Our Mark passage today is Jesus walking on the water. You can see that, beautifully portrayed in one of our Miracle Windows at First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City.
As a teen I was uncomfortable with this story. I remember going to my pastor about it. Is this simply a story showing Jesus’ power, or did he actually have command over the natural elements: air, water, fire, earth? This never made sense from a scientific-method standpoint, which every good high school student is steeped in. Could any of this really happen?
Now as a minister and Bible scholar I realize that is the wrong question! Mark’s version of the gospel to the rescue! The sequence of events is telling. Jesus has just lived through a good bit of trauma: he was rejected at Nazareth, practically run off, his good friend is murdered and his head ends up on a plate, so the disciples go get his body and I assume they have a funeral, then Jesus feeds the 5,000. I am imagining if this guy is an introvert, just the feeding of the 5,000 is “people overdose.” So he retreats. He escapes from the world for a moment.
The disciples get in the boat while Jesus dismissed the crowd. Then after saying farewell he goes up on a mountain to pray. We are told “Jesus was alone on the land when he saw that they were straining.”
I have spoken before about how I am fascinated with Mark’s themes of messianic secret and the suffering servant. Another aspect I love about Mark is his flow of story. Perhaps my pastor’s answer was unsatisfactory is because we had not read the Marcan version. Here there are no details about Peter or anyone else walking on the water out to Jesus. The focus is not on the water walking at all. That is merely a miscellaneous detail. It is the tension between alone and togetherness.
And if you are used to Old Testament stories with fantastical language and goings-on, you are used to things that are extraordinary (i.e. things beyond our senses). So to someone of this time, they might not have titled this story “Jesus Walks on the Water” but “Peter Dares to Trust the Almighty” or “God Calls Us to Not Be Afraid”.
Jesus sees they are in trouble, and realizes it is easier to encounter things together. They saw him walking out there and thought he was a ghost; they cried out; he spoke to them and said “Don’t be afraid.” And that is the end of it. He got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.
But there is another aspect of this we simply MUST address. The church today has its fears too. Some worry only of division. Others worry only about the past, trying to reclaim the 1960s. Others worry only about purity. These groups want to wave a magic wand and have people magically come together in peace and harmony.
Some of us in the church spend all of our time sleeping in the bow of the boat. Others of us spend all our energy trying to throw one another out of the boat.
Jesus calls us to togetherness. To trust. Jesus enters the story right in the midst of chaos and confusion, and that was precisely the time to get in the boat with them. It was not the time to bail, but the opposite. Right when our instincts say it is time to bail, Jesus comes along and points to a different reality.
Remember that Final Discourse in the gospel of John? Some of Jesus parting words to the disciples, knowing that in the future they would face adversity and dissension, was to remind them to abide in him, love one another, and pray for unity.
We follow a savior who demands that we think clearly, not panic, and stay in the boat.