Jesus Prays in Solitude and Walks on Water
And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. (Matthew 14:23-25)
Having healed and fed the large crowd that had followed him to the place where he sought solitude after the death of John the Baptist, Jesus sends both the disciples and the large crowd away. He could now be alone as he had first intended. Nothing is said about what he did alone, but based on previous passages, he used the occasion to commune with his Father.
Not only was such time for private prayer necessary for Jesus during his own mission, but it is also crucial for every Christian disciple throughout their vocation and mission. Too frequently it is said about many (though certainly not all) priests and religious who leave their orders and ministry that they had stopped praying. And yet many who remain in the clerical or religious life have survived great trials, difficulties, and even persecutions, sustained through it all by prayer. This is also the case for those in families. Time alone with God is the way to gain perspective on ourselves as well as to discern the purpose and meaning of our lives and activities and the next steps that God may want us to take.
From his place on the hill next to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus could see that the disciples in their boat were in serious trouble as another squall rose up during the night. Again the disciples were caught in this difficulty precisely because they had followed his instructions, so Jesus comes out to them, walking on the water.
While Christians are generally familiar with this scene of Jesus walking on the water, they rarely see it through an Old Testament lens. The psalmist writes, “Your way was through the sea, / your path through the great waters; / yet your footprints were unseen. / You led your people like a flock / by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (77:19-20). This psalm speaks about the Lord making his “way” or road through the sea and his path through the water, which is obviously a reference to leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt. However, the Book of Job notes that God “alone…trampled the waves of the sea” (9:8). Clearly, in the Old Testament only the Lord God walks upon the waters of the sea. Here Jesus goes out to meet his disciples as they confront the winds and storm by doing what only God can do: walk upon the Sea of Galilee. His doing so will once again answer the important question of Jesus’ identity.
In this scene we see two of the aspects of prayer: Jesus demonstrating his personal desire for a prayer of contemplation and union with the Father and the disciples in a very dangerous situation in which they need God’s help. Jesus seeks the time of solitude in order to be close to the Father; people in distress, like the disciples here, feel alone and sometimes abandoned by God.
Think back on both types of your experience of God. When have you found the Lord closest to you? Was it on a retreat? A holy hour? Some other time alone? Picture yourself being with Jesus in his time of solitary prayer, and recall some of your own most memorable times alone with God. What would Jesus say to you about the importance of prayer in his ministry? What would you say to him about your own times of deep prayer? What might he say to you about your private prayer from his perspective?
Consider also those times of great difficulty in your life when you may have felt abandoned by God. Like the apostles in the boat, you may have experienced terrible problems precisely at times when you were doing exactly what God had asked of you.
As you picture Jesus as he walks on the water, speak to him about those times when you felt lost or abandoned in the storms of life. What would you say to him? What might he say to you about those occasions from his perspective?
The Disciples in the Boat
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” (Matthew 14:26-27)
By no means do the disciples grasp Jesus’ identity yet. In addition to their fears due to the strong storm and winds, now they see Jesus walking on the sea and become terrified, crying aloud from fear. Their first explanation of this sight is that they are seeing a ghost. This will be their “go-to” explanation yet again when Jesus enters the upper room on Easter Sunday night: “But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:37). In both situations, the “ghost” explanation makes more sense to them than believing that they are seeing Jesus do what is otherwise impossible by nature.
Jesus immediately addresses the terrified disciples in the boat with three statements of encouragement. First, he tells them to “take heart” and have courage. Obviously, Jesus needs to say this to them because they are so frightened at this apparition during a storm. Just because calling Jesus a ghost is their simplest explanation, it does not mean that it is the most comforting one. In a storm that already has them working hard to save their lives, the appearance to all of them together of someone walking on the water obviously terrifies them. Jesus calls them to take courage and not let their fear overwhelm them.
