Walking on Water: how we (maybe) got the story of Peter wrong

Like all adventurous, busy, do-big-things followers of Jesus, I love the story of Peter walking on water. Matthew 14:22-33 is a guaranteed slam-dunk sermon passage for me. It exhilarates me. Enlivens me. Emboldens me. Elevates me. (That’s a whole lot of me.)


(Insert the lyrics for “Oceans” here.)

But four years ago, that all changed – not because of an outer tragedy or an inner crisis, but because I read the story very, very carefully – the story as it’s recorded in Scripture, not the story as I’ve learned to know it over the years.

I think that just maybe we’ve been missing something – something desperately important, especially in a culture that upholds and exalts Doing Very Big Things for Jesus.

Jesus had just fed thousands of people – 5000 men, plus women and children – with only five loaves of bread and two fish (for you grammarians, fishes if they were different species). He multiplied the food over and over and over, an endless bounty of simple sustenance, until everyone was fed and full. The disciples did the grunt work of distribution, passing and delivering the food to a sold-out crowd.

Even if there were only a 1:1:1 ratio of men, women, and children, each disciple still connected with over a thousand people – a thousand people who I am positively sure knew what was going on. A story like that doesn’t stay quiet. I suspect that after the first hundred or so people ate from the same loaf of bread and the same fish, the whispers started. Even without social media, stuff like that doesn’t go unshared.

On that day, the disciples had become the peoples’ visible connection with this manifold miracle. They are known. They are stupendous. They are really something. They are with the band. They ARE the band.

Immediately after the people had been fed – right on the heels of burgeoning celebrity-hood for the disciples (who are with the band, who ARE the band) – Jesus insisted (aka commanded) them to
get back into the boat and
go back to the other side while
he sent the people away.

In other words: being with the band (being THE band) didn’t count for anything. No one would have a chance to shake their hands, tell them how awesome they were, snap a selfie (or a hundred) with them, ask for an autograph, whatever.

I’LL stay with the people. I’LL take care of the people. I’LL send the people home. I’LL close out the miraculous day as I see fit. (That’s a lot of Jesus.)

You guys (“the band”) don’t need to worry about it. So long. See you soon. Trust me on this one.

Here’s the thing about the boat: it’s b-o-r-i-n-g. It’s drudgery. It’s the same-old-same-old. It’s the very thing some of the disciples had been called out of (praise the sweet Lord) in order to follow Jesus in the first place. It’s the world of fishing, smelliness, repetitive daily routine, seclusion, not-being-known-ness, not-being-with-the-band-ness.

The boat is not spectacular, stunning, astounding, adventurous, stupendous, or anything else that makes us feel fantastic and awesome.

The boat stinks. And maybe also sucks, depending on how the day is going.

As if boring, stinky, nothingness weren’t bad enough, weather patterns turned traitor and the disciples – in the boat, not with the crowd, on the lake, not walking home with the people (where they could have, you know, talked about what a great day it had been) – are whomped by a storm. Far from land (which, by golly, is where they deserve want to be) they’re fighting heavy waves (and maybe also thinking, “Great job, Jesus – nice follow-up to the fish and loaves thing – the crowd undeservedly get fed with crumbs, and we undeservedly get whomped by wind. We cry foul.)

Isn’t that how it often seems to go? We do what Jesus says (even if it’s ridiculous and anti-self-serving) and then get whomped.

And if that weren’t bad enough, GHOSTS ON THE WATER!

 Immediately (that word again, at just the right time) Jesus spoke to them.
Don’t be afraid.
Take courage.
It’s me.
I’m here.

(Say it over to yourself a few times. A few times more. Go on – it’s important.) Isn’t that just like Jesus? To gently speak words of comfort and calm to us, just when we are all tangled up with irritation, anger, and frustration with him?

This is where the story gets good, where Jesus lays down the ultimate call and challenge to Peter (and us), where we stand on the precipice of magnificent courage and accomplishment, where we ready ourselves to become one of the great ones. (That’s a lot of we.)

This is where Jesus calls Peter out onto the water.

Except that it isn’t.

Rather, this is where Peter lays down the ultimate self-serving whomp on the God of the universe, the Jesus of bread and fishes, the Spirit of love and comfort. This is where Peter says:

Lord (read: you are trustworthy and deserving of my obedience…except that thing about getting back in the boat)

if it’s REALLY you (read: I hear your voice, I know your voice, but your voice recently told me to get back in the boat, so, you know…)

tell me (read: I’d prefer a different narrative, a better life story, hence I will use the Greek word that means “command” here because I want it to be that strong, that definite, that anti-the-thing-you-previously-told-me-to-do)

to come to you, walking on the water (read: though it serves absolutely no one except myself and has no purpose beyond – well, nothing – I feel inclined to do something that only God can do like, well, let’s go with walking on water, shall we?).

Let’s review:
1. Get back in the boat.
2. Go to the other side.
3. Don’t be afraid.
4. Take courage.
5. It’s me and I’m here.
6. If it’s really you…

Here’s the thing about Jesus: if we are determined to climb out of the boat into which he has commanded us, and to walk in the direction opposite of which he sent us, and to attempt something that only God Almighty himself can do – he lets us. 

