Treading Deep Water – Matthew 14:22-33
When I was in high school, I had to execute a life-saving dive from the diving board ten feet over the pool and tread water for five minutes to pass Physical Education. I have never been able to tolerate the chlorine in the pool; it makes my nose bleed on contact. So…I volunteered to go first after the instructions were given, figuring I would get it over as soon as possible. I jumped, my legs hit the water and then my arms, in what turned out to be the perfect dive–my head never went under the water and I had full view of the imaginary victim at all times as I treaded water. The teacher applauded and said, “That is the way it should be done.” I was so relieved and never had to repeat the dive—until I was a senior in college, visiting my cousin with my date and we were invited to go swimming in his pool. My date jumped in and his feet hit the slope of the decline to the deep end of the pool and he went under. He had had a collapsed lung from pneumonia two years prior to that event and I could see the panic on his face as he tried to surface. I jumped in with my life-saving dive–it worked again, but the victim pulled me under trying to get to the surface. My cousin kicked off his shoes and jumped in to help me. Every time I read this account in Matthew, I remember the fear my date had as he sank in the water. I remember Peter’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” I prayed that same prayer for my date that day–and for myself!
I think that everyday life is a stormy season–an ongoing monsoon that can swallow us whole when we least expect it. In Matthew 14 Jesus was tired. He had been grieving over his cousin, John the Baptist’s death and sought a space to be alone, but the crowds sought him even more. Last week we talked about Jesus feeding 5000 people with two small fish and five barley loaves. He spent time teaching and feeding and healing them–and then sent his disciples off so he could go up a mountain to pray and rest in the quiet eventide.
The disciples went out on the Sea of Galilee and a squall developed, buffeting the boat about and scaring them into believing that they might sink. They were too far out to wade back to shore. The wind was against them and they had been rowing hard. They were soaking wet, hungry and bone tired. Jesus was beginning to miss his friends in the wee hours of morning and did something so unimaginable. He walked out on the roaring sea towards the boat with his friends. “It is a ghost!” the sailors cried out in fear!
Do you ever have days like those of the disciples? Eighteen plus hours of work, meeting crabby demands of people like your boss and co-workers or customers, enduring sleepless nights because of sick family members or extended work hours, your car broke down just before the same freeway exit as it did on the previous day, you are hot, restless and exhausted and afraid because God seems more like a ghost or phantom than a rescuing, comforting savior? Maybe you have even gotten a challenging diagnosis from the doctor or a phone call during the night and you heard the voice of one of your kids say, “I have been in an accident.” Days like that come upon us with little warning and we are consumed with fear. We feel swallowed up in darkness and wonder what to do next. How will we ever get through the current crisis?
We need to remember Jesus’ soothing words, “Take heart, it is I, have no fear.” Peter spoke up first, as usual. It was dark, the wind was howling, and the sea spray was probably stinging his eyes, making him wonder if he was really seeing Jesus. Only Jesus’ voice was clear and Peter called out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Without any hesitation Jesus said, “Come!” The other disciples sat, watched and waited to see what would happen. I would guess that they had white knuckle vice-grips on the sides of the boat, anticipating what they might see next. Thank God for the Peters among us. When life grows stormy, when we cannot see, when all is tired, wet and fearful and no one knows what to do, God sends us a Peter. A Peter is someone who can think outside the box, who has not been told that “it” cannot be done. A Peter seeks adventure and comes to us from the unlikeliest of places. It can be a stranger who offers a kind word, not knowing what traumatic encounter you have recently experienced. Or maybe it is like the little boy sitting on his neighbor’s lap in the rocking chair on the porch next door, crying with him because he is lonely after losing his wife of 60+ years. That child, like compassion and faith, encourages us to ask God for help.
Peter takes that leap of faith as he swings his legs over the side of the boat and drops down on the sea, eyes affixed on Jesus. He does it! He walks on the water toward Jesus. Peter did the impossible–until he looked down at the waves slapping against him and heard the wind howl and he began to sink. He called out, “Lord, save me!” and reached out to Peter with a strong, steady hand. As long as Peter focused on Jesus and only glanced at the danger, he was lifted up over the water. When he focused on the water and only glanced at Jesus, he sank.
It is a matter of perspective and faith. Jesus said that a day would come when people’s hearts would be weighed down with fear of what would happen to the world. We read and hear and see the ugly snarl of humanity all around us. The world and our experiences can be sinking places. John Ortberg wrote, “If You Want to Walk on Water, You Have to Get Out of the Boat.” You have to leave your safety net/zone. There are times we have to abstain from television news, papers and magazines because they disarm us and fill us with despair. We can allow ourselves to sink in the world’s miseries or we can intentionally look to God. We can read examples of other human trials in Scripture, spend time in prayer and spend time with fellow believers to help us stay focused on what God intends for our lives. God who is able–sustains us all. For all who tackle a cause, work to labor with God, to do the impossible, unthinkable and all that– is doomed to failure unless God is in it. We need to remember that it is by God’s strength that we can do what we do. It is like the old story about three friends crossing the stream. The first one confidently stepped into the water and gingerly forded the stream. The second one stepped, wobbled and kept balance and made it to the other side. The third one stepped in, stumbled and promptly fell in with a loud splash. What happened? It looked so easy. Well, the other two replied, you were supposed to use the stepping stones. God is the stepping stone in our life stream. With God we look less to ourselves and look more to Jesus. We gaze less at the world and are more riveted to faith in God. When Jesus and Peter climbed back into the boat, the disciples whispered to Jesus, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
In the times we are treading in deep waters, we need to focus on the possibilities God intends for us. An old hymn chorus says, “On Christ the solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Our hope is built on nothing less.”