Walking on the Water

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
August 7, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A, Proper 14
Matthew 14:22-33

On July 20, 1969, the world listened to those incredible words spoken by Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and though many failures preceded that first success, he seemed to have nerves of steel as he made history that day 42 years ago.

Today’s Gospel story from Matthew records another incredible feat—the first steps of men walking on water. Peter’s first steps in faith were more like the wobbly first steps of a toddler, than the seemingly fearless steps of Neil Armstrong, but certainly no less significant. Peter leapt out of that boat boldly believing that as long as Jesus invited him to, he would have the ability to walk with him on the water. It was good thinking, and it worked. As Peter stepped out of the boat and onto the water he took one small step for man, but one giant leap of faith. It was not the problem of gravity or the problem of density that caused Peter to sink. Rather, it was the problem of his fear.

Fear is the great obstacle that is present throughout this story. Matthew tells us that the disciples were terrified when they saw Jesus walking over the water toward them. Their fear prevented them from recognizing their friend and Lord. With Jesus encouraging them, “do not be afraid,” Peter seems to overcome his fear just long enough to take his first few steps out into the deep with Jesus. An instant later though, he felt the strong wind and lost his nerve. As his fear dragged him down, Peter cried out for help.

A few summers ago, I enjoyed reading the novel The Shack, by William Young. It is a modern story of a man who experienced a deeply painful loss, and while he is sinking in his own depression, God reaches out to him. Actually, God writes him a note, and invites him to meet him for a weekend retreat. The main character, Mack, ends up spending a weekend in a cabin with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s a very interesting book.

In one chapter, Jesus invites Mack to go for a walk on the water with him. You can imagine Mack’s surprise, followed by fear, when he realizes Jesus is serious. Jesus asks him why he is afraid, and the answers are obvious. The conversation leads Jesus into posing more questions: “Do you think humans were designed to live in the present or the past or the future?” And then, “Where do you spend most of your time in your mind … in the present, in the past, or in the future?”

As Mack and Jesus stood on the dock looking out onto a lake, this was what they discussed, with Jesus promising that when he dwells with us, he dwells with us in the present. We often allow our fear of things that may happen in the future to prevent us from living with Christ in the present. So, the author writes this conversation between Jesus and Mack, with Jesus saying,

“The person who lives by their fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe that I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. You sing about it, you talk about it, but you don’t know it.”

“Mack looked down once more at the water and breathed a huge sigh of the soul.‘I have so far to go.”

“Only about a foot, it looks to me,” laughed Jesus, placing his hand on Mack’s shoulder.

And with that, Mack overcame his fear and stepped out onto the water with Jesus.