Jesus might have thought something like this:
Okay Peter. I know what’s going on here. I see what you’re struggling with. I know the disappointment you’re carrying. I understand your weakness. Sigh. This is going to be disastrous – but I will not force you into anything you won’t willingly do, so come on out. (Brace yourself, Peter – remember this is what you wanted, Peter – ready yourself for what is logically going to happen next, Peter – .)

(Yes, I know it doesn’t start with a ‘c’ – some words just don’t. “Crash and burn” is too aeronautical. Metaphorical conundrums are a real thing.)

What a surprise. What an unexpected turn of events. What a shocking plot development.

Peter – the man, the fully-and-only-human human being, the both non-divine and non-aquatic one – sinks.

Do you know what the story doesn’t say? It doesn’t say, “When he took his eyes off Jesus.” Nowhere. Really. It just says:

“When he saw the strong wind and the waves… (if the storm were as bad as the story says, Peter would have seen the strong wind and waves without ever taking his eyes off Jesus. They were all around him. Everywhere. So much so that seasoned veteran fisherman were troubled and afraid. They may have obscured his view of Jesus, but they didn’t overpower his view.)

“…he was terrified…” (No kidding. Of course he was terrified. He was stepping out onto water. This might have been the first common-sense thing Peter did that night – to acknowledge the vey real terror of that moment because, newsflash, he was a human and humans weren’t created to walk on water.

“…and began to sink.” (See above.)

COMFORT (the sequel):
Immediately (that word again – almost like Jesus is right there all along, knowing just what we’ll need and just when we’ll need it) Jesus reached out and grabbed him, almost like he knew this was going to happen, in which case my response (were I the son of God and Savior of the world) might have been something like:

Peter, you got what you asked for.
Peter, this is a logical consequence of your choice, so think about that for a minute.
Say you’re sorry, Peter – 490 times, please (that’s 70 x 7 in case you can’t do the math).
Let’s reflect for a moment on what really happened here, Peter, shall we?
Et cetera. (I am a mother and have a deep reservoir of similarly witty phrases.)

Jesus did and said none of that. He just reached out and saved him. Immediately. Even though Peter deserved what he got. Even though Peter was as stubborn and self-serving as a mule. Even though Peter was as short-sighted as whatever creature is short-sighted.

Fact: Peter deserved to sink, maybe not because of insolence, but surely because of stupidity.

Further fact: Don’t we all?

The story could have gone like this:

Then Jesus said to the other disciples in the boat, “Let’s discuss Peter’s actions. Who can tell me where he made his fatal mistake? James? John? Anyone?”

Or it could have gone like this:

Then Jesus turned away from Peter and pretended nothing had happened. Rather, he ignored him for the next hour (rightfully so) and let him stew in his own miserable smallness and inflated self-importance.

Or maybe this:

Then Jesus said, “That’s it, Peter. I’m done with your petty, thoughtless, impulsive, Peter-centered way of living. You may get bonus points for enthusiastic energy, but you get an F for everything else. When this boat gets to the other side, you’re outta here.”

But of course it didn’t happen like that.

It happened like this:

Holding him tightly, hauling him up from under the pounding waves, and dragging him back to the safety of the boat, Jesus said to Peter, “You have so little faith. Why did you doubt me?”

After following Jesus for a lifetime and knowing the Bible like the back of my hand, I was very sure the story said: “Why did you doubt that I could make you walk on water? Why did you doubt that you could do something so stupendous and spectacular and adventurous and world-changing? Why, Peter, why???”

But it doesn’t. It just says, “Why did you doubt?” And I think Jesus meant:

Why did you doubt I was who I said who I was?
Why did you doubt that I would protect you in the storm?
Why did you doubt that when I said “Get back in the boat and go back to the other side” that was really what I wanted you to do?
Why, Peter, why??

I hate the boat. I have lots of them, and to varying degrees, I want nothing more than to climb out of them so that I can do Big Things for God. I’m pretty positive that’s what he wants of me.

But I’m learning – very slowly, which is how I do most things in life – to live in the boat contentedly, peacefully, intentionally, joyfully even. Not because I’m afraid to step out of it – but because I’m inclined to step out of it for all the wrong reasons. I’m a chronic boat-climber-outer. That’s a real thing.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the past few years (because I was too smart and too thick-headed to learn it before that):

‘In the boat, going to the other side’ is where most of life happens – in the mundane, day in and day out routines of life.

‘In the boat, going to the other side’ is not the same old same old if it’s done with an obedient heart and a joyful spirit. It’s only the same old same old when done with a bitter, constricted, petty, discontented spirit that is typically human-centered.

We all desire to do big things for God. Really Big And Awesome Things. We assume this requires us to be brave (Yes! I will! I am! I am better than Peter!) and we assume that being brave means climbing out of the boat onto the stormy sea.

Maybe that’s not brave. Maybe that’s just stupid. And self-serving. And disobedient.

Maybe the real courage happens there – in the boat – where God has placed us – where nothing “Big” happens – where we don’t keep trying to write a better story of our lives because we are busy living the life God has given us – where no one sees us or applauds us or notices us or follows us or says, “Oh my, look at her! Look at him! What a sight! Gracious, aren’t they grand?!”

Maybe the real question isn’t, “When God calls you out of the boat, will you be courageous enough to go?” but rather, “When God commands you into the boat, will you be obedient enough to stay?”