I have always been comfortable in the water. My father made sure that I could swim before I could walk. He had been a sailor in the the Second World War and an Underwater Demolitionist, the precursor to what would become the Navy SEALS. Water commands my respect, but it has never scared me.
Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was about nine, I was sure that I was drowning. Water terrified me that day. Here’s how it happened.
I was tagging along with my older half-brother Joel and his friend Butch Dollar. They are five years older than me and considered me an annoyance.
Joel and I had a rocky relationship for lots of reasons that I did not understand back then. Our father had abandoned his first family, Joel’s family, in favor of this new family. My family.
We were locked in a struggle for my father’s approval (which is not to say his affection). I was a pudgy kid with a speech impediment and wavering self-confidence. Joel was thin, athletic, and good-looking. And he was by far the superior swimmer.
Butch’s father—Rufus Wrens (and no, I am not making these names up)—was something of a slum lord. He owned a tract of land on which dozens of tiny, shabby houses sat on cinder blocks along dirt roads. In tiny Louisville, Georgia, that’s where many of our black citizens rented their homes. People called that little ghetto Wrens Quarter.
Joel and Butch led me into Wrens Quarter, and slowly many of the children living there started following us. We came to a pond in the center of the place. Joel and Butch announced that they were going to swim to the other side, assuming that I would never be able to swim that far. I figured that they were ditching me.
I stood there watching them as they drew closer to the far shore. That’s when I decided to jump in and swim after them. At almost exactly the midway point, my energy was completely spent. I started going under.
As I thrashed I heard the kids on the bank yelling. Calling out to my half-brother. Those kids couldn’t swim, so they couldn’t come out to help me. But they did get Joel’s attention.
Joel swam back to me and pulled me back toward the shore. He was livid. When he got to the shallow water, he dumped me on the muddy bottom and stomped off.
He might have said something, but I can’t remember. The message was clear enough. “If you weren’t such a useless idiot none of this would have happened. You’re more trouble than you’re worth.” I was utterly humiliated. Being rescued made me feel like a failure. A complete loser. That’s certainly how my rescuer saw me.
I thought about my near drowning experience as I imagined Peter sinking beneath the waves. Peter was a fishermen. He knew how to swim. And he was out on the water by Jesus’ own invitation. Well, strictly speaking, Peter had invited himself and Jesus had said, “Sure, come on out.” Still, Peter was sinking in a stormy sea. He was terrified. He cried out for help. And Jesus rescued him.
The text doesn’t tell us how Peter felt about being rescued. But I believe that one of the lessons of this all-too-familiar passage is that being a person of faith means to look to God for salvation. Not as an exception to the general rule of our own spiritual and moral competence and self-reliance.
Nope. It seems to me that faith is a habitual way of navigating the planet. People who look to God for salvation admit that we cannot live life fully and fruitfully without drawing upon a power beyond ourselves who is greater than we are.
I don’t really know why, but this is easier said than done. We seem convinced that we’re supposed to validate our own existence by what we do.
One of our chief spiritual struggles, it seems to me, is coming to terms with the very idea that we need a savior. It makes us feel like, well, failures. Losers on a cosmic scale.
I wonder if you see Peter as something of a failure in this story. Lots of preachers and teachers say so if not in so many words. They tell us that Peter got out of the boat in a great act of faith and that he sank only because he let doubt diminish his faith.
It’s as if Jesus said, “If you hadn’t doubted I wouldn’t have had to go to all this trouble. You’d be strolling across this water like nobody’s business. What a loser!”
What Jesus actually said was this: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
The message he’s delivering is something like this: “I know you want to trust me. What makes you hesitant?”
We all have a hesitant little faith. Trusting God is always risky for us and sometimes downright terrifying. That’s because God is asking nothing less than to trust him with our temporal and eternal life.
Trust is something we grow into. God does not condemn us for needing to learn to trust him. God delights in building our trust by being trustworthy in ways both small and spectacular.
Here’s what hesitant little faith looks like in my own life:
I don’t have all the right answers. About marriage or parenting or how to be a deacon or a priest or a bishop.
Even my most carefully constructed plans fail to to take things into account, make faulty assumptions, and have negative results I neither intended nor anticipated.
Every time I do something good for somebody else it’s only an imperfect good. But it’s the only good that I have to offer.
My good intentions don’t count for much of anything. My motives are generally mixed.
I should practice saying “I’m sorry.” I’ll get plenty of opportunity to use it.
A lot of stuff in this world is unfair. It breaks my heart. I’m clueless about what to do about most of it. But I still have to try.
I suppose this doesn’t look like walking on water. It’s more like being in over my head. But that doesn’t make me or you a failure or a loser. It just makes us people who are learning to look to God for salvation in the messy, joyful place that is our life.
A version of this sermon was preached at Polk Memorial Episcopal Church in Leesville, LA.