22Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”Matthew 14: 22-33
For many steeped in Christian tradition, this story of Jesus walking on water is a familiar text. Even for those who have never read the New Testament, the phrase “they walk on water” has become a cultural euphemism in the Christian West for a person who seems able to accomplish the impossible. And yet, in Matthew’s text, Jesus is not the only one to walk on the water. Matthew writes:
Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. (Matt 14:28-29)
Years ago, working as a hospital chaplain during my clinical pastoral education, I encountered Peter’s story distinct from Jesus’ for the first time. I was visiting a patient who had been in the hospital for quite some time and as we talked about his experience with his illness, he assured me that he knew he was going to be okay because he had his eyes on Jesus.
“You see, that was the problem with Peter,” this patient told me. “In the Bible, when Jesus called Peter to walk on water, Peter started coming towards him, but then when he saw the wind, he stopped looking at Jesus, and that’s when he sank. He sank down into the waters and he died. Because he took his eyes off Jesus.”
Although there are some obvious textual errors (and a particular theological application) at work in this interpretation, what surprised me most about this man’s retelling was his emphasis on Peter. I had always known that Peter was a part of Matthew’s narrative, but with an eye towards the divine, I had previously focused on Jesus’ supernatural behavior in the story, not Peter’s experience.
And what Peter experienced is no less than miraculous. He literally walked on water. Or, at least, he did in Matthew’s narrative world. But something happened when Peter was out there amid the waves and the wind. When he was in between the safety of the boat and the protection of the divine. Matthew tells us, “he became frightened” (v. 30). And then he began to sink.
Now, some historical context might help here. Stories like this one, which begin with Jesus going off to pray by himself, might lend the impression that there was a lot of space and solitude in first-century Roman occupied Israel when, in fact, the opposite was more likely the case. From what we know of the architecture, homes and markets were built very close to one another. City streets were narrow. And within homes, families slept in close quarters not only with themselves but, when necessary, with their animals. Nor should we imagine that Peter’s fishing boat was very large. In the synoptic parallel when Mark tells us that Jesus was sleeping in the stern of the boat, we should not imagine an ocean cruiser, with Jesus curled up three decks away in a private cabin—he was likely only feet away from where the rest of the disciples were bailing water. In the ancient world, people lived in close quarters.
Jesus sought solitude out as a luxury. As an introvert, I can relate to that. But, I wonder, if perhaps Peter was a bit more of a people person. I wonder if, between the crowded comfort of the others in the fishing boat and the steady embrace of his teacher coming towards him on the sea, Peter suddenly realized not just that he was walking on water, but that he was doing it alone. While the boat and Jesus both offered a very different kind of security, they were nonetheless two ends of a pole, and there in the water, Peter was connected to neither of them.
In this time between outbreak and vaccine, as cities (and countries) around the world shut down, re-open, and shut down again in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps Peter’s experience of in-betweenness can speak to us across the globe. He, as we, stands in between two very different kinds of security, two different definitions of normality, and he wavers.
In this time between the enslavement of African Americans entwined with the founding of the United States of America and the necessary systemic breakdown of racism and white supremacy necessary for true equity and reparations , perhaps Peter’s experience of in-betweenness can speak to those of us engaged in this American experiment as well. He, as we, stands in between faulty human securities and the will of God—for, after all, how secure is a small fishing boat really in the midst of a squalor at sea?—and he wavers.
Living in a time of double pandemic, as the dual waves of racism and COVID-19 wreck against the hulls of our ships and the walls that support us feel increasingly insufficient and even flawed, we, like Peter, may know and trust the call of our God to carry forward in God’s path, and yet waver.
But, hear again the words from Matthew’s gospel:
Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong win, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him. (Matt 14:28-31)
The promise in the text is, of course, that Jesus did not allow Peter to sink. But look even more closely, at the grammar of the words. Peter started walking. He began to sink. Although this qualification of the act of walking is not grammatically presented in the Greek, the NRSV translation catches the nuance of Peter’s experience in the narrative. While he had begun the work of leaving the security of his boat, it quickly became apparent that he still had a lot more internal work to do. But lest readers become discouraged and, like my patient all those years ago, believe that if we lose sight of the goal we are doomed, the original Greek is much more explicit about the second verb. Peter did not fully sink. He began to sink (ἀρξάμενος καταποντίζεσθαι) and then, immediately (εὐθέως) Jesus reached out and saved him.
As a white person living in the United States, I have begun the work of addressing my own racism and the white supremacist powers that privilege me. But I know that I have and will continue to lose my footing and begin to sink over and over again on this journey. As a global citizen and more immediately a teacher, spouse, and mother, I have begun the work of discerning how to responsibly live in the midst of a global health crisis, but here too, I continually lose my footing. The good news that Matthew proclaims for those of us living in these and any other in-between moments in life and history, is that as long as we are willing to begin, Christ is waiting and ready to catch us, to draw us out of the water when we begin to sink.