Eleven years ago, I was the aquatics director at Camp William B. Snyder in Haymarket, Virginia. My friend Eric asked if I would help him open a new Cub Scout camp and being a recent college graduate with no job I took him up on his offer. Eric taught me to swim years prior to the summer of 2006, turning me into a lifeguard and aquatics instructor from a person who was perviously terrified to go near the water.
Anyone who has ever been to a summer camp knows that one of the first things you do is take a swim test. As the aquatics director I loved and loathed this day as this is where we separated the swimmers from the non-swimmers. At the end of the day I would know who could at the least keep their head above the water and who we would need to keep an extra set of eyes on. At the same time though, I knew we would perform a lot of rescues.
It was a busy day. We would test over 300 people within a three-hour period. Here’s how the test broke down: Jump feet first into water over the head, level off, and begin swimming, Swim 75 yards in a strong manner using one or more of the following strokes: side, breast, trudgen, or crawl. Swim 25 yards using an easy, resting backstroke. The 100 yards must be completed without stops and must include at least one sharp turn. Rest by floating…Long enough to demonstrate ability to rest when exhausted.
My most memorable experience as a lifeguard happened at Camp Snyder. As each group arrived at the pool, I would give the instructions for the test and then separate the kids into groups: those who wanted to take the ‘swimmers’ test, the ‘beginners’ test, and the ‘learners’ test. Anyone who was unsure would talk to me and I’d help them figure out what level they were at and where they should test. There was one boy, I don’t remember his name so let’s call him Jack, and Jack was unsure of his swimming ability (which is never a good sign). After some coaching from his dad and his buddies, Jack decided he could pass the swimmers test.
As Jack and I walked over to the deep end of the pool to start the test we made small talk with one another. I always did this to defuse the anxiety and fear the campers might be feeling. We talked about school, his family, and what he was looking forward to the most. To my dismay, Jack was more excited about buying ice cream everyday with the money his mom gave him that he was swimming. This should have been a warning to me.
We arrived at the deep end and I told Jack he could start whenever he wanted. Jack stepped up to the edge of the pool, looked back at me, and then jumped in. He went under the water and then kept going. He kept going until he reached the bottom of the pool, 12 feet down, and then looked up at me with a “now what?” look. I did what I had been trained to do. I jump in reached my arm out and then around Jack, and then pulled him up to the surface.
Last Sunday I told you the problem with reading Matthew’s gospel in small segments is that we miss the beauty of Matthew’s writing. Matthew has woven Jesus’ ministry together, showing us how Jesus was constantly healing, ministering, and teaching. The same way our story, our lives are not one off events. Our stories, our memories are woven together, making what we did yesterday an influence on what we do today and what we will do tomorrow. Our reading this morning picks up where we left off last week. Jesus instructs his disciples to board a boat and head off to the other side, and then he dismisses the crowd, the people who were just healed and fed. After the dismissal Jesus prays. This is one of two times we read about Jesus praying alone.
Then there are the disciples, sailing away from Galilee in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm. Night is a time when visibility on the water is poor at best but add a storm into the mix and this three-hour tour Jesus sent his disciples on begins to have the markings of disaster on it. After being battered by waves throughout the night, Jesus joins the disciples on the water, and to say it terrified the disciples is an understatement. Their response, “it’s a ghost” loses the urgency with which they probably yelled it when written on paper. No one calmly says, “it’s a ghost,” and I speak with some authority on the matter as a Ghostbusters junkie. Just as Jesus will do to the storm eventually, he calms the disciples, “Be encouraged! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
In hindsight I think Jack was too calm in the storm swirling around him. Me telling him that the test was not a big deal, and that if he got into trouble I’d be right there with him must have relaxed him enough to know that no matter what happened someone would be there to rescue him. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking about the test, the approaching storm, and was still thinking about all of the ice cream he was going to purchase. Either way, Jack was not concerned with what was ahead of him.
This is only part one of the scripture reading this morning. Part two picks up Peter questioning, demanding, and being commanded, in that order. Then, just when Peter thinks he is getting what he wants, he panics and sinks, requiring Jesus to reach out, saving Peter from drowning in the midst of a storm. Again, we often miss not only is Peter close to drowning, because that’s what happens when you sink in water, but he is close to doing so in the middle of a storm.
In this rescue scene, there are two details we need to pay attention if we truly want to understand what is going on.
