I tried walking on water once. I was eleven years old, and my grandmother had a pool at her house. I knew hardly anything about Jesus or Christianity but I had heard someone who seemed like they knew what they were talking about say that if someone could have the faith that Jesus had, they would be able to walk on water—like he did.
So without giving it a second thought, on a hot summer day I peddled my bike over to my grandmother’s house for a swim. My faith was unwavering as I rounded the corner on her street—my mind was made up, and I was going to walk on water. I had the faith to do it.
I confidently walked up to the edge of the pool, and without hesitation I took my first—and last—step out onto the water. Evidently, the laws of physics weren’t interested in bending to accommodate my newly found faith. Confused, (and wet) I climbed out of the water and decided not to let my failure ruin a nice day to swim. I could always try again another time.
There was still something under the surface that my underdeveloped brain couldn’t fully comprehend, and I carried this idea of faith for nearly a decade after the incident. By the time I started high school, my family and I became regular church attendees, and we even got Bibles with our names printed on them (yeah, we were a pretty big deal if you ask me). I learned about the story of Peter in the book of Matthew where he steps out of the boat and walks toward Jesus who had already figured the whole thing out (see Matthew 14).
The text tells us that Peter and the disciples were afraid at first, even thinking that he was a ghost. Jesus tells them to “take courage” and assures them that he isn’t a ghost. Peter then replies “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come out to you on the water.”
Jesus obliges, and most of us know the story from here. Peter takes a few steps, gets freaked out by the fact that he’s walking on water, and Jesus has to step in as a life guard before our beloved Peter drowns. “You of little faith,” Jesus says, “why did you doubt?”
Many people (my younger-self included) interpret this passage to mean that Peter sank because he didn’t believe he could do it. We center the story around the water—and Peter’s inability to walk on it. What we tend to ignore is right in the middle of the story, screaming at us in verse 28: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell meto come out on the water” (Matthew 14:28).
Peter isn’t interested in walking on water, and his faith was never in (or lacking in) his ability to do so. Peter’s sole interest in this story is getting closer to Jesus—no matter what obstacles or laws of physics get in his way. You see, walking on water is not a trick to show off at parties like I thought it was when I was eleven. It’s more like walking across broken glass.
Or through fire.
Come Hell or high-water.
Peter’s faith (and lack of faith) wasn’t in the water’s ability to support his weight or in his own buoyancy—it was in Jesus. It was only when Peter looked at the waves—and felt as though he was in danger—that he began to sink.
As it turns out, the sea had a symbolic meaning to ancient people. It was representative of death and destruction. Many people couldn’t swim, and ancient boats weren’t exactly durable, so often when people would go out fishing, a squall would come up, and they would drown. So the sea—and the waves of it—are imbued with a meaning beyond what we understand in our first reading with our modern context: the sea represents death. (This same concept is why in Revelation 21, John tells us that in heaven there will be “no more sea.” He’s effectively making the statement that there will be no more death).
With this in mind, it becomes clear that when Peter takes his eyes off of Jesus and looks at the waves—he is seeing his life at risk. He is seeing his immanent destruction. It is in this moment that he succumbs to his fear and is swallowed by the very thing he is afraid of, the only thing that is separating himself from his Savior—the sea.
But this is not where the story ends. Despite Peter’s inability to trust Jesus—despite his lack of faith—we still find Jesus lovingly rescuing Peter from the thing he is afraid of—from the only thing that is keeping them apart. Peter falls short, and Jesus covers the ground in between them.
This is who Jesus is. This is what faith is.
We are not walking on the sea for our own pleasure, and our faith should not be in our ability to do so. At some point, we’re all going to take our eyes off Jesus and sink into the abyss—and faith is what happens when Jesus rushes onto the scene, pulls us to the surface, and helps us cough the water and salt out of our lungs. Faith is trusting that when everything hits the fan, Jesus is still going to come to our rescue.
We can all have the faith to walk on water. We just have to be willing to sink.