Jesus is There – Here – for Us!
Aug 13, 2023
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 14:22-33
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Being overwhelmed by water is a scary experience if one does not know how to swim. It happens that I do know how, having taken swimming lessons for years and progressing to being ready to be trained as a lifeguard, which I did not do. Still, there have been times in large bodies of water, particularly oceans with crashing waves, when I have been afraid, so much so that I have stopped wading past my knees.
So, even though Peter could swim – which we know because on at least two occasions he jumped out of boats and swam to Jesus, it’s not difficult to understand why he and the others were afraid as the wind howled and the waves crashed, and that was before anyone had left the boat!
Speaking of a boat and swimming, there’s a story told by Pastor P. Randall Wright that I just HAVE to share. It seems a young woman was appointed to serve as pastor of a small county church. This was her first church, and the first time the church had been served by a female pastor. Among the congregation was a man who wished the prophet Joel had not said, “your sons AND daughters shall prophecy”. The problem was, in part, that she was not a fisherman and he had always taken his pastors fishing.
He, wanting to keep tradition, and she, seeking to please her new parishioner, found themselves planning a fishing excursion. She tried to fake it, but it soon became evident that the pastor knew little about fishing. The parishioner had to help her bait the hook and show her how to cast a line, how to reel in the catch, and, of course, how to take the fish off the hook. His fishing was interrupted by her inexperience.
To add to his exasperation, it was a chilly morning, and she began to regret – out loud - having left her jacket in the car. “Well,” her host said, “I’ll pull up the anchor and take you back to shore to fetch your jacket.” Not wanting to inconvenience him any further the pastor said, “Oh, no, that won’t be necessary.” And with that she stepped out of the boat and walked across the water to the shore. The fisherman shook his head in disbelief and said to himself, “Wouldn’t you know it; she can’t swim either.” (1)
As you are letting that sink in, let’s get back on track, assured that Peter could swim, but struggled to walk on water. Before we look further at the story, though, let’s remind ourselves of the context. Jesus needed some alone time. We know this because in previous texts we are told that Jesus had just learned about the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. He had then gone to a lonely place where he could mourn and pray, but the crowds followed him. So, Jesus set aside his own need in order to teach, heal and then feed the huge crowd of 5000+. Jesus blessed a tiny amount of food, and it was transformed into enough to satisfy the hunger of the multitude. Yet, he had not forgotten his need for solitude. He sent the disciples ahead, in a boat across the Sea of Galilee, so he could pray alone.
Then comes the astounding twist in the plot; a storm blew in and as the disciples were being tossed by the wind and waves, their fright, already nearly overwhelming, was intensified as they saw a ghost gliding across the white caps. Then they heard – could it be? - Jesus’ voice, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Let’s pause in the action here to reflect on this concept of walking on water. It’s interesting that over the centuries “to walk on water” has evolved into an image used to refer to boldness, even in the secular world. Motivational speakers use it as something toward which to aspire to succeed in business, sort of like the phrase, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” In other words, master your fear, defy the odds, do not be overwhelmed, walk on water!
But, I do not think that’s what is being described here. Initially, Peter was looking for assurance that the “ghost” was indeed Jesus (“Lord, if it is you…”). He may not have expected to be invited out onto the water. Then, when he was, he was so overwhelmed by emotion, excitement or even need – but perhaps not faith – that he got out of the boat. Once on the water, he came to his senses and realized where he was.
That’s when Peter did what he knew to do, at least I think so, as does Pastor Wright. He swam. Once he started to sink, he began to swim. And toward whom did he swim? This is important … not the boat …but, Jesus. While this may be taking liberty with the text, it’s true that Peter learned that when it’s either sink or swim, to swim, and to swim toward Jesus. (2)
He is always there. He was there for Peter, who in spite of this miraculous event, questioned, denied and argued with his Lord; Jesus was there every time Peter had to swim back to him. That’s true for us too.
When we move in the direction of Jesus, concentrate on him and focus on faith, we are swimming toward Jesus. Let me quote Pastor Wright one more time: “Swimming toward Jesus is dragging yourself out of bed after a sleepless night and bravely facing the next day, even if that day looks darker for you than all your yesterdays. Swimming toward Jesus is diving into a situation where you may be attacked for getting involved, but you know you must, keeping ever before you your calling to follow the One who leads the way…. Swimming toward Jesus is following his commandment to love your neighbor as yourself when you can’t stand either one. Swimming toward Jesus is letting him bless you in your grief because he said he would – even when you simply cannot understand your loss. Swimming toward Jesus is letting him be so focused in your life that you really begin to believe you can have no anxiety about tomorrow and nothing can separate you from his love….” (3)
What would you add to that list? Swimming toward Jesus is when the future is unknown, but we trust in the Lord’s guiding presence. Swimming toward Jesus is facing illness, and even death, with a peace that passes human understanding. Swimming toward Jesus is reluctantly forgiving because we have been forgiven by our Lord.
Sometimes, swimming toward Jesus is treading water. And, if we cannot swim anymore – as was the case for Peter – Jesus will reach out and catch us too. And perhaps Jesus will shake his head at our doubt too, not in a judgmental way, not to say “try harder” but as a reminder of his unconditional love for us.
Here is the good news - the one who can feed thousands, walk on water, silence storms, is God with us; Jesus is there, or should I say here, for us. AMEN
- “Faith: Swimming Toward Jesus” by P. Randall Wright, Matthew 14:22-33, www.preaching.com
- Same as #1
- Same as #1