“Walk on water!”
What would you think if I gave you that command? Perhaps you would think I was mad, asking the impossible. Yet this is what Jesus tells Peter to do,
at least in Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus walking on water. And so, by extension, it is what Jesus is telling us to do. So, that is what we are going to learn to do today: how to walk on water.
First, let’s think about the story. The disciples were in a boat on a real lake, rowing against an adverse wind. Jesus walked over the water, and when he entered their boat, the wind stopped, and calm was restored.
In Mark’s version of this story, the emphasis is on the miracle. Water in Genesis 1 is the basic stuff of creation, over which God’s breath or Spirit (in Hebrew, his ruach) blows. The ensuing calm recalls the sabbath rest of which Jesus also claims to be Lord, that peace which is the ultimate purpose of creation. So, when Jesus walks on water and calms the wind, he is showing his divinity: in his power both to tame even the elements of creation, and to bring them to their fulfilment.
The gospel writers differ on the result of this miracle. According to Mark, the disciples’ hearts are hardened. They are blind to Jesus’ true nature. Matthew gives the direct opposite result: the disciples prostrate themselves, a gesture of worship which in mainstream Judaism was fitting for God alone. Either way, the point is to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity.
Yet there is another meaning, perhaps of more direct relevance to those who still follow Jesus today. It comes out more in Matthew’s version, when not only does Jesus walk on the water, but calls his chief disciple Peter out to meet him. Only when Peter feels the winds does he begin to sink.
So, what water are we supposed to walk on? Not, I think, the water of a lake. Rather, water has many meanings in the Bible. There is the water which makes up the basic stuff of Creation in Genesis. There is the water which springs from the rock that Moses strikes, and from the side of Jesus on the Cross: the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit. And there is, of course, the water of baptism. Water such as this is a foundation as solid underfoot as a mountain. Walk on this water, and you will not fall.
But what of the winds which Peter notices, and so begins to drown? These surely are the winds of the letter to the Ephesians: the winds of false teaching which threaten to toss us about. Remain true to the faith handed down to the Apostles, and we can stay afloat.
So, finally, how in practice do we actually join Jesus and walk on this water? I think there is a clue easily missed in Mark just before this episode in Mark: before he walked on the water, Jesus “went up on the mountain to pray.” Mountains and water are dear to the Japanese imagination, and perhaps there is something of the Zen koan to Jesus’ command to walk on water – even a hint of Dogen’s Sansuikyo. With hearts are transformed through the discipline of prayer, we may come to see that the water and the mountain are one: if we make our entire life an act of prayerful recollection of Christ’s presence with us, every stormy sea will be as firm beneath our feet as Sion.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.