage of our own, we can do great things.
And so on this day, my prayer for us is that we can be both humble and bold as we follow our Lord wherever he leads us. And I pray that in Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan