Stormy Waters

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the fifth in the series, was preached on July 12, 2015.

*****

Just in time – Jesus comes to rescue us.

As we have moved through this summer’s Bible Study, Come to the Waters, our attention has been often been focused on Biblical passages other than those in which Jesus himself acts.  We did speak of his baptism, in the waters of the Jordan River, in which he like us, is named as God’s Beloved.  But we have also looked at the waters of creation covering the earth; at the waters missing from the earth as the Israelites trudged through the dry desert, and at the raging waters of the Jordan during the season in which the river fills and the Israelites had to cross the river to reach the land God had promised to them.  Today, having pondered what the desert and the Jordan crossing mean for us, as individuals and as a church, we are presented with tumultuous waters again, and with Jesus himself in the midst of them.  Just as we need him, he is here.

Today’s story is so familiar that perhaps you barely heard it being read.  The disciples are in their boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee; the winds rise; and Jesus appears them, walking across the water.  Peter decides that he will do the same and leaps out of the boat.  At first, he, too, walks easily on top of the waves, but then he looks down and begins to sink.  Of course, Jesus recues him, and the disciples, completely in awe of Jesus’s powers, declare him to be the Son of God.

You know this story, right?  Mostly you probably think of it as a miracle story – after all, that’s how we refer to it in popular culture.  Even if people have little knowledge of the Bible, they know that someone who “walks on water” can do anything.  Maybe you’ve wondered if it even happened – did any of the miracles in the Bible really happen?  Some people are inclined to say “yes” – it all happened just as it is written.  Others are a good deal skeptical, and may point to the fact that, in the ancient world, walking on water was described as something the gods did — a metaphor, a symbol, of their power and authority.  And still others joke about it:  One of our members, who shall remain nameless, told us in Bible study this week about learning to swim, and waving at her mother from the water, to reassure her mother than she was indeed conquering that difficult skill.  What her mother didn’t know was that she was waving from shallow water, with one foot on the bottom of the pool!

So we have a familiar story, a miracle story, a story that maybe we can’t quite take seriously.  We think we’ve got this one down.  But today I want you to think about some things that you might not have noticed in this story.

To start with, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat.[1]   They don’t just decide to sail off into the night – he makes them – he compels them – to get into the boat.  Jesus himself is going up the mountain to pray.  They must all be exhausted – they’ve just fed thousands of people.  And Jesus needs to be alone.  But the disciples – he sends them off together, he insists that they get into a boat, and he sends them into a windstorm.

There’s that idea of being sent that we talk about so often.   We are expected to move, to travel, to go from this place to that.  There’s a certain restlessness to discipleship, isn’t there?  Discipleship is not about remaining in one place.  Get into the boat and go – that’s Jesus’s command.

And go where?  We’d like to think that when God sends us off in in a boat, we’re going to have a nice quiet sail around a calm bay, and maybe a picnic to enjoy out there in the peaceful water.  I don’t know about you for sure, but I always have this idea that God is going to send me into a life of ease and success.  A safe neighborhood, a contented church, a classroom filled with studious students – those are the boats in which I hope God is going to send me off.

But . . . no.  Jesus sends the disciples off into the winds.  Jesus sends them off into a tumultuous seas.  Jesus sends us into real life, and gale-force winds bear down on us.

Where Jesus sends us, we are going to be battered.  I actually love that word – the disciples’ boat is battered by the waves.  Think about what battered means.  You might think that it means worn down, beaten up – and it does, of course, mean those things.  But people who have been battered by the waves of life are also often people of great wisdom and peace.

Not always, of course.  Some people who are battered by life’s storms allow hurts to strangle them with bitterness and anger.  But for those who open themselves to the experience of the fullness of the struggles of life comes a new depth of understanding, of compassion, and even of hope.

