A few weeks ago, Dave and I were in Philadelphia walking along the banks of the Schuylkill River in a little town called East Falls. As we walked, Dave pointed out a 3 foot tree branch that appeared to be suspended in mid-air. As we looked more closely, we discovered that the branch was hanging from a larger branch above it. It was held suspended above the water by a strand of a spider’s web. The strand was so very thin, as spider web strands are that it seemed impossible for it to support the weight of the branch. But that small amount of webbing was enough to keep a three foot branch out of the rushing water.
Jesus’ disciples were exhausted. They had been with Jesus as he taught all the parables to the crowds. The parable of the sower, the weeds and the wheat, the treasure in the field, the leaven in the bread. They had gone with him to Nazareth and had been run out of town with him. They had been with Jesus when they heard the news that John the Baptist had been killed by Herod. They had taken the food Jesus blessed and fed over 5000 people. As the meal ended, the disciples hoped to find a nice B and B in the area and crash for a night or two. But no. Jesus forced them to get in the boat and head across the sea to Gennesaret. “Don’t you want us to stay with you and help you dismiss the crowd, clean up a bit, keep you company?” they offered. “No,” Jesus insisted, “Go.”
So the disciples went. As they sailed across the sea, a fierce headwind developed. A headwind is a wind that’s coming right at you, pushing you back as you try to go forward. It makes it almost impossible to sail, and really hard to row. A fierce wind on the sea creates waves. The stronger the wind, the higher the waves. So the exhausted disciples were struggling to move the boat across the sea, all the while getting doused with waves of cold water. And they were doing this most of the night.
At about 4 or 5 a.m. the disciples saw a figure walking towards them on the water. Now this would be a shocking sight in the daylight, but at night it was frightening. In the dark, almost any noise, sound or sight is terrifying. So when the disciples saw the form of a person walking across the water they were petrified and screamed, “It’s a ghost.”
Compassionate Jesus didn’t want them to be scared any longer than necessary. Just as we’d immediately run to reassure a child who cried out in terror after a bad dream, Jesus called out to them, “Have courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” The words “It is I” are significant because they are the Greek version of God’s name. In Exodus, Moses asked God, “Who shall I tell my people sent me. God responded, “Tell the Israelites I AM has sent me to you.” On the dark and stormy night, I AM in the person of Jesus had walked across the water to the disciples.
One of the problems with communicating via email or text messaging is it is only words. We can’t hear the sender’s tone of voice and therefore can’t interpret the feelings attached to the words. We can’t tell if someone is being sarcastic, is angry with us, or is expressing compassion. When we read the conversation between Jesus and Peter we have no idea what tone of voice Peter used or what tone of voice Jesus used. When Jesus identified himself, Peter called out, “Lord, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.” We don’t know if Peter said that in a challenging way—like “Prove it, Jesus!” Maybe Peter said it with fear in his voice, hoping to confirm that they really heard Jesus and not some human-like sound created by the crashing waves and roaring wind. Or perhaps Peter said it with the longing of a frightened child, “If it’s you, Jesus, please, please, please, can I walk to you on the water and stand close to you.”
Jesus responded to the words delivered in whatever Peter’s tone of voice might have been with an invitation to come. So Peter got out of the boat, put his foot on the water and began to walk towards Jesus. As Peter walked, he felt a gust of wind and a wave hit him almost waist high. It knocked him a little off balance. And Peter remembered the danger of the seas in bad weather. He remembered how fearful the great deep was because you just couldn’t see what was under the water. And in those moments of being pushed by the wind and remembering all the things of which he was frightened, Peter began to sink into the sea. Peter screamed, “Save me, Lord!” We don’t have to wonder about the tone of voice in those words. Peter was terrified and called out in a panic and with desperation in his voice for Jesus to save him. And immediately, Jesus reached out his hand, caught Peter and pulled him up to safely stand beside him.
Jesus looked at Peter and said “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And again we don’t know the tone of voice Jesus used. And the tone of voice makes a huge difference. Was Jesus frustrated and so said angrily, “You have such little faith. Why are you such a doubter?” Or did Jesus say it with deep compassion, “Peter, you have a little faith, so why did you doubt?” Was Jesus angry because Peter and the disciples didn’t have enough faith? Or was Jesus reassuring them that a little faith, perhaps faith the size of a mustard seed, was enough?
