One of the bible stories that has always been easier for me to approach more as metaphorically true than historically accurate is the one about Jesus walking on the water. Honestly it just doesn’t seem to go with his generally understated and self-giving nature. Most often Jesus is telling people to keep quiet about miracles and they always seem rooted in compassion. How does walking on the water fit in with that? It almost seems like a look-at-me sort of moment, almost like he is showing off and that’s hard for me to reconcile with the generous and humble person Jesus consistently is. The more typical Jesus moment is one in which he is drawing attention to his Father rather than himself.
But this morning, as I read the account of Jesus walking on the water in John 6:16-27, a new light went off. Here’s how the story goes. It’s evening and getting dark. The disciples start in a boat across the lake by themselves and a strong wind comes up. After rowing through the rough water for a few miles they see Jesus walking on the lake and approaching them. They get scared and he tells them not to be frightened. Then they try to get him to come into the boat with them but the shore is now close so it seems Jesus just walks on by.
That’s the story but what caught my eye is what comes next. The next day a crowd gathers. It seems there is some rumbling about the incident as people see Jesus there but are told he wasn’t in the boat when it left the opposite shore. They ask Jesus how he got there. And Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” That’s when the new light popped on for me.
Walking on the water is kind of show-offy. It’s flashy. It’s cool and entertaining. Whoever could do that could do a lot more cool stuff like maybe have elegant meals pop out of nowhere, or make a broom sweep up the dirt while he did something more fun, or make a lightning bolt consume an enemy. It’s a magician sort of move and people love magic. We’d love to be able to do that ourselves or have it at our disposal. Wouldn’t it be great to wave a hand and have the easy way magically appear? Wouldn’t it be great if I could tap into that kind of magic and manipulate my environment? I wouldn’t have to work hard or struggle. Presto-change-o, problem solved. Isn’t that really how we hope God will be and how we hope he will do for us what we want?
“Yep,” Jesus says, “I know you’d like that but it’s not going to happen.” Maybe Jesus isn’t showing off so much as he is showing our own shallow desires. “Don’t fall for the magical escape,” he is saying. “I am here to show you a more excellent way.” As much as we might like a magical solution, Christ shows us substance and quality of being in life. He shows us the true path through the suffering rather than skipping across the top of it.
Maybe Jesus walks on the water so that he can teach us something. Maybe it is done out of compassion for us rather than wanting to draw attention to himself. Maybe it is not so frivolous as it lets me confront my own frivolous needs and come to a deeper place of faith.
Jesus goes on from this event to talk about giving his own flesh and blood for the sake of all of humanity. He speaks of his own inevitable suffering and the inevitable suffering of those who faithfully follow him. He will model for the world, not the illusion of skipping over suffering and death, but succumbing and trusting the Father to make all things well. On the cross there won’t be any magic. A deeper kind of victory will be revealed.
There is probably pain in my day ahead. I’d love to walk on top of it, master it, not really deal with it, or have God wave a wand and make it disappear. It’s tempting to look for a message that will deliver me from all pain. But what our Savior offers is something even bigger, not mastery or escape, but faithful trusting. We are powerless. God is the one who will save us, not we ourselves. The Gospel isn’t just for show. The Gospel is for our transformation and salvation. Don’t go for the slight-of-hand. It won’t get you very far.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
Sunday, February 23 – 4:00 pm
Worship in the Classic Anglican style
Adult Inquirers’ Class Led by the Rector – Sundays in Lent
If you are an adult and would like to be confirmed by the Bishop on May 11, or if you just would like a refresher course in the faith, development, and teachings of the Episcopal Church, an Inquirers’ Class will be held during the Sunday School hour on the Sundays in Lent, beginning March 9. This course covers all matters of things Episcopal with attention to what distinguishes the Episcopal Church from other denominations, personal prayer and stewardship, Holy Scriptures, Church History, the Sacraments, the Liturgical Church Year, symbols, and the Book of Common Prayer. Presentations will be made each week with dialogue and questions encouraged. We will meet in the Library.