John 6: 16-21
When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark, and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “Don’t be afraid.” They wanted to take him into the boat, and then, the boat reached the land where they had been heading.
We are finishing our series on the signs and wonders of Jesus in the gospel of John with, as we heard in the reading, Jesus walking on the water, using Doug Pagitt’s book, Outdoing Jesus. As we have seen, Pagitt reads the miracle stories as many of us do, not as breaking the laws of physics but as breaking open human hearts and human potential. Throughout, he compares the gospel of John to the book of Genesis. He compares this story to the creation story, which also uses imagery of the water and seas as “places of brooding darkness and chaos.” But into this, God brought new life. Unlike some other religions’ creation stories, ours doesn’t call people to live in fear of but in partnership with the earth and the sea. To care for and engage with them. Both the Genesis and the John stories let us know that we can set aside whatever fears, superstitions, and inhibitions we have about the water, the deep, the dark, and the chaos. Because there is also life there. I think the story in John has parallels to our experiences during the pandemic, so these verses have comfort to offer us, too, in our anxiety and inhibitions about coming back out into what has been a frightening, chaotic world. If we look at John’s story as being about how humans benefit from Jesus’ actions, we can see ourselves and all of humanity in the disciples. When the story begins, the text says, “It was evening. It was already getting dark, and the disciples got into a boat to cross the lake.” In a boat, on a lake, as its getting dark is not where anyone wants to be. One of the scariest times in my life was when my family was out on a boat, a motorboat, on lake Burton up in the North Georgia Mountains, when I was 10 years old, and just as it got dark, and it was drizzling, my father decided to take us to see the dam. The deepest part of the lake, with the choppiest waters. He liked to show off how brave he was, and he got way to close to the edge, in my opinion, and I was sure we were all going over. My brother and I spent our teenage years in that boat on that lake, but we never got anywhere near that dam. Also, a lot of people are just afraid of the dark. Almost all kids are. And 40 % of adults. Because we can’t see what’s out there. It’s unknown. We don’t have any control over it. Next in the story, we read, “Jesus hadn’t come to them yet.” So they were without their leader, the one they counted on to make them feel safe and secure, which increased their uncertainty and fear. Then, “the water started getting rough because a strong wind was blowing.” The boat was now being driven by the wind. It wasn’t any longer on its path. They were 3 or 4 miles from shore, at the mercy of the waves. I imagine that’s when full-blown panic set in. And then they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was not being blown about. He was the opposite of what was happening to them. After a little while, they felt comforted and cared for and safe. He didn’t even get in the boat. Next thing they knew, they had gotten to shore safely. Jesus’ empathy for them and his calm made it possible for them to get to the other side. This, Pagitt says, was the miracle: “Not some empty demonstration of power or spectacle by Jesus.” But “The calming of fear and getting to the place you were headed even in the midst of the storms you can’t control,” which does parallel our story for the past 14 months. When the pandemic first started, it was strange and scary, but we thought it would only last awhile and be gone. We were gonna get in the boat and row to the other side. But as it went on and on, we felt stretched way beyond our comfort and safety zones. As the world began to shut down, we were blown off course. Many of us went into survival mode, buying up all the bottled water and toilet paper. Some of us were afraid to leave our homes. Nightfall brought pictures of bodies stacked on top of one another, and stories doctors and nurses dying while treating Covid patients. We didn’t have leaders to comfort us. We got conflicting and false information. We worried about our families, whom we couldn’t get to. Some of us lost family members. People lost their jobs and their homes and there was no more childcare for workers who had to go in. We felt rudderless. It was traumatizing. For most of us, the vaccine was the greatest gift ever, but for others, there is anxiety about getting it. It has been a lot. And it still is. But we can help each other get to the other side because we care about each other. I am looking forward to getting back together in person. To seeing your faces and seeing and hearing Jane play. It is not going to be perfect, but we will get there with the comfort and support of one another. Empathy is the antidote to fear. When the disciples first saw Jesus, they wanted to take him into the boat, not just because they were afraid for themselves, but because they were afraid for him. They had empathy for him and wanted to comfort him. As we begin this journey forward together, let’s follow that example. Let’s start making concrete plans] to expand our mission of comfort and care and empathy for all our neighbors who wear the face of Jesus even further, so that we can make it to the other side, to this new life, together.