August 13 2023 “Walking on Water”
I am going to share something now that may cause some of you to lose all respect for me from here on out, and that is that I am a Vikings fan. Yes, football, and yes, the Minnesota Vikings. I can still love you if you are Packer fans, and I hope the reverse is also true. Some of you will know that although the Vikings had a good season last year, most people don’t trust this will continue because they won at the last minute by just a few points almost every single game last year. In fact, the Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was talking recently about all those who are skeptical of his abilities, and he said, “Even if I could walk on water, my skeptics would say it was because I didn’t know how to swim.”
Walking on water is our culture’s colloquial way to describe someone who achieves the impossible, and maybe we don’t trust it actually happened. It’s ironic that that phrase comes from today’s gospel reading about the disciples being in the boat and Jesus walking on water toward them to save them, which is not intended to be a funny story at all. But it’s just so hard for 21st century scientific people to know what to do with a story like this.
Rachel Held Evans was a brilliant ex-evangelical who wrote funny, deeply insightful books about Christian faith and the Bible and what in the world we are supposed to make of either of them in a post-Christian scientific literalist age. A few years ago St. John’s read one of her books called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Evans talks about finding a middle ground between a literalist view of the Bible that believes everything happened exactly as described it on the one hand, and what she calls a “safe, disinterested liberalism” on the other hand. There have to be more than those two options.
I was wrestling with this a number of years ago when my daughter Carly was eight or nine years old. We were talking about this story in the Bible, of the disciples in a boat at sea when a great storm came and Jesus came to them on the water. In a fairly desperate parental attempt to help Carly relate to the story without getting bogged down in figuring out whether or not Jesus literally walked on water, I just asked her, “Carly, have you ever been afraid like the disciples were afraid in this story?” She thought about it, and she said, “Well, I’m kind of afraid of the dark.” And then she surprised me by continuing. She said, “You know, Mom, there are two kinds of dark.” Of course I asked what they were. She said that one kind of dark is the kind that happens at night. And the other kind of dark is what you feel when you are alone. As a mom of course you never want to hear that your child feels alone sometimes. But I was also amazed at her wisdom. Basically she was saying, it’s terrible to be afraid and in danger. But it’s even worse to be afraid alone.
If we enter the wild, mythical, outrageous, messy world of the Bible, and don’t ask it to be neat and tidy, it is easier to ask the questions that really matter. And for me, this story evokes the question, what are we to do when something terrifying comes out of nowhere and puts everything that we are and have at risk? What does God have to say to us in those moments, that is of any help?
Sometimes those moments are caused by literal natural disasters. I was reading that the wildfires on Maui this week came out of nowhere, with no warning, and some of those who survived did so by literally jumping into the sea and staying there for hours. But other things can also come out of nowhere, whether it’s a literal storm or a death or a diagnosis or a pandemic or violence. If I asked you the same question I asked Carly all those years ago, when have you been afraid or faced a storm like the disciples in this story, I bet you would all have an answer. Perhaps you have encountered grief so deep you were literally afraid you would drown. Perhaps you have felt so cold, so numb, because of something that happened to you that you wondered if you’d ever feel joy and life again. Perhaps you’ve had a health diagnosis that is so frightening it razed your life to the ground like a tornado.
The only thing worse than being afraid and in danger is being afraid alone. In this story, Jesus walks on water to the disciples. Whatever else that means, I think we can assume that God intends to be close to us in times of suffering and loss, and that God intends to do so in real and tangible ways. In their worst moments, Jesus is moving toward his disciples, with a power of love that the storm cannot touch.
On our website, the first thing you see is a photo of several St. John’s members in front of our building, with the caption “learning to embody love.” The word “embody” might sound a bit new age or yoga-like to some of us, but I submit to you that we are meant to move toward one another in our times of greatest crisis. We are meant to embody love to one another in very real ways when things are at their worst. Ironically, it’s when things are at their worst that our best can sometimes show up. A good example is how this community came around the McFadden family last month after the terrible loss of their young adult son and brother. People came out of the woodwork and did anything and everything to show love to them. Nothing was impossible for this community, because we were energized by the power of love and compassion.
If we can do this in the big moments, we can do it in the little moments too. “Learning to embody love” means noticing when people aren’t here, and reaching out to them with love and no judgment to find out if they are OK. Learning to embody love is what some of you do when you bring a meal without being asked to a family who has lost a loved one. It’s to spend time with the children and youth of our community, affirming their gifts like Heather and Chad and Wendy do. It’s to show up on Saturday mornings to bring food to the predominantly immigrant community at San Nicolas Episcopal Church in Richfield. It’s to not be afraid to ask the tender question, how is your son doing who has long COVID or who is struggling with mental illness? It’s to look for the best in each other and forgive one another and be generous toward each other.
I wish the storms didn’t come, or at least that they didn’t seem to come so often. But following the Way of Jesus is about knowing no force on earth is stronger than the power of love, and that we can look for ways to embody love for each other in normal times and in times of crisis.
For those of you who appreciate a spiritual practice to try throughout the week, I would offer this. Ask yourself what kind of love you most need when you are in crisis. Then observe others in this community, or in your family or neighborhood, and look for ways to embody love for them, with God’s help, even if it feels like you have to walk on water to do it. Or, if you are in crisis yourself, consider going to receive personal prayer in the library during Holy Communion, asking for help and letting people know you need it.
We at St. John’s are a little demonstration plot of a different way of being, a different way of living. We are grounded in the stories of Christian tradition and rooted in the love of God for us that has no limits and no conditions. Let us be nourished by the presence and love of God, and embody God’s love for each other. Amen.