I Am Haunted by Waters (Walking on Water, Part 3)

To borrow a line from A River Runs Through It: I am haunted by waters.

Specifically, I am haunted by the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water in Matthew 14. More than 6 years ago now I wrote a post pondering my negative reaction to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based entirely on Peter’s little episode. (Or more specifically, my negative reaction was to the first 30 pages of the book. I couldn’t read any further.) That turned out to be one of my most discussed musings: a long (for a blog) conversation about calling, growing as a Christian, trusting in God, and stepping out in faith. I look back at it as marking a watershed (heh-heh-heh) of sorts in my life. I had been in a personal rut, directionless, for about 6 years, but within a year of writing that post I began what some might call “stepping out of the boat,” according to the popular interpretation of that story.

My beef with the popular interpretation remained, however. Two years ago, I came across a different though equally, if not more, plausible interpretation of the passage, one in which Peter’s actions aren’t commended as a model for all Christians to follow.

I hadn’t thought about it at all since then, but as it happened, the speaker at this weekend’s family camp used that passage in one of his sessions. He was preaching a series on trust and his take on this passage was again along the lines of the popular stepping-out-in-faith reading. My response was again negative, though to a much lower degree. Perhaps this will mark another watershed in my life, but this time my response is more along the lines of how we interpret this passage.

Let me say this first: I’m not questioning the speaker or his motives or his overall message. I believe that we need to trust in God fully for everything. That is what faith is. I believe that sometimes we are called to do difficult things and when that happens we need to “step out in faith,” but that this could mean anything from sharing the Gospel with a friend, repairing a broken relationship, making Kingdom choices rather than cultural choices, moving to the inner-city to work with the poor, or selling everything and moving to the jungles of South America. Some are called to what from the world’s perspective are “great things”, but I believe that we are all called to something specific and, when it comes down to it, things greater still in the Kingdom of God: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

My concern with the popular reading of Peter walking on water is a general concern about how we read scripture. In the case of Peter walking on water, there are several dangers I see which could be applied to our interpretation of any passage of scripture.

One is that we interpret how we’ve always interpreted it. I value the tradition of the church—that is, the wisdom of the Christian witnesses who have gone before—and so I want to be careful not to argue for innovative readings of scripture for no reason other than innovation. What I intend to say is that whenever we read scripture, we need to read with fresh eyes and open ears. We may have misinterpreted it previously, we have missed a detail or an important contextual element, or the Spirit may simply have something different to tell us about the passage.

A fine example of this happening to me was Matthew 24:36-41. That’s the passage where Jesus talks about what it will be like when he returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” This is where I assume the Left Behind book series gets its name; I imagine this was also the inspiration for Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The popular interpretation among conservative evangelicals, and the assumption behind both the books and Norman’s song, is that those in the passage who are “taken” are taken to be with Jesus and the ones who are “left” are unbelievers who, depending on your eschatology, will either have to suffer through the Great Tribulation or suffer some other terrible fate from which the believer is spared. But when you look at the context of Jesus’ words, you notice that he says that his return will be like the days of Noah in which “the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, it seems that Jesus intended a meaning reverse to the popular reading: those left behind are the children of God; those taken are unbelievers. When it comes down to it, it’s a rather minor point (though it may have repercussions for our eschatology), but it was an eye-opener for me in terms of needing to read scripture with an eye for the details and context. We need to be attentive rather than lazy readers (I continue to struggle with lazy reading).

When we look at the details of Jesus and Peter walking on water, we see this: Jesus walks out to the disciples on the lake; they are afraid; Jesus reassures them by identifying himself; Peter says, “If it’s you, let me come to you”; Jesus calls him; Peter walks on water; Peter becomes afraid and starts sinking; Jesus calls Peter one of “little faith” and wonders why he doubted; Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat. These things we know for sure. In addition—and I think this is important—we note that Jesus does not challenge the other disciples for staying in the boat. From the looks of things, they weren’t all meant to walk on water.

We don’t know whether Jesus intended for Peter to walk on water or if he was just responding to his request. We don’t know to what Jesus was referring when he asks Peter why he doubted: did Jesus mean to ask why Peter doubted his ability (through Jesus) to walk on water or why he doubted Jesus’ self-identification or maybe both.

The problem I see with the popular interpretation of this passage is that it makes much of Peter’s getting out and walking on water, but makes little, if anything, of his doubt. In addition, the popular reading tends to project a negative image on the rest of the disciples (who did not get out of the boat) which the text in no way calls for.

The second, and possibly more insidious danger in how we read the text is hearing what we want to hear. I think this danger is possibly worse than the first one because it appeals to our emotions so much—we understandably like hearing positive, encouraging things, and we don’t like the resulting feelings to be questioned. We may continue interpret a passage a certain way simply because it’s a nice, encouraging sentiment, because we want it to mean that. What we want it to mean may even be a true sentiment, but it may not be the meaning of the verse or passage. Nobody likes a bubble-burster; nobody likes to have their bubbles burst. We may reject  a bubble burster’s attempted bursting by saying, “But my reading is also true, right, so…” as if the truth of an idea is itself enough to justify imposing on any old text. This is the problem with proof-texts or life-verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”): it may be true about me in a general way (insofar as I fall into God’s redeeming work in history), but this verse is not about me or you, it’s about Israel first and foremost. So I can claim this verse as my hope for my part in God’s future for creation; I’m not sure it’s proper for me to claim it as God’s specific promise to me and my life as it relates to my career or family or retirement, as much as I would like it to mean that.

How does this apply to the popular reading of Jesus and Peter walking on water? The popular reading smacks a bit of a Christianized version the “American dream”: you can do great things through faith in Jesus, almost to the point of Jesus being the means to the end of doing great things. We like to hear the message that God has wonderful things in store for us and that we are destined for great things if only we would believe and act. While I am inclined to say that, with some reservations (e.g. those mentioned above in reference to the Jeremiah passage), that this is true, given what we know and what we don’t know about this passage I don’t think we can honestly say that this is what this story is about.

For one, the story survives if we take away Peter’s part of it, as the other gospels have done. One could say that Matthew included it for a purpose, but the knows and know-nots of the passage are such that it’s difficult to say what that purpose might be. So I’m inclined to think that we misplace our focus if we pay too much attention to Peter in this passage. I think the story calls us, not to walk on water, but to trust in Jesus, whether he wants to walk on water or stay in the boat. Jesus where our focus should rightly lie.

My other concern with this story and our superimposing the things we like or prefer on it is how we define “walking on water.” I think the tendency is to think of this as “doing great things” for God (at least on the surface) or otherwise. But there is no clear idea as to what such “great things” might be. Will we then come up with our own things? will we superimpose the American dream of wealth and happiness? I’m reminded of Jesus’ observation that the poor widows offering of a few coins was greater than the large offerings of the wealthy; I’m reminded of the Beatitudes: the great things of the world are not the great things of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may well be calling you and/or me to “walk on water,” but I’m not convinced the story of Peter’s walking on water is intended to do this. Neither am I convinced that “walking on water” would be becoming the next Billy Graham or Mother Theresa any more than becoming a peacemaker in our communities or sincerely praying for our enemies and wishing them the good life.

And so ends today’s musings on scripture and Peter walking on water. You may wonder why I would waste so much time and energy talking about this passage. You may even think this is all done in resistance to the truth in this passage. You might be right. Time will tell. Part of this post is certainly “reactionary.” But I find great joy in this sort of thing: to go back to a passage like this one (or, say, Genesis 1), to really pay attention to it and wrestle with it again and again.