Walking on Water: A Rescue on the Sea of Despair

Of all of Christ’s miracles, his walking on water is the most uncanny. What does it mean, that Jesus could do this? Even for a miracle, it is so unexpected, so contrary to everyday experience.

The Gospel of St. John tells the story in a brief but vivid passage. It almost paints a picture in your mind. Here is how St. John relates the episode:

Perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea rose because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, but he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (Jn 6:15-21)

You can see why so many artists have been inspired to depict this scene in their paintings. But how might it inspire us, in our daily living? Let’s look closely at the story.

The first thing that strikes you, in the very first verse, is that Jesus and the disciples have been separated. Our Lord has gone off alone into the mountains, in order (so we are told) to avoid certain people who intended “by force to make him king.” That one remark gives us a glimpse into one of the unexpected difficulties—almost a dark side—of Jesus’s earthly ministry. We commonly imagine that the great obstacle that Jesus faced in his travels was the unbelief of the people: their lack of faith in his mission of salvation. But here we see the opposite challenge: people who fully accept Jesus as Lord—to such an extent that they’re willing to incite a revolution to enthrone him as king. This is a form a fanaticism, and Christ’s response is to withdraw from sight, remove himself from such forces, and go off alone.

But that leaves the disciples on their own, as well. When Christ withdraws from the fanatics, the genuine faithful also get left behind—at least temporarily. The disciples wait until evening, but their master still does not return to them; so they get into a boat and begin the sea-journey to Capernaum: a town in Galilee, home to several of the disciples, and an informal “base of operations” for Jesus and his companions during this period.

Blind, lost, and going nowhere

The story now takes a dramatic turn. Darkness has fallen, and the disciples find themselves away from home and shelter. Remember that theirs was a world without street lamps or flashlights; when night came, the world became pitch black. And nowhere is that darkness more frightening than on the empty, featureless plane of the sea. Three or four miles out at sea, with no landmarks of any kind around them, rowing blindly in the black of night—that is the predicament of the disciples. Imagine how alone and isolated they must have felt, as if they were the only people in the world, literally crowded into a little lifeboat, floating on the cold, dark, indifferent waters.

But loneliness is the least of their problems. “The sea rose,” we are told; “a strong wind blew.” The sea is not only indifferent to the disciples’ fate; it is downright hostile. Again, the words paint such a vivid image: close your eyes and you can almost see it come to life. Twelve men at sea in a little fishing boat, darkness all around, the boat itself rocked and buffeted by the waves. No matter how hard they row, they can make little headway against the powerful wind blowing against them.

It is the very picture of human despair.

I want to pause here to suggest how this powerful image might apply to our own experience. For the sad truth is, we have all occasionally felt like the disciples: isolated, alone on a tempest-tossed sea, surrounded by darkness, and getting nowhere. We have all felt the fear of separation from the familiar landmarks of life, from home and family, or from God Himself.

And not only as individuals, but also as a people—as Armenians—we have known the dark of night, the anxiety of exile and wandering, the terror of thinking that God may have left us, and is not coming back. Truly, this is a story about all of us, and each of us.

Striding across the waves

Needless to say, it is at such times that we are most desperate to find some larger power, to rescue, protect, or merely console us. But our fallen human nature being what it is, often, when that greater power does arrive, we do not know how to react to it. Consider what happens next in the story. The disciples have rowed out to the middle of the sea, far from their point of origin, but still far from home—in other words, at the worst place they could be.

And it is at this point that something appears on the horizon: “they saw Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing near to the boat.”

What an uncanny image! There is no way to rationalize it, or to give it a scientific explanation, the way some people try to explain Christ’s healing miracles. To be able to walk on water means that Christ was able to defy the laws of nature; it means that he must have been super-natural: literally “above natural limitations.”

In terms of the story, the apparition of Jesus striding across the waves to the lonely boat is like a splash of cold water in the face, awakening us from the immediate concerns of the disciples to the larger universe around them. The message is clear: when we are at our lowest ebb, when all seems blackest, that’s when help appears. And it can appear in the most unlikely, unexpected, seemingly impossible form.

Yet that help is no illusion. It is real, and powerful: the answer to the disciples’ prayers—and our own. But how do the disciples react to it? “They were frightened,” the Scriptures tell us. And therein lies a great psychological truth of this story: a truth about the disciples, but a truth about ourselves, as well. For we may indeed pray to God to deliver us from trouble; but when God reaches out to us—even when He appears before us—sometimes we are just not ready to accept Him. We are too frightened of what that would mean—even though He is our only hope of rescue.

That is a sad statement about human nature. But the wonderful news portrayed in this story is this: in the Person of Jesus, God knows we will be frightened. He understands the fear and desperation of the human heart. And as he approaches, he calls out to us from afar, his voice ringing over the roaring wind and pounding waves: “It is I! Do not be afraid!”

But will he pass us by?

When the disciples hear that friendly, familiar voice, it makes them glad—it lightens their hearts. They take their master aboard the boat—and suddenly, another miracle! They find that they’ve already arrived at their destination.

May the same be said of us. Christ is willing to do the impossible to rescue us in our times of trouble. He is walking towards us, hailing us from afar, urging us not to lose heart, never to give in to fear. But it is up to us to accept him. We must summon the courage, faith, and humility to “bring him aboard,” so to speak: to let him be the pilot of our floundering boat. Doing so can have the immediate effect of lightening our hearts, making us glad even in the dark of night. And we may even find that, without our realizing it, he has guided us safely to harbor.

St. John seems to emphasize the act of will required to invite Christ into our lives. It is not only an important part of the drama, but an important truth for Christians to acknowledge. Surely Jesus is always walking towards us when we need him. But we must ask: if we refuse to accept him, will he pass us by? It may not be enough for us to merely say that we are believers, in a general way, and leave it at that. Recall those fanatics, at the start of the story, who wanted to make Christ an earthly king. They were believers, too.  But Christ would have nothing to do with them, because they could only receive him on their own terms, and not on his terms.

To accept Christ on his terms is indeed a frightening prospect to the proud human ego. But it is also the only way to truly unburden our souls, survive the dark and stormy night, and welcome a bright new dawn in a peaceful harbor.

By Christopher H. Zakian

Above: “Christ Walks on Water” (1849), by Ivan Aivazovsky (one of several paintings by the artist on this theme), from the collection of the Royal Palace of Serbia.

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