The story of Jesus walking on the water was one of the favourite stories for the class of primary school students I taught CRE in my first congregation. They enjoyed "rocking the boat" together, sitting on the floor, pretending to be Jesus disciples and making all the scary noises of a terrible storm raging across the water while they moved from side to side as if they were in a boat being tossed around on the wild waters of a stormy sea. We lived close to river and they knew all about water, about the great place it could be for play, how it made things grow, but also how absolutely scary it could become if you were in a small boat and a storm would rise up.
Ive met many children and adults since for whom this story is one of their favourites. I guess that is because it not only is a good story that speaks to the imagination, but also because it is a story full of archetypal symbols which are deeply anchored in the human psyche.
Water in any culture stands for life, for growth, as well as for the awesome force of nature that can bring death and destruction and our human vulnerability in the face of such forces. Water is as multifaceted and ambiguous as life, good and bad, providing life and joy as well as visiting suffering and death upon us.
While "The other side" in the context of that, refers to our passing into life beyond death, but can also, in some stories, refer to other major transitions of life.
A boat in our and many other cultures is a symbol of life tossed around on the sea of life. And again: this can be both a positive image as well as in a negative one. Sometimes we will be cruising along calmly and smoothly, sometimes we will find ourselves in terrible and threatening storms, bailing furiously, feeling utterly vulnerable and fragile in the face of forces much greater than us.
Walking on water in that context is the desire of any of us to be in control of the forces of life beyond our control, of our fear and anxiety. And gain the ability to walk to the other side in life or death, independent of the boat and the little protection it offers and no longer be threatened by the storm.
Even the friends in the boat represent a reality of life that goes much deeper than just a storm, in a boat, on some lake. It is about all of us, as we are being tossed around in the boat of life needing people to hang in there with us, and share the moments of joy and happiness as well as the times when fear and anxiety threatens to overwhelm us, keeping us from the most fearsome thing of all: to find ourselves alone in life with nobody to share the good or the bad with.
It is in that context Jesus walks into the picture the story paints. Controlling the uncontrollable, joining his friends and reaching out to them at a time where they are overwhelmed by fear and offering the comfort of his presence when they need it most.
This imagery will come into play in any of our lives, in the good and the bad times, and especially when we encounter grief and bereavement.
Sometimes in life the waters we are traversing will be calm and lovely, sometimes the boat of our lives gets tossed around on the waves and we may feel as if we are drowning. Sometimes we will be happily cruising along, hardly aware of the friends who are with us in the boat, sharing the beauty and goodness of life with us, while at other times we will find ourselves desperately clinging to each other, reaching out for a word or a gesture that may calm our fears and put us back in control. Sometimes water is fine and the journey moving along smoothly, sometimes we will find ourselves longing desperately for the impossible to become true and to be able to walk on water, defy death and reach out and be touched by a power and a comfort and support that is far greater and far deeper than we, who are in the boat braving the high seas will ever be able to give each other.
In the story it is Jesus, representing God, who comes to offer the support that is needed to the disciples who are out of control and in fear of their lives.
He represents in the story what Psalm 139 talks about in another way: That God is there, whatever happens and wherever we find ourselves, however desperate our situation may get. That God is able to reach out to us, and overcome what is beyond us, vulnerable and fragile human beings as we are.
Talks about God as the one that can make us walk on water, in the sense of overcoming even the worst life can throw at us, reaching out to us and holding on to us with hands that defy even the forces of death.
A God who knows us, intimately, as a friend, as a lover, as someone who knows our lives, the good and the bad, because he has been there, shared in it, been part of it, in every aspect of it from the beginning and even before that, and will be till the very end and beyond.
A God who showed in the life of Jesus Christ that he can bring light out of darkness, bring life out of death, hope out of despair, joy after grief. That Gods hand holds us, in life as well as in death.
The waters of life, even where they are whipped up into a storm, do not phase God, even where they might phase us. The boat of life, in its fragility and vulnerability, is never out of his sight and safe in his hands. He is there when we are enjoying the right and all is plain sailing, but he is also there when the forces of death threaten to overwhelm that vulnerable boat which is human life. Where we feel we are drowning and not sure if we will ever be able to cross to the other side safely, God is present with love and strength, reaching out and supporting us through whatever may come our way. Joining us in the boat where we are braving the storms of life together, silencing the waves, giving us confidence so that with his help we will be able to walk across to the other side if need be. Amen.