When we lived in the Bay Area we used to go on Tall Ship harbor cruises on San Francisco Bay. Every one of the cruises left a deeply etched memory in my mind. What clouds look like literally from the level of the sea. What it feels like when the pull of the tide catches you, and just how small you are when one of those container ships passes right by.
One afternoon we were having an exhilarating sail, doing 11 knots from Sausalito to San Francisco when we looked behind us and saw this little smudge on the water. It was growing closer and gaining on us, but it was just too small to make it out until it suddenly came into focus. The smudge was a man windsurfing, going well over 11 knots.
He passed right by us in total silence, never looking our direction. It was like we were invisible to him. Us on our 19th-century schooner, him in his Marvel Comics wet suit. I am not sure which one of us was more ghostly. None of it made sense, really. There was this giant blue containership behind him, and he cut through the middle and disappeared out of view in a manner of minutes. If I had been a bystander I would have thought that someone was filming the latest time travel movie.
One does not expect to see a man walking on water, let alone skimming by at 15 or so knots.
Having experienced what we did it makes it easy to understand why the disciples could not tell that it was Jesus walking on the water. For me, when I imagine Jesus walking on water I picture him larger than life, like the Jesus portrayed in stained glass in many churches. 30 feet tall and made of glowing technicolor glass. But in reality, the scene was dark, his clothing probably some sort of dull homespun.
As he approached the boat, waves would have obscured him from time to time, making it hard to know if you could trust your eyes, which is not that uncommon on the water, even for fisherfolk, where the usual landmarks which help us to make judgments regarding size and distance are lacking.
This story appears in Matthew, Mark, and John. The tellings are all pretty similar, but in Mark, which is the oldest version of the story, there is this one detail that intrigues me personally.
Jesus was about to walk past them when they cried out in fear because they thought he was a ghost. What is Jesus up to? Would he pass them by if they had not cried out in fear at the sight of this ghostly apparition? Was he not coming out to join them? Was he planning on circling the boat Doing tricks? He turns to them, tells them to take courage, that it is he, and hops into the boat.
Having seen a man glide across the water in broad daylight on San Francisco Bay, and not quite believing my eyes, the story feels so real to me, because sometimes surreal moments are as real as they get and they make the eye witness report more believable. What witness to an event wants everyone to begin to doubt the truth of everything else they have to say? Especially if you are a witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
The disciples' reaction to what they saw is exactly how we would all react. This is a situation where none of us can say we would have done anything differently. Though the disciples had seen miracle upon miracle, they were not prepared for this encounter with the unmistakable divinity of Jesus.
That this encounter happens out on the water is no accident. When we are on the water, we are literally out of our element. Weather, winds, tides, currents, waves, hidden reefs, and rocks,
all of it would just as soon do us in. We leave no mark, there are no tracks for us on the sea. We cannot fence it, or tame it, or change it. When God created the world for us he did so by first separating the waters and making dry land. When Jesus walks on the water during the darkest hour before dawn, it is like the disciples are there, before the beginning of time, witnessing the one who calls himself simply ‘I am’ hovering over the deep imagining everything that is to come into being.
"Have courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.” A message from God, from moment zero, for all time. It is a scene that is just So God. So… Moses and the burning bush, or, Elijah on the mountain waiting for God to pass by. Isn’t that why the reading from First Kings was paired with this Gospel today? To help us with our own cognitive dissonance when dealing with stories of the miraculous and help us see that those events which would be impossible for us to stage, and are even harder for us to describe, are as easy as kiss my hand for him who made everything that is.
The Word of the Lord, The Logos, tells Elijah, “Go stand on the mountain, God is about to pass by.” Like it is just nothing. As if, you know, the world belongs to God or something crazy like that. He can just casually stroll around, as if giant mountains or stormy seas are his living room.
But they are, right?
The Psalmist tells us, In his hand are all the corners of the earth, and the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land. Everywhere you can go on earth, every beautiful, majestic powerful place, is God’s. And so is every busy, crowded, noisy and miserable place. We need our brothers and sisters from the ancient world, all the scripture, to witness to us the reality of God’s presence in our world, that it is not a once in a while thing, but a constant. And at any moment he could walk past, as easy as that. No farther a journey for God than when I check the fridge for the 12th time while watching Netflix, walking past my dog.
The Divinity of Jesus is not news to Jesus, but it is close to impossible for the disciples to understand. They leave Jesus no choice but to walk on water. And so Jesus treats the disciples to a rare display of his raw divinity, walks on water, and they recognize that he is the Son of God and they worship him.
In my mind’s eye, Jesus is nonchalant about walking on water, and because of that, they see.
Elijah stands on the mountain and the Lord is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. The Lord is in the sheer silence, and Elijah wraps his face when he recognizes the awesome presence of God.
The devastating simplicity of the silence of God, of Jesus walking on water, is God’s way of showing the immediacy of a love that needs no fanfare to demonstrate it’s power.
Like God is saying, “When I come across the turbulent waters that are your life I will just be.” “I am,” says the Lord, “silently next to you. All the crazy drama? That’s you.” Have courage, it is I, do not be afraid is so elemental, such an offering of rest. Of Sabbath. The yoke of the Lord is easy, his burden is light. And it is so easy to miss, though we need that Sabbath so badly.
Like a man silently skimming across the third busiest port on the West Coast, Jesus walks on water. We, who by our very fallen nature, are given to screwing things up, think it should be hard, to sit with him in the boat, so we avoid it. And if we cannot even do that how can we expect ourselves to be able to sit with the things that are hard? How can we expect to pay more than even transitory notice to the suffering and death that is all around us?
We make things so much more complicated than God ever intended them to be. Read through the Bible looking through the lens of divine rest and see that from before the beginning of time the telos, the end goal, is Sabbath rest, here on earth. And if you think I am drawing a connection between becoming an observer of Sabbath and growing comfortable with seeing and responding to death and dying, you are not wrong.
Though I would rather never have lived through a pandemic, I do not have any choice in the matter, and neither do you, unless you happen to die before this is all over. But we do have choices, and I choose to see the time we are in now as a time apart. A gift from God. A Sabbath. But it is so scary it feels like a wine-dark sea without landmarks. But also an opportunity to have courage and start our spiritual journey from scratch, to heave off from land and all the imaginary certainties that exist in our feed of vision. To clean out the boat, so to speak, making room for Jesus in a way we have not felt brave enough to do for a very long time now.
Where is God in the Pandemic? Well, if he isn’t in the earthquake, the fire, or the rock splitting wind, then he isn’t the root cause of the death and destruction now either. The church has ignored the Sabbath long enough, far longer than just the last couple of months. It is time for us to come back to it. Not in perfect scorecard, check the box Sunday attendance, but in truly attending to God, and seeing the ways in which Jesus is walking towards us as easy as can be. Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.