What’s the Story – Jesus Walks on Water

The basic details of the story of Jesus walking on the water have become so familiar in our culture as to be cliche.  We often talk about leaders of specific prowess, or supposed prowess as being able to, “walk on water.” And I hear more than a few jokes at coffee hour each year that muse about how Jesus might handle different watery scenes. But this kind of familiarity often masks a more fundamental mis-understanding of the story that inhibits folks from making vital connections between their lives and the overall story of God’s relationship with the world.
This is particularly ironic in the case of the Walking on the Water story, because its very power flows from its relationship to another story that would have been very familiar to Jesus, his first disciples and many early Christians. What’s the story with Jesus walking on the water? It has something to do with Jonah.
The story of Jonah and the Whale is another famous Bible story that retains a lot of cultural cache in the contemporary era.  Shoot, any story that has had a Veggie Tales movie made from it has to be important, right? Interestingly, this is not a contemporary phenomenon, even in the time of Jesus, the story of Jonah and the Whale was popular among the faithful of Israel. I know we don’t always think about Bible characters having a Bible of their own. But its the truth. Many of the most popular Old Testament stories have been popular for eons.
So, it seems likely that the first generation of folks to hear or read about the Disciples setting out toward another country and being struck with a violent storm would have though, “this sounds a lot like Jonah.” Moreover, they might have brought a lot of the elements of the older story to bare on the newer one. They may have wondered what the disciples were running from, or perhaps what might have made God angry enough to throw a storm at them.
Here we probably ought to consider that the Walking on the Water story is not the only Jonah-like story in the bible.  Most of the of the Gospels include at least one more tale of the disciples afloat in a storm. Turns out that that story is about Jonah, too. In the same way that both West Side Story and Lady and the Tramp take cues from Romeo and Juliet, the best stories can often support multiple interpretations, each highlighting different meanings. Alas, the story of Jesus calming the storm is for another day.
Back to the storm at hand . . .
When last we left the Disciples, they were in the boat, rowing fiercely against the storm. While much is made of the role that Jesus plays in this tale, at the end of the day, its really a story about Peter and the other disciples. The ones in the boat are playing the role of Jonah and are the stars of the story. If there is anything revealed here about Jesus, it is his God-likeness – he’s the one outside the boat, he’s the one to which everyone calls for help – but we kinda knew that already.
 In many ways, this is a story about Peter who, in the role of Jonah, is having a crisis of Faith. Beset by the storm (probably not ’caused by God’ in the same was that it was in the Jonah story), Peter momentarily does better than Jonah by stepping out of the Boat, but ultimately succumbs to the same fate. “[He] of little faith.”
I think the power of familiar stories is not so much the ready answers they give – at the end of the day, this story still leaves a lot of questions – but the way they invite participation and provide a framework for us to join our stories to the long story of God and his people.  Have you ever set out somewhere and been beset by a storm? Did you need to be thrown from the boat or did you step out in faith? How’d that work out for you? Sink or swim, you weren’t alone. You were walking in the watery footsteps of Peter and Jonah and Jesus.

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