Our Christian faith tells us that these things – understanding, compassion, hope —  come from Jesus.  The same Jesus who comes to the disciples and who speaks to them comes to us and speaks to us. And it doesn’t seem to matter who you are, which kind of person you are.  Are you hiding out in the boat, like eleven of the disciples, terrified of the winds and hoping to remain safe right where you are?  Or are you like Peter, willing to climb out of the boat and willing to try to pass across the water?  The truth is that we all have some of each of the disciples in us, depending on the day and the situation.

And what is Jesus’s response?  To the disciples cowering in the boat and then crying out in fear because they think they are looking at a ghost, he says, “Take heart; do not be afraid.  It is I.”    Isn’t this what Jesus always says?  Be not afraid.  I am with you.

To Peter, who suddenly understands the force of the winds and begins to sink, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and says, “Why did you doubt?”  In other words, I am with you – spoken with actions, not words, this time.  And: Do not be afraid.  There is no reason to doubt.

Jesus’s message is pervasive and consistent.  You know, as parents, we are often told to be consistent.  Always the same rules, always the same consequences.  Not really one of my own strengths as a parent.  But Jesus always is consistent.  I am with you.  Don’t be afraid. This is a message we need to hear, over and over again, in our personal lives and in our lives as a congregation.  Whenever we set out on stormy waters: Jesus is with us.  We need not fear.

As we have talked about these intense waters in our Bible Study classes these past weeks – the rushing waters of the Jordan which the Israelites had to cross to reach the Promised Land, and now the waters of the Sea of Galilee stirred up by the wind,   we have also been talking about our own journeys of faith and, in particular, times of significant growth for us.  Times in which we came to understand who God is and what God’s presence means to us.  In fact, this past week, in one of the classes, we drew symbols of important times or events in our lives of faith.  I’m no artist myself, although I do love to color, so I was really excited when Sue was able to identify one of my own drawings!  Talent aside, however, I think that it was helpful for us to think about times in our lives when we have discovered God anew or discovered something new about God.

And so I have a challenge, a project, for you this week.  I’d like you to do just what we did in class – I’d like you to draw, or color, some symbols or pictures of important times in your growing faith.  You don’t have to draw, of course – although making art, doing something with your hands, can really help to sort things out in your mind.  But if you don’t want to draw, at least consider:  What are three times in your life in which you came to recognize or know God a little better, as Peter and the other disciples did Jesus through this adventure in the boat?

You may come up with some expected events, some times of church ritual and celebration, like a confirmation, or a wedding.  You may recall some important encounters or conversations that have had a life-long impact on you.  And you may even discover that during a time or two when you have been battered by the winds of life, God became more present, more known, to you.

The disciples become convinced, as a result of Jesus’s presence and actions, that he is, as they proclaim, “truly the Son of God.”  They discover that, even as they are battered by the winds of the storm, they are also battered by the love of God.  There’s actually a famous poem by the 16th and 17th century English poet John Donne which begins with the words, “Batter my heart, three person’d God . . .”.   It’s an intriguing idea, since to be battered means to be beaten or pummeled – really, by the love of God?  But God’s love is as insistent as the waves rising in the winds, and God’s love pushes us to grow, to change, to become more attentive to the mysterious ways in which God moves – even, or perhaps especially, in the gales of our lives.

And so: pay attention, this week.  Look back.  Look at your lives right now.  Might you hear the voice of Jesus, telling you not to be afraid?  Might you see his hand stretched out to steady you?  Might you know that God is present, in all of the challenges and winds of our lives?

Let’s close again with the words of the poem we heard last week, with a reminder that

you do not cross the boundaries alone,

that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,

that in the depths that would knock you

off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor

 

to hold and to guide, and waters of danger

shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos

may bring newness of life, and out of the noise

of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.[2]

 

Amen.

 

 

[1] I am indebted to Professor Carla Works for her exploration of this idea in her August 10, 2014 Working Preacher column.

[2] Andrew King. “Into the River.” A Poetic Kind of Place. https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/category/joshua/.

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