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Why Walk on Water?
If Jesus’ miracles all point to a significant theological truth, as theologians insist they do, then what was the point of Jesus walking on water? A spectacular miracle for sure, but only the disciples saw it. It was not for the general public. Imagine the uproar there would have been if Jesus had walked on water in broad daylight in front of crowds! But no, it was a private miracle, and a somewhat weird one… Why walk on water? What was the point? Especially since there are some potentially troubling aspects of the story.
To try to understand the troubling aspects and the meaning of this unique and unusual miracle we need to study the context and details of the story.
The context, provided in three of the gospels (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21) is that the walking on water occurs when Jesus is well into his three years of ministry—closer to the end of the three years than the beginning. It occurs immediately after the beheading of John the Baptist, at the end of the day in which five thousand people were fed from five loaves and two fish, and not long before Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. After that comes the Transfiguration.
Here is the story, with focus on some of essential details: John the Baptist is brutally beheaded by Herod—an event, we should note, that Jesus does nothing to prevent. After John the Baptist’s disciples tell Jesus of John’s murder, Jesus “withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself.” My own interpretation is that Jesus wanted to be alone to grieve. But the crowds followed Him, and He had compassion on them, taught and healed them. When it got to be evening, He fed them from five loaves and two fish. That was the Feeding of Five Thousand miracle, with many deep theological meanings.
After they had eaten, as dusk fell, Jesus put the disciples in the boat, sending them to the other side of the lake, and he dismissed the crowd. He went up on the mountain to pray, finally finding some solitude. The disciples, down on the lake, encounter a gale; one gospel account says “the wind was contrary.” They row for hours and hours, against the wind. John’s gospel says they rowed for for 3 or 4 miles. To be specific, they were in the boat from the time Jesus sent them off in early evening until He came walking to them on the water in the “Fourth Watch” of the night, which is between 3 and 6 a.m. They were probably in the boat some 7 or 8 hours or more. If they were rowing hard most of that time, that is a LOT of hard, exhausting rowing. Mark says that Jesus was watching them, he could see them from up on the mountain where he was praying.
So here’s my question: why did Jesus let them row against the wind so hard and so long? Why didn’t he stop their struggle? Go help them sooner? Is He mean?
These are important questions not to ignore. Because aren’t they true to life? Don’t we sometimes wonder the same thing about our own experiences? Our own interactions with Jesus? I do. Don’t we sometimes do the equivalent of rowing away for hours, in the direction we think He has sent us, to get to the destination we think He has designated and yet feel like we are getting nowhere?
Don’t we get tired, irritable and resentful and wonder, “Where is Jesus anyway? Isn’t He supposed to be with us? Isn’t He supposed to help?”?
Why did Jesus allow His disciples to struggle most of the night? With the wind against them? Why does He let us struggle and seem to be absent?
The three Gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water don’t directly answer these questions, but we can and should look at the accounts carefully to see if there is an answer hidden between the lines.
One thing that is important to notice is where the disciples were spiritually at this point in their relationship with Jesus. Reading between the lines in the gospel accounts, the disciples were excited: Jesus was getting more and more popular and gaining more and more attention. They were thinking that He was the Messiah (as Peter was soon to confess). But while the disciples experienced Jesus’ miracles and heard his teaching, they thought of Jesus as a nationalistic Messiah, who would bring in political change and a Jewish earthly Kingdom. And they were going to be leaders in the new political State. They truly had no idea He was about to turn the world upside down with a value system of service and suffering instead of politics and power. They seem to have forgotten the time Jesus stilled the wind and waves in another storm on the lake, and had not grasped that He is the Son of God—their Creator and their personal Savior.
It is in this spiritual context that Jesus allows his disciples to struggle for a while in a boat on a lonely lake. But he had not deserted them at all. He knew exactly where and how they were. They may have been fatigued and in some emotional distress, but they were not in danger of losing their lives. When he walked out on the water towards them, scaring them half to death, he answered them reassuringly the minute they called out in fear. Immediately. He may want his disciples to learn lessons, but He is not into leaving them terrified.
Mark makes the comment that Jesus made as if to walk by the disciples in the boat. Really? If he was going to walk on water just to get to the other side of the lake, why go near enough to their boat so they could see him? No, I believe he purposely let them see Him. He knew they needed to see Him.
When they called out to Him, what He answered was, “Take courage, it is I; don’t be afraid.” The “it is I” phrase, in Greek, is the famous “Ego Eimi”—the “I AM” of Jehovah naming Himself to Moses and the people of Israel. It is the identification of Jesus as deity. As God Himself. The Son.
Peter, intrepid Peter, then asks to walk on the water with Jesus, and Jesus invites him to come. (There are many lessons in that little episode, but perhaps for another time.) Once Peter and Jesus had climbed into the boat with the other disciples the gospel accounts say the wind stopped. And—this is key—the disciples worshipped Jesus, saying, “You certainly are the Son of God.”
Mark’s gospel comments that when the wind stopped the disciples “were astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, for their hearts were hardened.” (Mark 6:52) Apparently the disciples’ hearts needed to be shaken up a little, shocked into the essential awareness that Jesus was not some Messiah who would accomplish their hoped-for agenda. Instead, He was something Else, something Other, something completely unpredictable, completely beyond anything they had ever hoped for or imagined. They finally realized He was both utterly reassuring and utterly terrifying. Who walks on water?
As I read the gospels and notice every move Jesus makes, it becomes clear that while He was completely in control of what He Himself was doing, and of the timing of it all, He was not in control of the people’s responses. He has specifically chosen not to control human responses to Him; He has given us free will. But that does not mean He does not care about our responses. Jesus was profoundly concerned about whether people responded with faith—or not. I would say He was almost obsessed by the topic–definitely preoccupied. He mentions faith over and over again, watches for it, notices it: in his followers, in those who asked for miracles, in His disciples. And He notices when it is not there. Faith is what Jesus looked for and wanted—always. It is what He wants from us.
I think that when Jesus walked on water, intentionally leaving the disciples alone in the boat to struggle against wind and water without Him, He was not being mean, He was challenging their faith. They struggled for hours against the elements and then Jesus came walking to them through the wind, and on the water, totally dominating the elements they struggled against. He was totally on top of, in control of, the creation they were subject to. This demonstrated to the disciples that Jesus could do more than manipulate creation—as in physical healing. He could dominate any aspect of creation.
I have come to believe that the reason Jesus walked on water was that He wanted the disciples’ faith to grow into knowing Who He Really was. Both the struggle and the walking on water did help them realize Who He really was. Truly understanding Who Jesus was—in general, and for them personally—was much more important for the disciples than getting easily or quickly to the other side of the lake. It was more important than their tired, aching muscles. It was the most important thing in the world, more valuable than life itself.
So what do WE learn from this miracle?
1) Jesus is always watching and near our boat, even when we feel He is far away, even when we are struggling and getting nowhere. We are never in any danger He doesn’t have a plan for.
2) Jesus completely dominates whatever the elements are that we are struggling with: wind, water, microbes, viruses, finances, conflicts, death.
3) In Jesus’ own good time He will subdue the elements that trouble us and get us where He wants us to be, but when the journey is tough or long we need to remember that both the struggle and the destination are less important than Who we have faith in during the journey. The journey is more about trusting Him than getting anywhere.
In the journey of faith, we do the best we can in whatever boat we are placed in, with whatever rowing we are called upon to do. But the journey is less about the destination or the rowing than it is about our relationship with Jesus, who walks on water like it’s a piece of cake.
“We are placed on earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
William Blake