The story of Jesus walking on water is so well-known that it generates art and humor in the wider culture.
The expression "walks on water" identifies a person with extraordinary talents or abilities. A cartoon shows two men on the shore watching Jesus walk across the water, and one says to the other, "You just have to know where the rocks are." A favorite painting of mine from childhood Sunday School days shows a very serene Jesus on a relatively calm sea, larger than life, feet just above the water, his white garments dry and blown slightly as if by a breeze. These interpretations of art and humor provide insight into what we find meaningful, as well as troubling, about this text we call "Jesus Walks on the Water."
Danger and Fear
Danger and fear permeate the narrative. Jesus sent the disciples ahead by boat to the other side of the sea, while he went up on the mountain alone to pray. By evening, the boat was battered by waves. The Greek basanizo literally means torture, torment or harassment; figuratively it means severe distress. The boat is far away from land, for the wind was against them. The Greek adjective enantios suggests opposition or hostility. The NRSV translation of the parallel in Mark is "adverse wind." That the wind was against them doesn't quite capture the perilous danger of the situation.
A first-century audience likely would have understood what we may miss, which is the utter terror of waters unleashed from their boundaries. In creation, God separated the waters with a dome above and below the earth. But there was the ever-present fear that broken boundaries could unleash chaotic waters. The story of Noah and the flood that destroyed an entire population is a communal memory of the potential danger water represents. We moderns also appreciate the awesome and dangerous power of water. A few years ago, the word "tsunami" became part of our vocabulary and still induces in us an awareness of the sudden and unpredictable danger of water. While the Sea of Galilee is no ocean, it is known for how quickly dangerous winds and storms can arise.
After a night-long battle for their lives, the disciples were understandably afraid. When they saw Jesus walking toward them, they were terrified, did not recognize him, and cried out in fear (phobos). Jesus identifies himself and addresses their fear with the imperative, "Fear not!"(phobeo). The angel says, "Fear not," to Mary (Luke 1:30); a young man in white says, "Fear not," to the women in the empty tomb (Mark 16:6); and the resurrected Jesus says, "Fear not," to the women as they leave the empty tomb (Matthew 28:10). "Do not be afraid" is a word of divine assurance in the midst of danger or fear, when there is cause to be afraid.
Apparently Peter takes Jesus at his word and steps out of the boat to walk on the water toward Jesus. He discovers quickly that Jesus' words of assurance did not mean the dangerous wind and waves had subsided. He was frightened for his life once again, for good reason, as he began to sink into the turbulent sea.
The versions of this story in Matthew and Mark are closely parallel (Luke does not include it), yet each has distinctive features and includes elements that are troubling. For example, according to Mark, Jesus intended to pass by them as he walked toward them on the water (6:48). Why does the storyteller say such a thing, giving an unavoidable impression that Jesus is indifferent to the perilous predicament of his disciples? According to Matthew, Peter plays a central role, as he often does in this gospel, and our attention shifts from Jesus to Peter's water walking attempt. Peter sinks, afraid (phobos) for his life. Jesus' response to Peter, after rescuing him, implies that Peter's failure was due to his lack of faith. Are we to conclude that Peter would have succeeded if only for a bit more faith, or because of a moment of doubt? This is an unsettling conclusion for mortal disciples in any century.
The narrative is often preached to encourage "more faith" or courage "to step out of the boat." But this misses Peter's real danger and justifiable fear. Sometimes the best approach is to resist the temptation to resolve or overlook tensions and allow room for the story to unsettle us. Another approach is to look to a different moment in the narrative for the gospel to touch our lives.
Chinese artist He Qi depicts a scene from this narrative in vibrant colors with characteristic echoes of Chinese folk art. The painting, Peace Be Still, portrays Jesus standing in the boat with his hand raised in a gesture of peace. Above his head is the dove with olive branch, reminiscent of the promise of diminishing flood waters (Genesis 8:11). The disciples are seated in the boat facing Jesus with upturned faces, in a horizontal line, conveying a peaceful disposition. The chaotic waters swirl around the boat, but in the boat is tranquility. He Qi points out that the horizontal lines through the disciples are at heart level. Their hearts are at peace even in the midst of turbulent waters. The painting reflects a theme in He Qi's art which he states simply as "Message of Peace."1 In this painting he captures the Christian experience that, even in the midst of danger and fear, there is peace in the presence of Christ. And there is the promise that the turbulent waters will subside.
1See www.heqigallery.com to see a replication of the painting. He Qi discussed the painting at a chapel service at United Theological Seminary, May 1, 2008, in connection with an art show featuring his works.