Second, Jesus says to them, “It is I.” Although this is the wording in the Revised Standard Version and other translations, the Greek text says simply, “I am.” So as Jesus walks on the stormy waters, he identifies himself with the phrase “I am.” This is the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), a somewhat elusive name that both identifies the Lord God and maintains the mystery of his infinity. In this present context of walking on the water, which only the Lord God does in the Old Testament, Jesus’ self-identification as “I am” becomes yet another indicator of his divine nature. He will frequently identify himself as “I am” in John’s Gospel (8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8).
Third, Jesus says, “Have no fear,” a command which is often addressed to individuals when they encounter God or his angels (Genesis 15:1; 46:3; Isaiah 41:10, 14; 43:1; 44:2; Luke 1:13, 30; Matthew 28:5; Acts 18:9-10; 27:24; Revelation 1:17). This again is a response to their obvious panic as they cry aloud in the stormy sea. However, Jesus’ command is a response not only to the disciples’ present danger but also to his divine presence. The greatness and immensity of God overwhelms those who experience it directly, and God needs to reassure the disciples that his divine presence walking upon the waves is not meant for their harm.
Imagine yourself being in the boat with the disciples as they see Jesus come to them walking on the water during the storm. Relate to their fright by going back to situations in your life when you were overwhelmed by fearful circumstances. Perhaps you even had a particularly frightening experience of God’s presence in your life. Then focus on Jesus as he approaches the boat. What would his words mean to you? How would you react to hearing him say, “Take heart; have courage”? When you hear him say, “I am,” what comes to your mind? How do you react to him identifying himself to you in this way? How do his words “Fear not” strike you at this point? Speak to him in the storm. What might he say to you now?
Peter Walks on the Waves
And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:28-33)
Peter demonstrates an aspect of his leadership among the disciples by speaking to the presumed “ghost” with a challenge to present proof that it is really Jesus. His test for discerning the authenticity of Jesus’ presence is based on his willingness to take a personal risk: “Bid me come to you.” He does not suggest that anyone else take the risk of walking on the water to Jesus. He continues to demonstrate his leadership by following Jesus’ command to come and actually getting out of the boat. Peter was no naive fool; he had been fishing on the Sea of Galilee for years, and he well knew that no one could walk on water, yet alone during a storm that aroused fear in well-experienced sailors. Yet he goes out and walks to Jesus!
Up to this point, Peter is doing fine, but as almost every preacher in history has noted, the problem comes when he takes his eyes off Jesus and focuses on the storm. Turning his attention to the danger instead of to Jesus, who not only walks above the danger but empowers him to do the same, causes Peter to sink. At Peter’s cry for salvation, Jesus reaches out a hand to lift him up and then rebukes his lack of faith. Then, when Jesus gets into the boat, the wind and the storm cease. This, along with the walk on water, indicates Jesus divinity, since it is the Lord God who maintains such control over the wind and the sea. No wonder those in the boat “worshiped” him and said in faith that Jesus is truly “the Son of God” (Matthew 14:33).
On a certain level, the disciples come to a new level of faith in Jesus. Perhaps they have now attained a glimmer of understanding about Jesus’ divinity from his divine act of walking on water and empowering Simon Peter to walk on water with him. They may even have an insight into Jesus’ hint of a claim to be “I am.” Such hints will grow and develop over time, but we can see them beginning to emerge at this point when Jesus comes out to meet them in their need.
Many Christians experience crises of faith similar to that of Peter walking on water when they are faced with life’s problems and dangers. They easily become tempted to cry out, “Why is this happening to me?” or “Where is God?” or “Why doesn’t God do something now when I need him?” Think back on your own life and the ways in which you may have acted like Peter walking on the crises and storms of your own life. Picture Jesus standing before you in those moments. How would you answer Jesus’ question, “Why did you doubt?” If he called you a person of “little faith,” what would you say to him? What would our Lord say to you?
Excerpted from Praying the Gospels: Jesus’ Miracles in Galilee by Mitch Pacwa, SJ (The Word Among Us Press, 2016). Available at wau.org/books