Walking on Water

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

Anybody who watched television in the 1970s will remember the iconic ads for Chiffon margarine. 

Actress Dena Dietrich, dressed in a while robe and crowned with a garland of daisies, would dip her finger into a yellow tub, sample it, then gush, “My delicious butter!”  The narrator, however (voiced by character actor Mason Adams), would correct her:

“That’s Chiffon margarine, not butter.  Chiffon’s so delicious it fooled even you, Mother Nature.” 

Uh-oh.  “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Dietrich would snarl, followed by thunder and lightning, or perhaps a charging elephant, and on one occasion the sudden transformation of a beautiful forest into a barren desert.  Things always wrapped up, however, with a happy jingle: “If you think it’s butter, but it’s not, it’s Chiffon.”

The Chiffon brand was sold and ultimately discontinued in 2002, although it can still be found here and there in the Caribbean. 

What lingers is humanity’s awkward dance with Nature.  Is Nature a storehouse to be pillaged, a Mother deserving of respect, or perhaps Gaia, the Greek goddess of the earth, who is the source of all living things and therefore worthy of heartfelt worship? 

As the influence of Christianity continues to wane in Western culture, other deities have rushed in to fill the void.  The Gaia Hypothesis, put forward by the late English scientist James Lovelock, is that our planet is actually a complex self-regulating organism.  A number of environmentalists currently derive more inspiration from Gaia than from the notion of a Creator. 

Which brings us to a special moment in the Jesus narratives – when the One who identifies himself as the Creator’s unique representative on Earth steps out (literally) into the very teeth of Nature’s fury. 

Matthew, Mark, and John all tell the story in somewhat different ways.  Here’s Matthew’s account:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.  After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.  Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.  When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost!” they said, and cried out in fear.  But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! I am. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14:22-27)

Jesus’ miracles roughly fall into three categories.

There are supernatural healings – blind people who see, paralytics who walk, and dead people who are restored to life.  There are exorcisms – physical and spiritual liberation granted to demonized men, women, and children.  And there are so-called Nature miracles – turning water into wine, feeding crowds with just a few loaves, and providing a miraculous catch of fish.

Then there’s walking on the water, which seems to fall into a sub-category all its own. 

It’s easy to discern, in most cases, why Jesus might choose to exercise divine power.  Someone afflicted with leprosy needs relief from suffering.  The resurrection of a little girl delivers her parents from endless heartache.  Hungry people crave food. 

But why is it necessary for Jesus to stride across the storm-tossed surface of the Sea of Galilee, when he could just as easily have hopped into the disciples’ boat or awaited their return?

In her book Inside the Miracles of Jesus, author and seminary dean Jessica LaGrone admits her own sense of puzzlement.  Water-walking doesn’t appear to serve an obvious purpose, nor to move the kingdom of God closer to reality.  It’s tempting to think that Jesus is just showing off.  “Hey, guys, watch this!” 

Nevertheless, LaGrone suggests there are three messages embedded in this account.

First, Jesus is providing his followers with a timeless illustration of his lordship over Nature.

Historically, the Jewish people feared the water.  The turbulent sea (that is, the Mediterranean) symbolized the chaos of a broken world.  The second verse of the book of Genesis reports, “The Earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  Those primordial waters, in later centuries, even provided the pathway of invasion for Israel’s enemies.

According to first-century thinking, walking on the water was like treading upon the face of evil.  Jesus was demonstrating that God’s people don’t have to flinch in the presence of Nature, even though its powers can seem awesome. 

Second, Jesus is reminding his friends that he is with them all the time.

Each of the three Gospel accounts reports the disciples’ struggles as they try, in their own strength, to row their way to safety through the squall.  Jesus comes to them.  And once again he calms the storm.  Jesus knows exactly what his friends are facing.  He will never abandon them.  Nor will he ever abandon us

Finally, he tells them not to be afraid by means of an unforgettable threefold word of assurance.

Walking toward them on the waves, he shouts: “Courage! I am! Don’t be afraid!” 

The second part of that statement is particularly notable.  Most Bible translations render it something like, “It’s me!” – as in, “No, I’m not a ghost, I’m the person you know very well.”  But that’s not what the text says.  The two Greek words here are ego eimi, which literally means, “I am.”   

Every Jew would have heard in those two words an echo of Exodus 3:14, where God introduces himself to Moses, who is trembling at the burning bush, by saying, “I am who I am.  Tell [the people] I AM has sent me to you.” 

As biblical scholar Dale Bruner notes, “This is no ordinary hello on the water.  It is the divine Lord addressing his storm-tossed church.”

God is striding toward us, right in the midst of our most challenging circumstances.

Where, then, should we go with our relationship with Mother Nature?

British essayist G.K. Chesterton probably said it best early last century.  “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother.  Nature is our sister.  We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father.  But she has no authority over us.  We have to admire, but not to imitate.”

Nature, in other words, is not a goddess who dares to make claims on our obedience.  God alone is worthy of worship and praise. 

Nor is Nature a mother in a white robe – someone who may get cranky every now and then in the dairy aisle, but who otherwise is fun to hang around.  As mountain climbers, deep sea divers, and tourists in national parks discover every year, Nature is not something we can ever take for granted. 

Nor is Nature a never-ending pantry of natural resources that we can plunder as we see fit.  This is our Father’s world, and our call – the same call that the first couple heard in the Garden of Eden – is to be faithful stewards of everything he has made.

By walking on those wavetops, Jesus was saying, “Nature is a wonderful thing that can sometimes seem like a scary thing.  But it can never separate you from the only thing you really need.”

The only thing we really need is Him