Many years ago, I figured out how to walk on water. I’m not kidding. It happened in Paris, at the Louvre museum as I was attempting to get a picture of I.M. Pei’s amazing glass pyramid outside of that famous Parisian landmark. As some of you know, the great modern architect surrounded the new entrance to the Louvre with a series of reflecting pools and as I was lining up my shot, I noticed that people standing or sitting on the far edge of the reflecting pools seemed to be standing or sitting on the surface of the water. I carefully lined up my shot, handed my camera to a bystander and jumped up on the edge of the reflecting pool with a walking motion. Captured in that instant was a photo that appeared to indicate that I was able to walk on water.
It was, of course, an optical illusion, a trick and a sort of joke, but as long as I had that photograph, lost now after three or four moves, I enjoyed showing it as proof that I could in fact walk on water.
Our gospel story for today seems to indicate that Jesus wants us to be able to walk on water. And this invitation is not about an optical illusion, it’s not about a trick and it certainly isn’t a joke.
The disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in an open boat. Jesus, after feeding the 5,000 in the miracle of multiplication, which is my favorite miracle because I think it gives us our marching orders as the followers of Jesus, orders that include realizing that who we are is enough, that what we have is enough, and that this hurting world needs all the love we have to give it---well, Jesus has sent the disciples on ahead by boat and he’s gone up the mountain to pray. It is a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee and the wind is against them. Suddenly, out of the mist, Jesus comes strolling along across the water toward them and they are terrified.
Now, think with me for a minute. What is Matthew trying to tell us in this story? Because of all the gospel writers, Matthew always seems to be attempting to tell us things about what the kindom of God is like and who we are called to be and how we’re called to behave. He wants us to be the sheep in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or like the good seed or the one seeking that pearl of great price for the sake of the future.
What’s going on in this story? To begin with, whenever there is a boat in the story, Matthew is trying to tell us something about the church. The followers of Jesus are gathered in a boat. That’s us in this story. We may be on Zoom, we may be far away from that building that looks like an upside-down boat, but we’re still the ones in the boat.
And there is a storm, and the wind is against them, and Jesus is not in the boat, Jesus is missing, nowhere to be found. Question: what is this pandemic, what is this mess in Washington, what is an economy where the rich get richer and the poor flounder, and all the rest, if not a storm and a danger and a warning? We’re in the boat, and out there is the storm and here we huddle.
And in the story, from the very center of the storm and the waves that are so terrifying to those in the boat, Jesus comes walking across the water. Let me say it, you might not believe it—but in my mind if you are wondering where Jesus is right now, I think we need to look for him in places where we might not expect him to be.
In the story and in our world, Jesus is moving through the storm, he’s in the very center of what makes us and those disciples so terrified. And Peter, the person one of my mentors used to call “Mr. Church”, asks Jesus to be able to walk on the water with him. Jesus, out there in the storm, invites Peter and the church, especially you and me, to come and Peter walks on the water until he notices the wind and the waves, and he begins to sink. Jesus reaches out and lifts him from the water and helps him back into the boat and when Jesus comes into the boat, the wind and the waves become calm.
And then Jesus turns to Peter and to the others and I think, to every one of us, and says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” In other words, when you have faith in me, when you have me in your life, you will be able to walk on the water.
Now on a superficial level, this story might be interpreted as an account of how the followers of Jesus will be able to defy the laws of gravity and fly in the face of physical reality. On a superficial level, one could interpret this story with the understanding that the followers of Jesus need no masks, and are immune to Covid or economic disaster or the threat of fascism—and there has been a preacher on TV lately saying these things—that if you or I have the right sort of religious faith and pop some malaria pills, nothing bad can ever happen to us or to those whom we love. And that sort of magical thinking is around and loudly proclaimed by some deeply religious people.
