Here in California, we know something about waves. We have this amazing coastline, our entire Western border is the mighty Pacific.
I love the ocean. I love the sound of waves crashing. I love that there is always movement in the ocean, even on calm days. Wave after wave after wave breaks on the shore; it’s one of the most ancient rhythms here on earth.
Now if you ever lived near the ocean, and especially around here in Northern California, you know that waves can be dangerous. There are sneaker waves, which can pop up unexpectedly even on a calm day. And as waves collapse and retreat, they can cause rip currents, those invisible and treacherous undertows that can pull even the experienced swimmer out to sea. I know all about it: in my early 20s, I almost drowned in the Mediterranean because I underestimated the power of the undertow.
We’ve been hearing a lot about waves lately, but in a different sense. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year, we’ve heard that this is the first wave, and that more waves are to be expected. After case numbers plateaued in this country, re-openings happened, and numbers went up again dramatically, some said, ‘Oh, this must be the second wave everyone was talking about.’ But experts in infectious diseases were quick to point out that what we are experiencing right now is still the first wave. Just like to a wave in the ocean, there is a lot to THIS wave we don’t see and know about beneath the surface, like treacherous rip currents that can endanger us if we are not careful enough.
Many are tossed about by this massive wave of disease, the rapid spread of infection, and the financial and economic fallouts. Some barely can hold their heads above water. Some sadly go under. And we probably haven’t seen the worst yet. This is scary. This is unsettling. And, yes, it is terrifying. As communities, as society, as the world community, we realize that this is one of those situations we have no control over, and all we can do is manage as best as we can. Wash our hands, keep our distance, wear face coverings. Beyond that, we can only cry out: Lord, save us!
Now the COVID-19 crisis is not the only thing that makes us feel out of control and helpless. There are things in everyone’s life, situations, which just wash over us, wave after wave, and we can barely keep our head above water: when a relationship falls apart. When we get into an accident or experience senseless violence. When someone we love is diagnosed with a horrible disease or dies. When we receive a diagnosis that threatens our life.
Sometimes, we feel like those disciples in today’s gospel, out on the boat in the middle of a storm, without orientation, tossed about, bruised, hurt, not knowing if we will make it, afraid, in terror, not knowing if we can trust our senses anymore. And all we can do in such a situation is to hold on for dear life and hope and pray, pray hard, that the storm will pass, and cry out: Lord, have mercy!
Today’s gospel is intense. Jesus, after feeding the 5,000, finally wants some time to himself. So he sends the disciples ahead – you cross the Sea of Galilee. I’ll follow you. But what should have been a rather safe and easy crossing turns into mayhem. The disciples are caught in a storm, and even the hardy fishermen among them become frightened. The situation is out of control.
It seems even more out of control when the disciples see a ghostly figure walking toward them. What in the world is happening? How are they supposed to know it’s Jesus, walking on water? I can understand that the disciples, tossed about, without orientation, doubt their own senses. And apparently Jesus doesn’t take offense: as he senses the disciples’ fear and confusion, he calls out to them: it is I! Don’t be afraid!
Now the focus of the story shifts. Imagine a camera in a movie. So far, we’ve seen the big scope, the big picture. But now the camera zooms in on Peter and his reaction to the storm, and to Jesus walking on water. Peter doesn’t trust Jesus’ assurance: It is I! He wants proof. And the only thing he can think of is to test Jesus: If it is truly you, tell me to come to you on the water!
Peter asks for the impossible – and Jesus grants it to him. ‘Come!’
And the miracle happens: with Jesus, with God, this impossible thing becomes possible. Peter walks on water! But then, we hear, Peter notices the strong wind, becomes frightened, and starts to sink.
It is often thought that Peter should have believed more strongly that Christ has the power to grant him the impossible: to walk on water. That he should have focused on Christ instead of looking at the waves around him. That he should have had faith in Jesus granting him the impossible. But think about it: it is not in man’s power to walk on water. Ironically, the name ‘Peter’, a name of honor bestowed on Simon, the fisherman, by Jesus, means ‘rock’. And rocks sink, every time.
Peter starts doubting long before he walks in the turmoil of the waves. Peter’s faith is already assaulted as he is in the boat, battered by the waves, and he can’t believe that it’s Jesus walking on the water. What makes Peter’s faith small is the unbelief that Jesus could be with him and the others in the turmoil and the danger they encounter. That Jesus is present with them in the face of terror and death. ‘If it’s you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water.’ That’s the doubt Jesus is talking about as he says to Peter, ‘Oh ye of little faith!’ And this doubt leads Peter to ask for proof – to ask the impossible of Jesus.
But even though Jesus grants Peter the impossible, this doesn’t mean the situation changes. The storm is still blowing, the waves are still battering, there is still reason for fear, reason to hang on for dear life and hope and pray. Once Peter realizes that his new super powers don’t change a thing, he is overcome by fear and loses his confidence. But ironically he shows strong faith in that particular moment when he realizes he is powerless, that no supernatural ability of his can still the storm and save himself or the others – by calling out to Jesus: Lord, save me.
And Jesus catches him, immediately. Jesus doesn’t hesitate, Jesus is there. Even though Peter has doubts. Even though Peter’s faith is little in that moment when all the world crashes down on him and fear takes over his heart. Jesus helps him into the boat, back into community. And with Jesus on board, the wind ceases. It is the moment the community accepts Christ’s presence in their midst that calm is restored.
In the end, big faith, little faith, doubt, it doesn’t matter – Christ is present. Christ doesn’t abandon us in situations that frighten us, in situations we hang on for dear life, in situations we lose direction, in situations we are powerless, in times of doubt. Christ is with us in the midst of the pandemic we are going through. God knows that there are many situations in life when we are not strong, but fall apart. God knows there is suffering and grief and disappointment and brokenness and violence. God, after all, came into a broken world to heal it and redeem it – and was broken on the cross himself. God is with us. We are caught by God’s grace when the turmoil of our lives threatens to overwhelm us.
It’s good to be reminded that God is there, always – even when we are battered by the waves of life and our faith is little. It is good to be reminded that God is there to catch us and save us in times that are just too overwhelming – like the times we’re in right now. God IS there. And it is a gift that we can cry out to God, at any time: Lord, have mercy!