You may not know this but I’m a big fan nature documentaries, whether it’s Blue Planet or Planet Earth or more recently A Perfect Planet, all featuring Sir David Attenborough or The Nature of Things or NatGeo, if Knowledge Network has it on you can bet I’m going to try at tune in. I find stories about God’s strange and wonderful creation super engaging. I recently watched an episode of one such show that featured the Common Basilisk, it’s a little brown lizard found in Central and South America and other than a strange protrusion on the heads of the male lizards they are generally quite unremarkable. That is, until they are being chased by a predator on water. The Common Basilisk is nicknamed the “Jesus Christ Lizard” because they are able to run on water. They have these large hind feet with scaly fringes on the sides of their toes. When on land these fringes are compressed and not used but when it senses danger it can jump into the water, flail it’s fringes against the water’s surface and lift it’s body so that it is on the surface of the water. They can run about 10-20 meters without sinking. It is fascinating stuff and I’d totally recommend that after this service you look up Jesus Christ Lizards on youtube and watch in awe as it scampers across the water. It would be quite fitting to watch such a clip following today’s theme. What interests me is not so much the name of the lizard or it’s ability to run on water, despite the fact that walking on water is exactly what we hear Jesus does, but the fact that this lizard only runs on water when it is afraid or feels threatened. Today we really focus in on how fear can affect our behaviour.
Usually this brief version of Jesus walking on water is included as part of last week’s reading of the feeding of the five thousand. While it seems a bit incongruous the truth is that both stories are an attempt on the part of the author of the Gospel of John to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” We heard last week that by feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish during passover that Jesus is creating a link between himself and God’s salvation. Next week we continue the theme of Jesus as the bread of heaven, a theme which continues for many weeks. This morning’s passage actually has more in common with this theme then it first appears as it too demonstrates who Jesus is. Both stories involve shocking miracles, miracles that go beyond Jesus’ traditional healing miracles and for John they are both signs that Jesus has divine power and authority.
Jesus gets in and out of the boats belonging to the disciples on a regular basis however, this story has the disciples getting into their own boats and beginning to cross the sea of Galilee without Jesus. John says something strange at the end of verse 17, “It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” John is foreshadowing right away what is about to happen. Despite the fact that the disciples are in their boats without Jesus, Jesus will show up!
It’s dark. It’s windy and they are about three or four miles from shore. Even if we are not seasoned sailors we know that this is a bad situation. There is great risk of striking something just off the shore or rolling into rocks. The disciples are scared. What could be scarier then being in a boat, in the dark, in rough waters, about 3 miles from shore? Honestly, seeing a figure, approaching the boat, walking on water. I bet that in that moment, the disciples have enough adrenaline coursing through their veins that if they jumped out of the boats they too might be able to run on water. But by showing up Jesus is transforming the disciples’ fear.
Unfortunately there is something lost in most English translations of what happens next. Both the NRSV and NIV state that as Jesus approaches the boat he declares, “It is I, do not be afraid.” This is because in English that is the sentence that makes sense. However, in Greek what Jesus actually says is, “ego eimi” which means “I am”. The story of Jesus walking on water now connects the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with all the passages regarding Jesus as the bread of heaven because Jesus will say “ego eimi” another four times in this chapter all referring to Jesus saying “I AM the bread of life or living bread or bread from heaven.” But in this moment Jesus simply says, “I Am, do not be afraid.”
Of course this may cause us to reflect on the first time the words “I AM” are uttered in reference to God in the Bible, when Moses asks God who he shall say has sent him to Pharaoh and God responds tell him I AM has sent you. Theologian Ginger Barfield has a hypothesis on why we need to remember that Jesus declares “I Am” to the disciples in this moment. She writes, “A simple understanding of the “I Am” statement [is needed] in this context. It is as if one were to open the door to enter a dark room where another is present. There is fear over who is entering the room if the identity is not announced. A simple, “hello, it’s me” suffices as a voice recognition to calm the ear over who the intruder is.” Meaning that Jesus is aware that the disciples are afraid and he simply says, “I Am” as a way to say, “Hi, it’s me….God, don’t be afraid.”
In this moment Jesus recognizes that the disciples are afraid. In their fear, they need Jesus. They needed Jesus because he wasn’t with them. As Barfield says, “Their need came out of Jesus’ own absence.” Their fear was dominating how they were handling the situation, much like a few weeks ago when we heard about Jesus calming the storm by rebuking it and he then chastises the disciples for letting their fear get the best of them. This time, however, Jesus shows up to calm their fears. Jesus shows up and says, “I’m here. Stop being afraid.” Like a parent, who rushes into a child’s room while they are experiencing a nightmare. Jesus shows up, embraces them and says, I’m here. It’s ok. Don’t be afraid.
Put side by side these two signs, his feeding the five thousand and his walking on water, show us something about Jesus. Sometimes Jesus can awaken needs and feed our souls with sustenance similar to what Jesus does with the feeding of the five thousand. But sometimes Jesus can provide us with reassurance by simply being present. Ego eimi. I AM is with you, do not be afraid. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid in some fashion of the future- it’s unknown, it’s unpredictable, it’s unclear. But then I hear Jesus’ words ego eimi, and instead of jumping up and running away I feel better prepared for the future. Jesus is active through grand miracles, sure, but also through simple presence. It might be rocky, windy, dark, and a little turbulent at times but just by being present with us Jesus brings us to safe harbours. Amen