SCRIPTURE LESSON: Matthew 14:22-33

In avid pursuit of enlightenment, a Buddhist monk left his monastery, took a ferry across the river, found a cave set high in the mountains, and began meditating nonstop. He did this for twenty-five years.

Finally, it came time to return to his brothers at the monastery. The monk rose from his time-worn mat, stepped outside the familiar contours of his cave, and followed the mountain path back down to the river he had so long ago crossed.

When he got to the water’s edge, he stepped straight off the bank and kept on going, walking ever so gracefully across the river’s rippling surface.

“Who is that,” one monk asked his brother monk as the two looked on in amazement. “That is the monk who left to meditate alone years and years ago. Look at what came of all that time alone in a cave. He can now walk on water!”

“What a pity,” the first monk sighed. “The ferry only costs a dime.” *

Our friend Peter did not enjoy the water-walking success his Buddhist brother did. But what the two have in common is this: they were each a bit foolish. The monk because a dime could have given him what those 25 years of meditation did. And Peter because he demanded of Jesus something he was not quite prepared for.

We might be inclined to fault Peter for his aquatic failure. If only Peter had been a little more circumspect and a little less impulsive. I mean, who in his right mind dreams up a test like the one Peter demanded? “Jesus, if it’s really you, command me to walk on water.” Peter’s test promptly tested him!

Whatever we might think of Peter and his attempt at walking on water, we should give him credit. At least he dared something. At least he imagined, if just for a moment or two, that it would be possible to do what his Jesus had just done—that is, stride across the watery deep.

After all, wasn’t this what Jesus had recently been encouraging? Not walking on water so much as trying his sandals on for size to do what he had been doing.

You may recall that just a few chapters earlier, Jesus gave the somewhat-seasoned disciples the authority to cast out demons and cure people of diseases. Then Jesus sent the twelve out with nothing in their pockets, no backup plans, not even a spare set of footwear. Jesus had waved them off, encouraging them to go where the Spirit carried them to discover that they, too, could do what he had been doing in the name of love and justice.

Maybe Peter wasn’t as impulsive as we think. Maybe he just tried to live into Jesus’ wild confidence in him and his friends a little too soon.

Taking a risk in faith requires some measure of inner clarity, I think. It calls for discernment, knowing when the time is right and when, perhaps, it’s not. Risks in faith also call us to investigate, maybe even befriend, our fears. Sometimes those fears and hesitations are as tricky to work with as figuring out if it is Jesus on the water or a ghost headed our way.

Convinced that I was seriously unchallenged in my university career, my therapist at the time encouraged me to turn in my resignation and test the waters. “Karen, just leap; the universe will catch you and take care of you,” she cheered.

I was 30 at the time and had $3,000 to my name. I knew myself well enough to know that a week into this experiment and I would be immobilized by fear and wracked with regret.

No. It was not time to get out of the boat and test my faith in—what—myself, in God, in God’s investment in me. Instead of up and leaving my job, I simply stayed put and kept listening to the Spirit.

Sure enough, the day did come when it was time to go. Did I walk on water? Yeah, a little. Did I sink? Yeah, that too.

But far more important than how I handled things was discovering that no matter what came up, no matter whether I was firmly planted on dry land or bobbing in churning uncharted waters, Jesus never ever stopped walking toward me.

This is the miracle that is easily overlooked, I think. It’s not Jesus walking on water. It’s not Peter or you or me walking on water. The real miracle, the true grace, is that no matter what the wind whips up, no matter what we risk (ready or not), Jesus can always be found walking toward us, seeking us out in love and faithfulness.

I once had a 10-year-old parishioner find me in my church office and, with great earnestness, asked if she could be a worship leader. “I really want to try,” she said, her chocolate brown eyes full of light that was only partly her own.

Amanda wasn’t impulsive in the way our friend Peter was. My sense was that leading worship was something Amanda had long been contemplating and that this private moment between us was the perfect time to give voice to her desire. This was no test, as it was for Peter that night, but looking back, I can see that Amanda’s request was very much a testament to her capacity to listen to herself and her God.

The Sunday morning Amanda came before the congregation, she dove headlong into the waters of worship leadership. She stood before us like she had been doing this sort of thing for years like she had been born for this.

This wasn’t just Amanda’s accomplishment, though. That joy belonged to all of us. Because as a church, we had succeeded in helping Amanda know and feel that no matter what she might try, we were absolutely, positively not going to let her sink. Neither were we going to sit in stony silence as she pulled herself out of the brink and back up into our boat. We were as invested in supporting Amanda as Jesus was in supporting each of us.

This kind of gift is how a community enables its members to take all manner of risks. It’s how a community embodies and exalts Christ.

Risk-taking in faith isn’t just for the young. It’s for every age. Amanda was 10, I was 30, Peter might have been 40, and Father Abraham, well, he was well into senior citizenship when he trusted a most unusual promise from God, a promise that hinged on being willing to completely uproot himself and his wife so that God could work mightily through them.

Risk-taking is something we do at any time in our lives. And it isn’t just for individuals, something this church knows all too well. Sometimes we have been moved to get out of the boat we have been in so that we might risk together—risk leaving one church to launch another, risk being public about our faith, risk being generous with our resources even when our future has been uncharted and uncertain.

Whatever hopes, fears, needs, and doubts might be in the mix, we can and do risk because, deep down, we trust that we are not alone. We risk because we see—and keep seeing—that Jesus is ever walking toward us. Even across storm-tossed waters. Even at night. Especially then.

What a wonderfully powerful way to live, no? Coming to trust more and more each day, each year, that Jesus will not and cannot leave us in the storm, in the dark.

What lifeline, what a gift, to hold fast to the truth that no matter what may come, Jesus is always and ever headed toward us, eager to meet us where we are, ready to join us in the holy work of living out our belonging to him, of doing what Jesus would genuinely have us do.

Let us be in prayer together:

Jesus, you are our truest friend. Just as you find us on life’s shores, you also find us in dark, stormy places, and you lead us back to solid ground, back into the light. Thank you for so faithfully walking toward us and for never, ever walking away from us. Teach us to be friends like you. It is in your name that we pray this morning. Amen.

Author’s Note

This is a reworking of a story from the sermon Why Did You Doubt, found in Barbara Brown Taylor’s 1997 Bread of Angels.