Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed.
‘One small step for man,
One giant leap for mankind.’
These are the words spoken on that epic day when Neil Armstrong stepped on to the surface of the moon. Perhaps we should see Jesus stepping onto the surface of the lake as a similar sort of small step/giant leap moment. The great thing about Neil Armstrong was that in his humility he saw himself as a representative of humankind. It was thought at the time that there would be lots more ‘small steps’ onto the moon’s surface, that there would be more ‘small steps’ on to other planets and that the benefit for humankind would be great. In fact, there have been only a tiny handful of moon-walkers, no one has yet reached any other planet and the benefits for the rest of us are questionable to say the least.
The big difference between Armstrong’s moonwalk and Jesus’ water walk is that Jesus is not doing this as a representative of humankind. Neither has he needed lots of other people to make it possible. It was all his own achievement and he is representing not so much humanity as something very different, deeper, more mysterious to the point that the disciples thought he was a ghost and were rather fearful of him.
The thing about Jesus is that there is more than one thing. My favourite side of him is his humanity. I love the fact that he is made out of ordinary human flesh, had a normal human childhood shared with brothers and sisters, shares in human temptations, hungers and struggles. All this points to the idea that he fully understands me. The other thing about Jesus, the other worldly, mysterious, impossible to understand, slightly scary stuff is what I don’t relate to that well. Yet this is the side, or the aspect, of Jesus that we see in this story. Jesus comes from another place, is a creature of eternity, the living word and the son of God and every now and again he shows us that.
We all love sea stories. From Jonah to Robinson Crusoe, from Moby Dick to Hornblower. In all these epic tales there is always an extra, unknowable and threatening character and that is the sea itself. My favourite bit of the story is when ‘he saw’. The disciples are out on the lake, Jesus needs to be alone and he is up the mountain at night. Despite the distance and the darkness, ‘he saw’. He has gone up the mountain prayerfully to be with God the Father but he is still aware of his disciples. This is so important to me because I keep straining at the oars and because I often find myself thinking that he is stuck up a mountain back in Heaven and having a great time with his Father. My cry in these moments is ‘Where are you Jesus when I need you?’
And yet, and yet he sees me, he leaves the mountain and he walks on the water towards me. At the moment I am straining at two oars. One is my job, struggling to help churches grow and individuals come to faith is an exciting but often disappointing and lonely task. My second oar is my family, or to be precise, my daughter. My daughter is called Zoe, which means life, but actually because of her multiple disabilities she has a very small life.
I am straining, i.e. I am struggling, finding it hard work, rather resenting and yet trying to keep going. He sees me, walks on the water to me and says ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’ and then he gets into my boat, in a way that no-one else ever gets into it.
So what are you straining at today?
And can you see him seeing you?
I am straining at the oars,
Life is hard work,
I am spiritually tired,
And my arms ache.
Can you see me,
Walk towards me,
And climb into my boat.