Living Water Walking On Water

A Sermon by Don Erickson

I’ve been thinking about Walking on Water. Not doing it myself, really. I can’t even swim. But I’ve been thinking about Jesus and Peter’s aqua stroll around 30 A.D. You know the story. It goes like this:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind,* he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ 

It is a great story, one that I’ve heard many a time as a little boy in Sunday school and Good News clubs. What I didn’t know until fairly recently is that spiritual heroes walking on water is not a novel thing in religious folklore.

In ancient Egyptian Mythology the God Horus walked on water, and in ancient Greek Mythology the giant hunter and son of the gods Orion walked on water too. The Hindu tradition tells the story of a faithful milkmaid who walks on water at the behest of a faith challenge from her teacher.

In the Buddhist tradition there is the story of the Buddha’s faithful disciple Shariputtra. The story goes like this.

"South of Savatthi is a great river, on the banks of which lay a hamlet of five hundred houses. Thinking of the salvation of the people, the World-honored One resolved to go to the village and preach the doctrine. Having come to the riverside he sat down beneath a tree, and the villagers seeing the glory of his appearance approached him with reverence; but when he began to preach, they believed him not.

When the world-honored Buddha had left Savatthi Sariputta felt a desire to see the Lord and to hear him preach. Coming to the river where the water was deep and the current strong, he said to himself: "This stream shall not prevent me. I shall go and see the Blessed One, and he stepped upon the water which was as firm under his feet as a slab of granite. When he arrived at a place in the middle of the stream where the waves were high, Sariputta's heart gave way, and he began to sink. But rousing his faith and renewing his mental effort, he proceeded as before and reached the other bank.

The people of the village were astonished to see Sariputta, and they asked how he could cross the stream where there was neither a bridge nor a ferry. Sariputta replied: "I lived in ignorance until I heard the voice of the Buddha. As I was anxious to hear the doctrine of salvation, I crossed the river and I walked over its troubled waters because I had faith. Faith. nothing else, enabled me to do so, and now I am here in the bliss of the Master's presence."

Interesting parallels between our friends Peter and Shariputtra, hey? Shariputtra's strong faith is the kind Jesus would love to see in his student Peter. Shariputtra's faith in his teacher and the teaching has led to cultivation.

The Buddhist living sage, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said, "The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive." Shariputtra indeed has cultivated this ability to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the moment and feeling truly alive. Lord knows it takes constant practice to do this. Walking on water becomes rather easy if you are able to perform the real miracle of fully walking on the green earth.

This kind of cultivation is the aim of faith. Faith is rather useless to us and those around us if it remains simply an intellectual claim. This kind of weak faith lacks depth. If there is strong faith, the cultivation of walking on the earth in peace and in harmony naturally occurs.

Shariputtra is a model of upstanding faith. Peter on the other hand is more like most of us works in progress. And I say this out of appreciation for Peter and out of admiration for the Bible filled with anti-heroes who are Gods’ works in progress. I think of the twelve disciples, a bunch of unknowns, lowly fishermen, a Jewish radical, a tax-collector, all but one of whom leaves Jesus at his darkest hour. One betrays and one denies. Peter is the latter, pretty much the most outspoken and proud yet the biggest bumbler in the group. Somehow, this same Peter is the rock the church would be built upon.

I don’t know about you, but it is much easier to identify with Peter than Shariputtra. Peter is more like me. Half-Baked Peter has to have Jesus come seek him out. And he is not even able to meet Jesus half-way. He is lacking the spiritual aptitude and courage needed. But like us, Peter is getting there.

And thankfully, Peter, after those three denials there before the cock crowed, after fleeing and letting his teacher die alone, Peter does get there. After Jesus is gone, ol’ Peter finally gets it, gets what Jesus was teaching all along. And in the end, Peter, courageous and experienced, does something greater than walk on water – he is crucified upside down in the cause of his teacher.

I don’t know about you, but the anti-hero Peter and God’s transformative work within him gives me hope. With Love’s help and Wisdom’s teaching, I know I am able to get better.

Whether you are more like Peter or like Shariputtra, there is a common denominator and that is the centrality of the relationship between the student – the disciple, the apostle, the apprentice – and the spiritual teacher – the rabbi, the master, the roshi. In both traditions, both Eastern traditions I might add, the student-teacher relationship is sacrosanct, primary, ultimate. And it is central to understanding both traditions’ sacred texts. Though not as pervasive or pronounced in our society, this relationship is fundamental to any faith and its practice, even if we don’t realize it.

Think about it, where would you be without the existence of that parent, that preacher, that classmate, that friend telling you about Jesus, for example? In the tradition I grew up in, the Evangelical tradition, these messengers of truth as they see it, are called Spiritual Fathers or Mothers. I find it interesting that Jesus calls his messenger of truth – i.e., God, who is spirit – Father. Evangelicals call their messengers of truth, Spiritual Fathers or Mothers. These spiritual fathers or mothers are spiritual teachers that have passed on a spiritual teaching to another and they are essential to the continuance of the way and to our turning toward that way.