Unlike my summer camp friend, Peter was frightened before he began to sink.
“But when Peter saw a strong wind he became frightened (remember, at this point he is standing on the water with Jesus). As he began to sink, he shouted, ‘Lord, rescue me!’” Upon seeing the chaos around him, stormy waters are a biblical metaphor for chaos, Peter became frightened. It’s a natural reaction, not only are you on the the water in the dark but you are out of the boat. I would be scared too and I was once a world-class Boy Scout lifeguard.
Peter realized that standing on the water, let alone stormy waters, is not something he can do on his own. Even Peter’s ability to step out of the boat and out onto the water is not something he was able to do on his own. This is where we see how God’s Word is performative, meaning Jesus not only commanded the disciples into the boat, Jesus command them to exit the boat, entering into the chaos surround them. The chaos that was battering them in the boat. It’s when Peter realizes the chaos surrounding him, the things he has no control over, that he begins to sink. Like my camper friend believing he could swim, it was not until he realized the danger surrounding him that he realize the peril he was in.
Peter’s sinking has more to do with him taking his focus off of Jesus, focusing on the stormy winds around him, and less to do with Peter’s lack of faith. Because let’s remember, it was Peter who asked to be called out of the boat. Peter had faith in Jesus, otherwise he would not have asked Jesus to order him out of the boat.
Like a world-class Boy Scout lifeguard, Jesus does not correct, he does not question why Peter is sinking, before he extends a hand out to save Peter, preventing Peter from drowning. Nor does Jesus first calm the storm.
In this moment, Jesus is present in the storm, whether it is a literal storm on the sea or the storms of fear we create as we take our focus off of Jesus, or the storms of fear when we are far from shore confronting the injustice we see in our communities. Instead he is overcoming the chaos surrounding his church, and our lives. He is present in it, extending a saving hand before calming the winds and sea.
This scene is a foreshadowing of the missionary journey of the church. The journey the church has been on and the journey the church continues to be on. There are times when we as individuals and as a community will step out faithfully, ready to jump into the deep end and become overwhelmed by the circumstances surrounding us, or our inability to swim at all. We will notice a strong wind and discover that the odds appear to be stacked against us. In this scene we learn that Jesus’ disciples, past and present, will not be spared adversity. This will not be easy for Jesus’ disciples.
Yet in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of our sinking, there is the divine self-revelation, Jesus is saying, “It is me,” echoing God speaking throughout the Old Testament. What she see is a delivering hand that has been with us throughout the whole of our story is reaching out towards us.
We are a church that Brian McLaren describes as, “exploring off the map – looking into mysterious territory beyond our familiar world on this side.” We are exploring what it means to witness to the risen and ascended Christ in a world where the statistics we read can feel like 40’ waves splashing over the bow of our row boat. We are jumping into the deep end and it feels as though we are learning to swing while at the same time trying to simply keep our heads above the water.
We are being commanded to step out of our boat, it is time to jump in, witnessing to Jesus in a world where the waves of hate and injustice seems to be coming at Christ’s body from all sides. We will fall in the water every time we refuse to see the humanity in one another. We will fall in the water every time we say that they are less than we are. And we will fall in every time others speak those words and we fail to act.
With our eyes fixed on Christ we are able to stand, despite the storm beating the boat. Despite the strong winds blowing around us. Despite our inability to swim.
When we take the command to exit the boat seriously, to step out when Jesus calls us, we are taking seriously the miraculous work Jesus is doing and is calling us to participate in.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it like it: “The road of faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definitive step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if [people] imagine that they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deciding themselves like fanatics.”
In the midst of whatever storm we find ourselves in, there will be times when Jesus commands, he demands that we step out of the boat. In our baptism and following of Jesus we are inviting this command, just as Peter did, “order me to come to you out on the water.” Those waters might be a comfortable chlorinated swimming pool or the darkness that looms when we engage in the justice work Christ demands of his disciples.
I do not know if Jack seriously thought he knew how to swim or if he was scared of being honest in front of his friends, admitting he could not swim. But I will tell you this, by the end of the week, Jack knew how to swim. His willingness to jump in and sink on day 1 made it so that on day 7 he could not only keep his head above the water, he was able to swim in and out of the deep end.
As disciples we are called to be far from shore, and will be called out onto the water. We will be called to jump into the waters, going all in. Our task is not just to exit the boat or jump into the pool but to exit and be witnesses to the one who commanded us overboard.