Proper 14 / 13th p/ Pentecost — 10 August 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00
Gen 37:1-4.12-28 Ps 105:1-6,16-22,45b Rom 10:5-15 Matt 14:22-33
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
One of the stories that’s been passed around in the Episcopal Church in the past couple of years — maybe you’ve heard this one, but also maybe not — if you don’t hang around in the usual blogs on the Internet, that indicates that you are a person of considerably better taste than some of the rest of us — anyway, the story is about Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She wanted to try to establish a better working relationship with some of the other bishops who had not supported her election as presiding bishop, and in fact were not in favor of women as bishops at all. So she invited Bishop Iker of Fort Worth and Bishop Ackerman of Quincy to go fishing with her, a suitable thing for successors of the apostles to do. So they got in the boat with their fishing tackle and rowed out into the middle of the lake and prepared to fish. Bishop Ackerman asked, “Katharine, would you like me to help you bait your hook?” The PB replied, “Oh, thank you, Keith, but no, I know how to bait a hook — after all, I was an oceanographer before I went into the ministry.” And after a few minutes, there was a strong strike on the Presiding Bishop’s line, and she started to reel in a large, thrashing bass. Bishop Iker said, “That’s a great catch, Katharine! Would you like help landing it?” The PB responded, “That’s very nice of you, Jack, but I think I can manage. Just hand me the net, please!” And as she reeled the fish in, she deftly scooped it into the net and brought it aboard. They all agreed that it was a fine catch, and the PB then slipped the hook and released the fish back into the lake. At this point Bishop Ackerman said, “Oh, no! We forgot the beer! Look, there’s the cooler back on the dock!” Bishop Katharine said, “That’s okay, I’ll go get it. Only fair — I caught the first fish.” And she got out of the boat and walked on the lake back to the dock. As soon as she was out of earshot Bishop Iker turned to Bishop Ackerman and said, “You see? The woman can’t even swim!”
(If there is anyone here from the Diocese of Quincy or the Diocese of Fort Worth and you are offended by this story: It’s a joke. Get over it.)
“Walking on water” is one of those phrases that has become so common that I suspect there are some people who use it who don’t really know where it comes from. One of the standard items in personnel evaluation forms is: (1) Walks on water; (2) Swims in water; (3) Drinks water; (4) Drowns in water. (That’s another joke, folks!) One of my favorite lyrics from the musical play Jesus Christ Superstar (I think I’ve mentioned this before) is Herod Antipas’ line when Jesus is brought before him: “So you are the Christ, you’re the great Jesus Christ! Show to me that you’re no fool — walk across my swimming pool!” (Ironically, the appearance of Jesus before Herod occurs only in St. Luke’s gospel, which is the only one which does not include the story of Jesus walking on the water!)
So what are we to make of this story? Today we hear the version in St. Matthew’s gospel, which Matthew has taken from St. Mark’s earlier gospel, with a bit of editing and with the addition of the part about St. Peter. But this story also occurs in St. John’s gospel — clearly the same story, but told in somewhat different words. To me this clearly indicates that this is a story from early in the Jesus tradition (whether from the beginning of the tradition you can judge), well before the formation of the Markan and Johannine traditions. (We might note that in both traditions — the synoptic tradition underlying Mark and Matthew, and the tradition underlying the gospel of John — the story of Jesus walking on the sea immediately follows the story of the feeding of the five thousand that we heard last Sunday, and which is also obviously from the early Jesus tradition.) (I could have built a sermon on that connection, but I didn’t. Maybe in three years!)
So let’s see what’s going on here. When the disciples see Jesus walking toward them on the water, they are terrified. The Greek is actually a little more flexible than that: they were troubled, they were upset; and they said, “It is a phantasm!” — a ghost, or an apparition, or a vision — “we must be dreaming!” But it’s still pretty scary. Jesus says, “Courage! It’s me! Don’t be afraid!”
Then Peter, uniquely in Matthew’s gospel, does something I find a little surprising and puzzling: he says, “Lord, if that’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus answers, “Okay.” And so Peter gets out of the boat and starts toward Jesus.
What’s this all about? There’s a strong wind, the waves are tossing the boat all over the place, the disciples are already spooked as it is even before Jesus shows up, and Peter gets out of the boat?! Why on earth would he want to get out of the boat? May it not be that he’s asking Jesus to prove himself? Give me a sign! “Let me walk with you across Herod’s swimming pool!” “If you are the Son of God, let’s jump off the pinnacle of the temple!” “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Give us a sign!
When Peter realizes what he has really done, he gets scared, he takes his eyes off Jesus, he looks down, and he starts to sink. Jesus rescues him, of course, but he chides him: “Why did you doubt?” But I don’t think Jesus means, “Why didn’t you believe you could walk on the water just like me?” (which is what we might first think), but “Why didn’t you have faith in me without asking me for a sign?” It is not God’s purpose for us and for our life in the Kingdom that we should be able to walk on water. Not even the clergy!
God has work for all of us to do — to proclaim and to model and to implement the Reign of God in the world — God’s kingdom of love and joy and peace, and goodness and truth and beauty, and justice and integrity. That’s what we need to be about. It’s not about walking on water.
And now, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Thanks be to God.