Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center, suggests that the well-worn story of Jesus walking on water should be read less as a literal event and more as a real-life parable of the Kingdom of God. This isn’t, I don’t think, intended to start a Jesus Seminar style debate on the historicity of the story, but instead to open our eyes to a new way of reading the text.
The standard read, one that I have used in the past, is summed up in the title of a book by John Ortberg, “If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat.” The assumption there is that Peter’s initial action is to be emulated, he stepped out of the boat, but his doubt caused him to sink. Good disciples, therefore, will have a stronger faith and will walk on water right alongside Jesus. This fails, I think, because of Peter’s attitude before he got out of the boat. “Lord, if it is you,” Peter says, “then call me out to join you.” Peter doesn’t walk on water because of his faith, but rather because of his doubt.
Parabolically speaking, however, Jesus’ word to the doubting Peter is his word to each and every one of us, “come.” From the earliest of days, one of the images used to describe the Church is that of a boat. As time went by, our architecture began to mimic this imagery and churches were built to look like upside-down ships and the large area where the congregation gathers took on the name “nave” which comes from the Latin “navis” which means ship.
While Peter’s testing of Jesus is not to be emulated, the reality is that every day in the life of faith is an experience of getting out of the ship. We might return to the nave on Sunday and/or Wednesday and/or every day of the week, but we don’t get to stay there. Just as Jesus compelled his disciples to get on the boat and go on ahead of him, we are called to leave the ship and join Jesus out in the chaos of life. Sometimes, the waters are calm. Often, the waves are swirling and wind is howling. It is more than likely that we will begin to sink on a regular basis. But Jesus is there, hand out stretched, saying “Be not afraid, I AM.”