Back to our two walking on water students, Buddha was Shariputtra’s teacher. Jesus was Peter’s teacher. But there is another teacher in both walking on water tales and this teacher is vital. This teacher is the teacher of teachers.

This teacher is nothing other than the water that is being tread upon. Indeed, water is a wonderful teacher. Think about it, water is the picture of humility. Water is fundamental to life yet it does not attempt to be. Nor does it expect anything in return. Water also naturally goes to the humblest of places and is content to just be there and be its nourishing self. And as the Tao Te Ching tells us, “nothing is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard. The gentle overcomes the rigid.” Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and film actor, had something profound to say about water. It first came in a movie, and then recalled in his last interview.

Things become more interesting when you consider that Jesus once implied that he was living water in the Gospel of John, chapter 7.

Indeed, as a follower of Jesus, Jesus is water, the spiritual water fundamental to my spirit and my spiritual direction. And like water, Jesus’ life to me is a picture of humility. Reading the gospels, you can’t help but to notice again and again that Jesus is utterly himself and nothing else. He is completely comfortable in his own skin, which is really off-putting to those rigid and hard folks he encounters. Like water, Jesus gave without ever expecting anything in return and asked his followers to do the same. And like water, Jesus went to the humblest of places – to the outcasts of society, to the so-called “sinners” and was content and life-giving. Jesus, soft and yielding, overcame and dissolved the hard and the inflexible. In him, the soft overcame the sharp edges and the gentle overcame the rigid.

But how is Jesus as living water related to Jesus walking on water? Well, I think back to Holly and my year of teaching English in Korea. One of our important lessons was the countable, uncountable noun lesson. There are countable nouns such as humans, cities, counties, states, nations, continents. These things are individual things that can be divided into separate units and thus can be individually counted. Then there are nouns we cannot divide into separate elements. We cannot "count" them. For example, we cannot count the noun "water". We can measure water. And we can count "cups of water” or "bodies of water” but we cannot count "water" itself. We cannot divide water itself in two unless we have something like a cup or a bowl. Other examples of uncountable nouns are love, music, happiness, news, information, or wind, which interestingly in Greek and Hebrew is the same word as Spirit.

If Jesus is water, Jesus, like the Sea of Galilee’s water, is uncountable. Jesus as a spiritual master is not divided against but becomes a part of his surroundings. Spiritual adepts naturally absorb and are absorbed by the environment that they inhabit. There seems to be no conflict or resistance. So Jesus as Water is one with the Sea of Galilee’s water. Jesus, the Living Water walking on water, becomes a picture of what it means to be united with all things. After praying, after experiencing unity with the Spirit that prayer brings, Jesus strolls down the mountain. Jesus, the Living Water, comes rolling down as water, as a mighty stream to be with his beloved disciples amid some stormy and scary moments out on the water. His presence, his unity with all things, calms the storm and the disciples’ fear.

As for Peter, his belief and trust was born from hours in front of Jesus, drinking in his presence and his teaching. With this belief and trust, he experienced streams of living water flowing from within him. This belief and trust allowed him to be in harmony with all things and do the impossible – walk on water. When Peter loses his belief, when he loses trust in his teacher in the middle of that ocean, those streams of living water stop flowing from within and he begins to sink.

Jesus was Peter’s teacher. Water was Jesus’ teacher. Who are your teachers? As a follower of Jesus, like Peter was, Jesus and his wisdom certainly teach me. But Wisdom works through many things. Maybe you have a mentor, in many ways the closest equivalent today to a rabbi or a guru. Maybe a minister of some sort is a teacher? Maybe, hopefully, your parents, your friends, your partner, your children teach you? Maybe your teacher has been a cashier at your local grocery store, the driver behind you honking his horn prematurely after the light turns green, a stranger on the street saying hello. They all can teach us.

A teacher can be an “it.” A book of poetry or theology. Music. Cinema. The mountains surrounding you. The ground below you. The sky above you.

What’s for sure, teachers are everywhere. If you don’t have a teacher, you’re either blinded by pride or self-isolated or you’re just not looking hard enough.

Another question -- might you be resisting or fighting against the who or the what wanting to teach you something poignant – about life, about love, about truth? I think of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The denial and fighting against potential life-changing teachers and teaching is a central theme of the film. The gifted martial art upstart Jen Mu still has much to learn and the renowned wushu master Li Mu Bai offers to teacher her, namely about the spiritual meaning underlying it all. But she pridefully fights against this, literally fights against the great master and in so doing against herself and at the expense of all. There is a beautiful scene in the movie that gets to the heart of it.

Wisdom and her many ways want to teach us. Are we resisting? Are we in our pride, in our stubbornness, denying and resisting what would make us stronger or even strongest, resisting the soft and gentle water-like spirit teaching us to overcome the hard and the rigid by loving God in loving our brothers and sisters, our neighbors and our enemies?

Indeed, the miracle is not walking on water, but walking on this green earth, dwelling deeply in the moment, heeding our teachers all around us, listening to the voice of God still speaking, living, loving, and feeling truly alive. Amen


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