I call that idea the Teflon alternative. Faith in God magically coats the followers of Jesus with Teflon so that when we jump into the frying pan of trial and tribulation—which is bound to happen to every one of us at some time or another on this life journey, nothing too bad will ever stick to us and we will escape unscathed into the loving arms of Jesus, leaving the wicked world and its wicked people behind. Well, while some folks believe that, I don’t and I don’t believe that that is the message this little story has to teach.
Walking on the water is not about having a non-stick surface. It’s not about having a perpetual “get out of jail free” card in the Monopoly game of life. It is not about getting to detour around the valley of the shadow of death or about escaping any of the bitter pills this life journey might force us to swallow.
Jesus came into the world to share our common lot. Abundant life is not magical life. Faithful living is not failure free. Kindom building is not carefree or careless. Jesus walked this earth with us not so that we could escape the lonesome valley, but rather that we would not have to walk it by ourselves. In short, we are put in this world to love and to serve and to care and sometimes to suffer and to become in any way we can, the fearless disciples of the risen Jesus—people who by their very existence are going to make a difference in the world.
In other words, our call is to walk on water and the only question we need to consider is how to do it. So, let me make a few suggestions on how, hoping that you might come up with a few of your own—so think with me please.
Two days ago or twenty years ago, someone did something to you that you have trouble forgiving and forgetting. Whatever it is, it is like a rock pile dumped on the center of your soul. Somebody made you so angry or hurt you so deeply that you carry that dastardly deed like a lead sinker. If you want to walk on the water with Jesus, you need to sit down this afternoon or pick up the phone or write them a letter or say a prayer that says that in order to lighten your own load in life, you once and for all forgive them and yourself. Let it go, give it to God, forget it, and you will find yourself able to walk on water.
Walking on water is about learning what to forget and what to remember. Forget the stuff that you take so personally and remember the things that will let the love light shine through you and build up the lives of those around you and make the world a better place.
You will become a water walker if you can get your heart around the idea that someone around you needs something that you have or some gift which God has given you. Keeping your light under a basket leads to darkness and scorched baskets but never to miracles. What do you have that another person might need? It might be a little time or a little attention. It might be something as simple as a word of encouragement. It might be hours as a volunteer or as a tutor or a mentor. It could be finding a way to pay it forward to the next generation. I am here today as a minister because over forty years ago some people in a couple of congregations back in Ohio took a big chance and did a little water walking on my behalf. Givers are people primed to walk on water.
Lately I have become fascinated by the idea of reparations as a way of addressing historic injustice and the privilege my whiteness gives me. Writing a check to one of the historic black colleges—the UCC has some amazing ones, helping a person of color pay off their student loans or finding another way to invest yourself personally in making a difference is walking on water in the midst of the storm.
If you want to walk on water, take a long hard look at your political opinions and the social circle in which you dance the drama of life. If what you believe about others leaves you filled with fear and hating, if your ideas and attitudes aren’t truly loving and accepting, it’s as if you had tied a cement block to your ankle when it comes to walking on water.
And this is a hard thing for liberals or progressives to fathom—how could we possibly be wrong or even slightly smug or self-righteous in our opinions? Do you remember that little story of Jesus about how easy it is to notice the splinter in the eye of another while ignoring the log in your own? If you want to walk on water, finding that story scary and taking it personally might well be required!
Right now that not so wonderful biblical ideal of an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for a tooth”—which as a true water walker Jesus abandoned—seems to dominate a great deal of our national consciousness. Taken to its logical conclusion, that sort of attitude will leave most of us toothless and sightless, but certainly never able to walk on water. Do you remember, that for a good portion of our nation’s history most of the people and most of the churches believed that slavery was an idea ordained by God? Thank God people dared to get out of that boat and walk hand in hand with Jesus on the water.
And here’s the hard part. What are some of the ideas and attitudes that we cherish and hold with absolute certainty? What bias keeps me in the boat and huddled together with those who agree with me? What truth is waiting to break my heart open and let some new light in?
So, Prospect friends, can we walk on the water? Jesus says “yes”! Will we walk on water? Nothing less than the future is at stake in how we answer that question. For the love of God, let’s find a way to walk that walk. Amen.