Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

Just over a week ago, I was at a Jesuit Retreat Centre for a 5-day silent retreat. It was an Ignatian retreat and as such included daily meetings with a spiritual director. My director asked me about my prayer life, in reply to which I made some necessary admissions. He’s particularly fond of Gospel contemplation as a form of prayer. Gospel contemplation is an Ignatian practice of taking a narrative from the Gospels and then contemplating it by mentally entering the story and getting a sense of the sights and sounds of the story, placing oneself in one of the characters’ shoes, and talking to Jesus about it.

My director suggested I try Gospel contemplation and I was more than happy to do so. I started looking through his files for a sheet of paper that had a number of different suggested passages for contemplation. He had a particular sheet in mind, but he couldn’t find it. So he grabbed a different sheet and handed it to me, saying, “This is a bit random, but try this…”

Of course, it was not random at all. I didn’t look at the paper he had given me until I got back to my room. I laughed as I looked: it was Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus and Peter walk on water. Of course it would be. God has a sense of humour.

(The next day I was praying through Psalm 43. This Psalm has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, mostly because of Sandra McCracken’s beautiful interpretation of it, but also because its words hit home for me these days. The Psalter I use includes short devotionals on a handful of the Psalms. As it happened, there is a devotional for Psalm 43…and as it also happens, that devotional references Peter’s words to Jesus as he sinks into the water: “Lord, save me!” I just can’t see this a coincidence!)

Long-time reader—I use the singular intentionally—of this blog will be aware of the history I have with the story in which Peter walks on water (Matthew 14:22-33). It began in 2007 with John Ortberg’s book If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based on the event. Reading only a small portion of this book precipitated a personal funk and may ultimately have been one of the catalysts to get me to step out of the boat, as it were, and pursue my calling. Since then I keep bumping into this Gospel story. For example: in an interpretation of the story that seems more true to the details (2012); in a preacher who went to the popular interpretation, which always gets me agitated (2014 and other times).

A month or so ago, it was the curriculum topic for my Sunday school class. When I saw this, sitting in my living room preparing, I literally yelled, “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and then said something about hating this particular story. I don’t hate the story itself, of course, but my own history with it and the common misuse (as I see it) of the story continued to agitate me. I decided to dispense with the curriculum material and just work through the passage with my junior high class. It turned out to be a great lesson: the youth didn’t immediately go to the popular interpretation and had some good and helpful things to say about it, and I made a degree of peace with the story.

Back at my retreat: I did try contemplating that particular story, but I had difficulty entering in. I’ve always been fascinated by the disciples who stayed in the boat, since they get little attention, but I couldn’t see things from their perspective. All I could imagine was water and wind and blank faces on all the people involved in the story. All that I got out of it was further confirmation that Peter is not a hero in this tale. I suspect there was too much baggage, too much history, with the story for me to really enter into it with an open heart and mind. The next day in conversation with my director I had some more clarity on what the story may have to say to me (ironically, it’s Peter, the one I always think that gets too much attention in this story, that I identify with).

It deserves further contemplation and as I make my peace with the tale and my reading of it (and other people’s reading of it), I’m sure I will keep learning things about myself and about Jesus.

(And then today I’m watching some interviews of Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic. In one of them he’s talking about how Jesus must have laughed and as an example he references Peter walking on water, which he compares to Wile E. Coyote running too far off a cliff.)

6 thoughts on “Coincidence: God’s Sense of Humour (more walking on water)

  1. Toni

    We want to spiritualise everything, to read something into every bit of gospel. How many loaves and how many fish? Why did Jesus use spit to make mud instead of water? etc. Sometimes I wonder if we overlook that they are also sometimes just a record of events, not necessarily there for our detailed exegetical analysis.

    Why did Peter climb out of the boat? We might link this with his behaviour at the transfiguration, but that would disappoint a lot of preachers. 😉

  2. Toni

    Chris was reading John this morning, and commented that he doesn’t mention Peter getting out of the boat at all. If it’s such a pivotal piece of information then I’m pretty sure it would be there.

  3. Marc

    That’s always been one of my issues: none of the other versions of the story (and I think it appears in every Gospel) include the Peter part.

    Of course, that could be taken two ways, probably more: the Peter part is not essential/not the point and the other Gospels removed the superfluous material or Matthew intentionally included it for a particular reason beyond “because it happened.”

  4. Toni

    Since Mark was essentially writing down Peter’s comments and sermons, it’s interesting that it’s not mentioned there either. Had that been a tremendous, pivotal moment then I’m sure Peter would have frequently mentioned how important GOOTB had been for him, and how essential it was that others were enabled to have the same experience.

    OTOH none of the other disciples did it, AFAWK, so it’s plainly not an essential experience for everyone. One might deduce therefore that it was just a reflection of Peter’s character.

    Safe. 😉

  5. Glen

    I’m surprised no one mentioned (or did I miss it?) that the Savior answered Peter’s request to let him walk on the water as well. Peter asked, the Savior approved: then Peter began to move forward, was “afraid” (distracted by the storm? wondering if he’d actually spoken with Jesus? concerned he may have misunderstood the invitation?) and began to sink, and then is reproved. Was Peter reproved for not believing who the man walking on the water was, and stepping out? Or more specifically, was Peter reproved for not believing Jesus would help him, when He implied He would grant Peter’s request? If the latter, we could interpret that the Savior didn’t expect anyone to step out of the boat, nor was it His request: Peter requested it, Christ approved, and Peter started off in faith, only for his faith to waver when things got tough. How many of us have backed out of an opportunity we request and desire, just because it isn’t as easy or evident as we’d prefer it to be? (And, to be frank, how many of us would go out there and say, “Yeah, I was given this big opportunity, and then I blew it when I thought it was getting too scary, too difficult for me”? I don’t think Peter would go proclaiming that he blew a “miraculous opportunity” because he got scared… which may explain why only Matthew recorded it.

    Of course, at this point, this is all conjecture. 😉

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