What’s in the Water
You may not know much about my hometown, Hoopeston, IL. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you always thought it was pronounced Hoooops - town. Maybe you passed though, traveling up or down Illinois State Route 1. If you did so, you would have seen the water tower, which clearly indicates that Hoopeston is the sweet corn capital of the world. As such, I always felt it a pity that I was not more agricultural. I was a sweet corn consumer, never a producer. I lived in town, and was not within walking distance of a corn field. And so I delighted at the opportunities to spend time with my friends outside of town - friends whose parents were farmers. They lived mysterious lives full of various farm chores, for which they wore farm boots. They drove farm trucks at an age far younger than my own first time behind the wheel. When they weren’t working, they played in wagons full of grain, fished in the crick, and waded in the pond. It was here that my envy peaked. Not because these friends had access to a pond. There was a pond at my own farm in Park County. I was envious of the way being a tough farm kid allowed one to walk into a muddy pond the same way one would walk down Main Street in Hoopeston. And I just didn’t have the guts to do it. I was no Huck Finn, and I wanted to be. Surely some of you can recall a time when you navigated a body of water when your bare feet sank deep into the muddy bottom. What might you step on? What’s in the water? It was the mystery - the not knowing. This fear, or extreme dislike for walking the bottom of a pond or lake hasn’t kept me away from the water. But it has made me an expert of the shallow surface dive. As long as I don’t have to touch the bottom, I’ll be fine. Cause you just don’t know what’s down there. I guess what I’m saying is that, if I had the option, I’d probably wish to walk on top of the water. That would be a pretty neat trick. And if we’re not careful, we can turn Jesus’ stroll on top of the water into something like a neat trick, a miracle even. But there is a lot more going on here.
Now we mentioned last week that Matthew’s Gospel is often referred to as the Jewish Gospel. Out of reverence for the name of God, Matthew’s Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than the kingdom of God. Likewise, Matthew goes to great lengths to show that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to God’s people. One of those great lengths is the almost continuous quoting of Old Testament scriptures. What does Matthew and his original audience’s Jewishness have to do with Matthew 14? In the Hebrew mind, water represents far more than a physical reality. Before Jaques Cousteau unveiled the mysteries of the Silent World underwater, before unmanned submarines plunged the depths with video cameras in search of sunken ships and black boxes - in the first century the sea was a terrifying mystery. Karl Barth explained that in the creation story, water is the “principle which, in its abundance and power is absolutely opposed to God’s creation.” In the Hebrew scriptures, it is this mysterious entity over which God’s lordship is often demonstrated. It happens in the creation story. It happens again in the flood. It happens when God’s people are delivered through the red sea. Then again when they enter the promised land through the river Jordan. God is God because he triumphs over the waters.
So as you imagine a body of water as this thing somehow opposed to the will of God, You hear certain scriptures differently. You may recall that in Job 9 and Habakuk 3, the God of Israel tramples on the waves. The God of Israel walks in the recesses of the deep in Job 38.
In Matthew 14, Jesus is doing something that only the God of Israel can do. The disciples are rightly terrified. They are on top of the water, battered by the waves. Add to this the surrounding darkness. And here comes a figure strolling on top of the water. The disciples cry out in fear. Again, who can blame them?
Take heart, says Jesus. It is I. Now here we might picture Jesus saying, “Hey guys, it’s me, don’t worry.” But Jesus doesn’t say it’s me. Matthew records his words in Greek as ego eimee. Ego eimee can be translated as it is I. It can also be translated as “I Am.” In fact, in the early Greek translations of the Old Testament, when Moses asks God for his name. The name given is “ego eimee.” So for Matthew’s Jewish audience, here is Jesus, trampling on the waves and identifying himself by the same name Yahweh gives to Moses. This is more than neat trick. Jesus is more than a charlatan, more than a great teacher, more than a ghost.
For the first time in Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus gets in the boat, the disciples do some reserved for God alone. They worship Jesus.
But before that - Peter does something crazy. Crazier still is that he gets accused of having “little faith” For it is Peter and no one else who yells out “If it is you, or if You Are, or if you are the I AM, command me to come out to you. And with one word, Jesus says, come. To everyone’s amazement, Peter too walks on the water. Quickly, though, he notices the strong wind and the waves. He doesn’t begin to sink and then become frightened. He becomes frightened and then begins to sink. Losing sight of Jesus means that Peter, like everyone one of us, cannot help but become frightened. Thankfully, Jesus stretches out his hand and does what Jesus does, he saves.
I was struck this week by the fact that Peter first asks Jesus for an invitation. Peter knows that there is no way he can stroll along the waters outside of being empowered by the Son of God. It’s not something he can do on his own initiative. Peter recognizes that he has no ability to come to Jesus unless that ability is given by Jesus.
We are a bold people, a talented people, a people with all kinds of amazing resources. I believe we could accomplish a lot outside of an invitation from God. We could sort of push Jesus aside as a great moral teacher, forgetting he is the great I AM, we could and often do, hop out of the boat and run along for a while. And when we’re battered and beaten by the waves and we begin to sink, Jesus the moral exemplar can’t do much to save us. Jesus the Son of God, reaches out and rescues us.
I think of this often in my work as a pastor. I have a few natural gifts that come in handy in this line of work. In fact, cut off from God in prayer, and without awaiting the call of Christ to come, I could probably set out and coast along for quite awhile. Before long, though, I would sink, and the mud would begin to squeeze through my toes, and you all know how I feel about that.
So here we are in a season of transition. As comfortable as I feel in this place, I’m new here. This is the beginning of a new chapter for all of us. Like it or not, we are out in the water, far from shore, being battered by the waves. And this is not a bad place to be. In fact, I would argue that the faithful church is always far from shore. Some of you, moreover, may even be called to leave the safety of the boat and to walk on water. Some of you are doing that right now.
It can be terrifying to be out on the water. We may be happy just to survive. But know this - our task as a church is not just to survive. We have bills that will need paid. We have deferred maintenance issues that will need addressed. We’ll probably talk about money in the near future. We’ll need to do this. But as each of those waves hit the boat, let us always remember that our task is not merely survival. Our task is not to survive death or to save the church. Our task is to witness to Jesus Christ. It is this Jesus who calls us out of the boat, who reminds us who he is, really, and who tells us not to be afraid. There is great fear in trying to survive. There is no fear in doing the good work that Christ calls us to do.
And of all the places that we could begin that good work - of all the places we could renew our commitment to God in Christ. We start here, in the same place the Gospel reading ends, in worship. As we gather together in this boat, rocking in the waves, we witness to Jesus through this work of worship. And together we proclaim, “Truly You Are the Son of God.” May we be faithful witnesses in this church - in this community. And may we always be ready to hop out of the boat when Christ says, “Come!”
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.