The Ghost on the Water
If you are awake at 3 a.m., there is probably something wrong.
You might be having fun if you’re partying that late, but you’re probably past your prime and have had a few too many drinks.
If you are awake at 3 a.m. and not a drunk college student, the most likely explanation is that you are up with a sick child, you are lying in bed worrying about losing, finding, or keeping a job, you are sitting by a hospital bed having been told your loved one is unlikely to survive the next twenty-four hours, or are facing some other catastrophe, large or small.
The disciples in our gospel story today are quite literally in the same boat.
The wind has been against them their entire journey, and they are being battered by the waves. The land is far away and their boat is small.
“And early in the morning, he came walking toward them on the sea.”
What a remarkable line of scripture.
Jesus didn’t do anything that the disciples would expect him to do.
He hadn’t gotten on the boat in the first place, in fact he was the one who sent them out there when the storm was coming.
He didn’t stand on the shore and calm the sea from there so they could finish their journey.
He came toward them through the storm, walking on the water.
And the disciples, already at their wits end, snap.
For experienced fishermen not to be able to complete this short boat journey that they had made a thousand times, the storm must have been horrendous.
They are at the very end of their physical and mental strength, and suddenly they see this figure coming toward them through the wind and waves.
We must forgive them for their assumption that this is a ghost. Their fear ratchets impossibly higher.
We have all been there. We have all been through incredibly difficult situations, unable to imagine how things could get worse, when they somehow do.
Suddenly there is a new unknown factor in the mix, some new threat or disaster that threatens to send us over the edge, just like the disciples.
And we almost always make the same assumption that the disciples do—that whatever is coming is threatening and awful.
When things are bad and somehow suddenly get worse, do we ever consider that this is Jesus approaching us?
The ghost on the water while we barely ride the storm—the car breakdown, the new diagnosis, the job loss, the family emergency—our instinct is the same as the disciples, to panic.
Maybe next time this happens, we could listen for a voice saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
But Jesus doesn’t really come to make things better in this story. In fact, he seems to endanger Peter even more than he was to begin with.
Jesus doesn’t calm the storm.
He stands there on the water to wait and see what the disciples will do next, having been confronted with his appearing in this impossible way.
Perhaps Jesus does the same thing for us today.
While we’re praying for the storm to cease and panicking at ghosts on the water, perhaps he is standing there outside the boat, waiting to see if we will recognize him and hear his voice.
This a moment of newness and possibility, borne out of catastrophe and chaos.
Remember this verse? “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” That’s the second verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:2.
This passage in Matthew is the very moment a new reality is being created within the hearts and minds of the disciples.
In the formless void of their fear, in the darkness of the storm sweeping over the deep, Jesus, the Spirit of God, moves toward them over the surface of the waters, and they will be forever changed.
For what is Genesis 1:3? What happens next in the story?
“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”
Jesus brings light to the disciples’ dark fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He shines a light to drive out their fear.
But human fear is a powerful force, and they are not quite convinced yet.
Peter says something that reveals the remarkable mixture of fear and courage that he shows over and over throughout the gospels: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
Peter is testing Jesus to see if he is who he says he is.
Who else do you know who tested God, wanting to know more?
Adam and Eve in the Garden, eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
But here is where our two stories diverge.
Adam and Eve and Peter all want to know: is this Divine Presence who he says he is?
And Adam and Eve and Peter all take a risky action that will probably end badly, Adam and Eve eating the fruit, and Peter climbing out of the boat into the water in the midst of a raging storm.
Adam’s and Eve’s story ends precisely where we expect it to end: in disaster.
But Peter’s story ends differently.
Jesus reaches out to him and saves him.
It’s a very near thing. Peter is almost swallowed by the waves. He begins to sink.
But Jesus reaches out to him and saves him.
This is the difference that Jesus Christ makes.
Before he came to Earth, justice was absolute. There was no one to save us from the ultimate consequences of our bad decisions.
There was no one to break the rules for us and make God’s mercy manifest to us.
Adam and Eve were cast out with seemingly no chance for forgiveness.
But Jesus came to save us and all the world.
The Spirit moved over the face of the deep, early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea, and a new thing happened.
Rather than Peter making a reckless decision and dying as a result of it, Jesus told them not to be afraid and proved he would always be there to save them from whatever threatened them, be it sin, fear, or evil.
And a new reality came to be.
What was the new creation of the Spirit moving over the deep in this story?
The disciples finally understand who Jesus is. “Truly you are the Son of God,” they say.
What does this remind you of? The water, the recognition of the divinity of Jesus, the creation of a new inner reality?
This is the same process we go through in our baptism, and a reminder of how dangerous and risky it was when we, or our parents, entrusted us to climb out of the boat into the water and walk toward Jesus.
One day, at a font or in a river or a tank or a bathtub, the Spirit moved over the face of the deep within our souls, and we became a new creation.
And every day, our baptism matters.
Every day we have the chance to live into our baptismal covenant, making choices that uphold our vows, or deny this true reality of who we are, letting our fear and sin keep us safely inside the boat.
Jesus knows our frail courage and our terrified hope.
Jesus has come out across the stormy ocean to meet us because he knows how long the waves have beaten us down, threatening to drag us under.
He will not still the storm and he will not come into the boat, but he will call us out to him on the water and he will catch us when we think we’re falling.
So perhaps being awake at three a.m., frantically bailing water out of our boat that is about to sink, is not the tragedy and catastrophe we think it is.
And when bad goes to worse, when we look out and see a ghost on the water, it may in fact be Jesus walking toward us.
Because in reality, the ghost on the water is not something to be feared.
The ghost on the water is the Holy Ghost, and it moves over the face of the deep, over the formless void, to begin a new creation within us.
The words we will hear over the raging wind and crashing waves are, “Take heart, it is I. Let there be light. Do not be afraid.”
We are only baptized once in our lives, but we are called to make our baptism real over and over again, every single day.
Jesus is calling us to climb out of our boat, out of our preconceptions and limiting ideas and old ways of living that we think keep us safe, and come to him on the water.
And he will make the sea, the very threat that overcame us with fear, into cleansing baptismal waters that create us anew, firm beneath our feet.
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