I find it hard to believe that Jesus was angry with Peter. I don’t think Matthew wrote this story to teach us how bad it is to have doubts. Just like Peter, we all have times of doubt on our journey in faith. When we hit a stormy patch in relationships, in life, with our health, most of us with faith. We pray for answers, for guidance. But then the storm gets a little more severe. Or the storm lasts longer than we thought it should or would last. And then we begin to doubt. God, are you really there? Do you really hear and answer my prayer? Are you even able to help me? We doubt because we’re afraid we’ll sink under the pressure of our storm. We’re terrified that the hurt, the stress, the long recovery, the pain, the financial difficulty, the loneliness—whatever our particular storm might be—will do us in. We are afraid, we’ll never make it to shore. That we’ll never see the sun shine again. We doubt that God is there. We doubt that Jesus is even interested in reaching out his hand to save us and pull us up so we can breathe again.
So I think Jesus spoke his words to Peter with compassion. “Peter, you have a little
faith, so why did you doubt.” And I think Peter had more than a little faith. Peter had enough faith in Jesus to know that if it really was Jesus on the sea, Jesus could command Peter to walk to him on the water. Peter had faith enough to trust Jesus’ invitation to “Come” and enough faith to get out of the boat. Peter had faith enough to cry out “Save me!” And Peter’s little bit of faith was enough. In his response to Peter, Jesus tells all of us that just a pinch of faith is enough. That just a thin strand is enough to keep us from falling into the deep and stormy seas.
In her book, When In Doubt Sing: Prayer In Daily Life, Jane Redmont tells the story of a woman named Barbara who entered the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. Barbara found she could not connect in any way with what the AA folks call their “higher power.” Her sponsor told her she must pray: “You will pray in the morning and at night. Say anything you want, use prayers you know or your own words, I don’t care. But you have to pray.” Barbara complained that she wasn’t sure she believed in God so it would be dishonest for her to pray. Her sponsor replied, “Who cares what you think? Just do it.” Barbara agreed, saying, “… I’ll just pray to my office wall.” Each day she spoke her words to the wall, expecting nothing would come of her mandatory ritual. Then one day, the recovering woman discovered, as she prayed to her office wall, that she was not talking to herself (Redmont).
“I just knew somebody was there,” Barbara explained. “And I knew it was the power who had been behind saving my life. The power that had motivated the work of those who saved me. The power of the One whose spirit I felt in the rooms of AA. I started crying. I was so grateful. I had no idea I was worth saving” (Redmont). Barbara had enough faith to talk to a wall day after day. And that pinch of faith was enough.
Brothers and sisters, fellow children of God, we are all worth saving. Jesus is ready and waiting to reach out a hand and pull us up out of whatever body of water is pulling us under. Jesus is ready and waiting to walk with us and help us make it through whatever headwinds are trying to knock us down. And it doesn’t require a lot of faith. Jesus will answer when we talk to a wall. Jesus will come and save us when all we have the faith to do is utter, “Help!”
Matthew recorded his story of Jesus walking on the water and rescuing Peter and the disciples to show us that Jesus cares about the storms and rocky seas we have in life. Life is hard and there’s so, so much in the world that scares us. And when we are scared and feel out of control, doubt creeps in and crowds out our faith. But Jesus shows us that even the tiniest pinch of faith is enough. Jesus promises us that all we need is enough faith to call out, “Save me.” Jesus promises us that he will reach out his hand like he did for Peter, lift us up and stand us on the firm foundation we find in him.
Benediction: Go with the confidence that God will never forsake you or let you sink. Go with the presence of the Spirit surrounding you and giving you courage. Go in peace, with the knowledge that you are standing on the firm foundation who is Jesus Christ. Amen.
Redmont, Jane. When In Doubt Sing: Prayer In Daily Life. New York: Harper Collins
Publishers, 1999. 94-95. Quoted in Sumwalt, John. “Storm Walker.” How to Preach the
Miracles: Why People Don’t Believe Them and What You Can Do About It, Cycle A.