Many years ago now, at a particularly poignant time in my life, I set off on a grand adventure: to travel the length of the Grand Canyon in a dory on the Colorado River.
A dory is a classic wooden boat, about eight feet across at the widest point and 15 to 20 feet long. When a dory hits whitewater it can rock and roll like a bucking bronco and, if everything doesn’t go just right, it will flip like a bottle cap.
Riding the rapids five people per boat—an oarsman in the middle, two people in the bow and two in the stern—we were taught early on an important tactic for keeping the boat upright. It’s called “high-siding,” and the principle behind it is both profoundly simple and counter-intuitive:
When the front of a boat hits a wave head-on, the force of the wave pushes the boat back and up. If the two folks in the bow do what comes naturally and lean away from the wave, their weight will be moving in the same direction as the enormous force of the water, and the boat will be even more likely to flip.
To keep the boat upright, the people in the front must “high-side”—that is, they have to lean their bodies into the wave as far as they can so that their weight will counteract the force of the wave. Only then, when the passengers lean into the very heart of the danger, trusting in the skills of the boatman and the laws of physics, can the boat stay upright and the passengers come through the waves safe, together, and better for the experience.
And, like so much about boating, high-siding is an important principle off the water as well. High-siding, or leaning in, is a useful skill for navigating all the stormy elements of life, including the journey of faith. And it may be that high-siding, or leaning in, has something to teach us about walking on water.
Now, I’m guessing that Jesus’ disciples—at least four of whom were fishermen, knew all about high-siding. What they did not understand—at all, really—was who Jesus was or what he was about. What they had not yet begun to fathom was the extravagance of God’s love for them, the abundance of life God wanted for them and all of creation, and the lengths to which God would go to bring healing and wholeness, justice and peace.
By the time Jesus tells the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they have already had quite a day. The political and social conditions are already quite stormy, and all day long a grieving Jesus has been trying to steal away for some prayer time alone with God.
Herod, the Romans’ puppet-king, has beheaded John the Baptist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s been hearing about this Galilean rabbi named Jesus and his huge following, so before things get totally out of hand he wants to remind the poor masses who’s in charge—not John the Baptist, not Jesus of Nazareth, not the next crazy prophet to come ‘round the bend. And so he kills John the Baptist—mostly because he can, and partly because he thinks it will control the crowds and intimidate any would-be revolutionaries.
When word of John the Baptist’s death reaches Jesus, he needs some space. So he and the disciples get in a boat and head across the Sea of Galilee so he can be alone. But the crowds get wind of it, and by the time the boat lands on that farther shore, there are close to ten thousand people there clamoring for Jesus.
Jesus, being Jesus, has compassion on them and spends all day healing the sick.
You know what happens next: The inside-the-box-thinking disciples take one look at their watches and another at the crowd and tell Jesus he needs to send everyone home. It’s late and they’re probably hungry, so they should get going before all the restaurants close.
Jesus, shaking his head, looks at them and says, “What’s the problem? You feed them!”
Long story short: Jesus blesses the five loaves and two fish a boy brings to him, the disciples pass them out, and then five thousand men and their families eat all they want, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers.
And now Jesus really wants to pray—alone. So he hustles the disciples back into the boat, sends the well-fed people on their way, and heads up the mountain.
God only knows what happens up there, but meanwhile the disciples have run into a bit of weather.
By the time Jesus is done praying, it is dark and stormy and around 4 o’clock in the morning. So it’s no wonder that the disciples freak out when they see something coming toward them on the water. In their exhausted and frightened state, they think they are seeing a ghost.
Jesus, being Jesus, has compassion on them.
“Take heart,” he says. “Have courage. It’s just me. No need to be afraid.”
I have to say, I’m not sure how I would have reacted to that. Seeing someone do something that I’m pretty sure is impossible would have me feeling pretty freaked out, still.
But Peter is in love. Peter is open to being amazed. Peter wants nothing more than to be close to whatever it is that empowers Jesus to do amazing, unimaginable things. Peter wants some of that, whatever it is.
“If it’s really you, Jesus,” Peter says, “call me to come to you.”
“Sure thing,” Jesus says. “Come on.”
See Peter’s mad love. See Peter’s burning desire. See Peter’s blind trust. See Peter jumping out of the boat like it’s the most normal thing. See Peter walking on water.
Be like Peter.
Yes, I realize that the story doesn’t end there. Yes, I know that Peter takes his eyes off the prize and stops to think about this ridiculous thing he’s doing. Yes, of course, Peter starts to sink.
But he has the good sense to cry for help.
Be like Peter!
Because when Peter starts sinking, when Peter cries for help, cool-as-a-cucumber Jesus is right there, reaching down and grabbing Peter’s hand and pulling him out of the roiling water. With tenderness and a new hope in his voice, Jesus says, “Dearest faint-heart, what got into you?”
Because Jesus knows exactly what got into Peter: love, Spirit, the power of God.
Be like Peter.
I began this sermon talking about high-siding because I thought it might be a little easier to wrap our minds around than walking on water. So, if it’s easier for you to think about life in terms of leaning into the waves from the boat instead of jumping out of the boat to walk on water—great. Go for it. Lean into it.
But don’t lose the walking on water metaphor entirely—because getting entirely outside of our comfort zone and trusting the Holy One to have our back and take our hand is kind of the point.
High-siding is something anyone can do—with a little training, focus, and courage. But walking on water—well, that requires faith—not a belief system, mind you, but the kind of trust willing to give itself over to something bigger, something mysterious, something we don’t really understand.
All we need to walk on water is the kind of faith that leaps without looking, the kind of trust that considers the risks of falling but jumps anyway for the hope of fuller life on the other side of the abyss, the kind of trust that is willing to endure some discomfort on the way to growth and transformation, the kind of risk-taking trust that is fueled not by fear or desperation or delusion but by a holy love and the God-given desire for more of the life that truly is life.
The real miracle is not walking on water but walking on this blessed earth. The real miracle is not going our own way alone but following the Jesus way in the company of good folks we know and love for all their faults. The real miracle is not individualism but community. The real miracle comes not in searching high and low all the world over for love, for enlightenment, for inner peace, for God—but in realizing that God is right here—coming toward us in love, reaching out for us with tender power, lifting us up to new life.
God knows we’re in the middle of a storm—any number of storms, actually. God knows the waves threaten to swamp us. God knows it’s scary and overwhelming.
So let’s be like Jesus—doing whatever it takes to reach God’s beloveds who need our help. Let’s be like Peter—living out of love, following our wild hearts, keeping our eyes on the prize as long as we can and calling for help when we can’t, trusting in the one who will rescue us when we need it.
Beloveds, let’s walk on that water.