When I was a little boy, I loved playing in the local swimming pool. Now, notice how I phrased that; ‘playing in the swimming pool’. I didn’t love going swimming. I’ve never been a strong swimmer; in fact, I was in high school before I finally learnt to swim without using arm bands or a float. No – I didn’t like going swimming; I tolerated the swimming so that I could play in the swimming pool.
The pool was exciting; there was a shallow area with spurting fountains you could manipulate to spray in your playmates’ direction, there were huge foam boards that several would-be-pirate children could climb onto and command at the same time, there was a wave machine, of which the imminent commencement was announced by a loud siren, and people scrambling to find the optimum place in the pool to be thrown up and down by the artificial tide, and, best of all, a huge orange water-slide running down the length of one side of the pool.
I have an abiding memory of that water-slide. I remember hearing the squeals of sheer joy from the other children going down the slide, and longing to use it myself for what seems like months and weeks, but being held back for fear of what happened at the bottom – the rushing plunge into the pool, the ultimate fear of a non-swimmer that you suddenly find yourself under deep water, unable to breathe or find your way back to the surface.
Eventually, my desire to go down the slide overcame my fear of the ending, and excitedly I set off on the journey up the steps to the top, knowing that my dad had promised to wait at the bottom, ready to catch me as soon as the water propelled me out of the other side. In my head, this meant he would prevent me from going under the water; that he would, defying the laws of logic, physics and the sheer force built up by a speeding child, spot me the minute my little feet appeared at the end of the tunnel, rush forward through chest-deep water and scoop me up in his arms whilst not falling backwards himself. My father, unfortunately for 8-year-old me, was neither an immovable object, nor believed he was. I found myself shot out of the end of the slide, like a cannon, and suddenly engulfed in water – in my eyes, in my nose and in my mouth – thrashing about, unable to determine which way was up. I was in a state of deep and very real panic.
And that seems like a perfect, if somewhat long-winded, introduction to our gospel today; a story of panic in the chaos of a stormy sea, and a Christ who defies the laws of physics.
There are two traditional interpretations to today’s gospel passage. The first focuses on the fact that Christ walked on water; rightly calling this out as a miracle, and a sign pointing to Jesus’ divinity. The interpretation states that there is no real need for this miracle; not like a healing or a feeding of the 5000. In this scenario, Christ could simply have rowed out in a boat to meet his disciples. No, here, the miracle serves solely to point to Jesus being God. He even says so himself when he calls out to his disciples to calm their fears – “Take heart; do not be afraid, it is I” – literally, he says, ‘I AM’; Yahweh – the name of God.
There’s nothing wrong with this interpretation; it’s all true. The miracle points to Christ being divine. My problem with it, though, is that I’m not sure it brings anything to our knowledge of and relationship with God here and now in the 21st century. For many of us sitting here today, we already believe Christ is God; this interpretation of the miracle doesn’t give us any fresh perspective on that. And for some of us here, who aren’t sure of what we believe about Christ, I may be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve just persuaded you of Jesus’ divinity by talking about how he walked on water. My guess is you’re not convinced by the truth of the story, no matter what I may believe or say.
So, let’s turn to the second interpretation. Perhaps we can find some great insight in that?
If the first interpretation focuses on the fact that Jesus walks on the water, this one focuses on the not so insignificant detail that Peter did not. It points out that Peter got out of the boat, and started to walk towards Jesus, but soon became distracted by the crashing waves and the storm all around him, and he fell into the water. The image is clear, say the interpreters; as long as Peter kept his focus on Christ, he was able to perform miracles. And so, they say, the same applies to us. You might’ve heard the phrase, “If we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can walk on water”? It’s often quoted alongside the famous passage from Philippians that says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Spiritual exhortations to focus on God, believing in yourself and pushing yourself to be the best you can be. This interpretation uses Peter as a punching bag, quoting Christ’s admonishment of his ‘little faith’. If only, it says, Peter had recognised his power, and ignored the world around him, he, too would have walked on the water.
But, I’ll let you into a secret. Whilst I can take or leave the first interpretation, I properly dislike this second one. It’s meant to be an encouragement, but it’s not. It’s little more than a slogan on one of those ‘feel-good’ office posters. It tells us what to do, but gives us no help in how to do it.
But, not only that, it can make us feel worse. Not only does it admonish Peter, it admonishes us. It tells us we’re not focussed enough, not faithful enough, not Christian enough for Christ; that we’re too distracted by events going on around us to make a difference. And it misinterprets that previously mentioned Philippians passage which, in context, is probably better translated “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me”.
Because, let’s face it, like 8-year-old me coming down that water-slide at a rate of knots, Peter was always going to end up in the water. As soon as he got out of the comparative safety of the boat, it was inevitable. And we should not mock him or admonish him for that. Of course he looked at the waves and the storm; it would take an android to not do so. To be honest, Peter himself probably knew he’d be overcome by the ravages of that sea, but he still stepped out. Peter might not have had faith in his own ability to perform a miracle, but he did have faith that his friend and saviour was there for him.
And that’s where we can find something useful in that phrase about keeping our eyes on Jesus. In this interpretation that’s focussed on the water-walking, we’re actually spending all our time looking at Peter. What do we notice, then, if we look away from this man, thrashing around, trying to walk on the waves and failing, and start to look at Jesus in this story? What happens next after Peter falls?
When I think back to the aftermath of that childhood water-slide, with me thrashing about under a rushing mass of water, shocked and scared, I also remember what happened next. Although to me it seemed like minutes of being unable to breathe, unable to catch myself, in a matter of only seconds, my father had scooped me up out of that water and strode me over to safety in a shallow part of the pool where we sat together whilst I recovered. Something very similar happened to Peter. No sooner had he lost his footing than Jesus shot out his arm, and caught Peter up, taking him back to the safety of the boat, where the storm then passed.
That’s the key to this story. That’s the part to focus on; not that Christ walked on the water, or that Peter did not, but that Christ caught Peter when he fell and sat with him in safety and calm afterwards.
That Christ will always do the same for us, whether it be our first ever fall, or our final one.
The only thing that got me down that water-slide as a child, was knowing my daddy was waiting at the other end for me. The only thing that’s ever going to get me out of the safety of my metaphorical boat in whatever storm I am caught in is not trusting my own strength against the water and the waves; it’s knowing that when – not ‘if’ – when I start to sink, Christ will be there to catch me – to catch us all, every time – and take us to the shallows to sit down next to us in safety.
And that’s a thought that’s more comforting than the passing of a storm. And it’s more exciting than a water-slide could ever be, even a huge orange water-slide, running down the whole length of a swimming pool.