Today Jesus walks on the water and Peter almost drowns trying to do it, too. There are church jokes about this story --the one about Jesus knowing where the submerged rocks were, the one about Jesus treading water. We make these jokes because the miracle part of miracle stories makes smart people nervous. We're afraid we'll seem gullible and pre-scientific to our unbelieving friends. A healing is one thing -- the power of suggestion is a well-documented factor in many somatic events. And the multiplication of the loaves and fishes can be explained away in like manner: a little boy comes forward with his tiny meal, and pretty soon everyone opens up and shares what he brought to eat. So, if your goal is to explain away the Biblical miracles, we have ways.
But should that be the goal? To explain away the scriptures? To put them in a rational box, the only box we now honor -- we, the unimaginative, poetry-deprived grandchildren of the Enlightenment, so cowed by its sterility what we can no longer travel beyond the anorectic binary of did-he-or-didn't-he? Stay there and you deprive yourself of the story and all it intends for you. Pre-scientific they may be, but the miracle stories are also pre-journalistic. They're not newspaper reports. They're stories. They're intended to be told.
Let the story of Jesus walking on the water stand on its own terms -- just for a moment, if you think your high school physics teacher may be looking over your shoulder. Here he comes, white-clad and Aryan if you grew up that way, swarthy and stripped to the waist if you're going with what Jesus probably looked like. The sea is rough, the disciples -- experienced mariners all, not afraid of a little rolling -- have their hands full dealing with it. His sudden and calm appearance in its chaotic midst is inexplicable, and it frightens them more than the high seas do.
The sea is like life is: rough, dangerous. utterly absorbing. Just staying afloat consumes all our energy. We rarely have time to take a long view of it: we are too busy leaping from one emergency to the next. Then we hear that Jesus can help us live it, and suddenly we're attentive. This is great, we think, finally I'll be able to do the things I can't do now. I will have everything I want. We assume that our wants and needs will remain the same. It will be the same system, only now Jesus is going to help us game it. The rules will no longer apply to us. It all sounds great. Into the water we go.
As long as we keep our eyes on him, we're okay. But we stop and consider our own inadequacies, how much bigger life is than we are, how immense our problems and our aspirations are, how unequal we are to the task of meeting any of them, and we panic. We begin to feel that we are all on our own again. I must do this all by myself. I have no help. It's wrong to ask for help, a sign of weakness. I should be able to do this myself.
Why? Why do you think you should be able to handle everything by yourself? Who told you that you should be ashamed of the fact that you lean on many people, and always have -- not just in childhood, but now? Why is it a source of shame to you that God is bigger than you are, so that you can only believe if you cut God down to your own size? The point of the story is our need for help. Peter is foolish when he tries to walk on water by himself. That is only one of the many things he can't do on his own. It's on my list, too. My list is a long one. Yours is, too, maybe. But we're not supposed to be able to do anything on it alone.