“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” Mat. 14:28
What a wonderful allegory of the contemplative journey is the story of Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter to come and join him. It depicts so well the narrative of our maturing prayer life—from self-orientation to a greater unity with Christ.
The familiar story begins with the disciples rowing across a windy lake. They presume that they are on their own and that Jesus is still on the shore where they last saw Him. Their hard rowing is producing little fruit as, in the words of Matthew, “they were buffeted by the waves because the wind was against them” (Mat. 14:25). They suddenly notice a figure in the distance, walking on the water. They are afraid. Presuming that it might be Jesus, they are just as happy to stay in the boat. But not Peter. This is a new side of Jesus that he hasn’t seen before and, as always, Peter is eager to follow his Lord wherever He is. He calls out from the boat, “Lord, if this is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And, in the midst of the storm, Jesus invites Peter to “Come”—the same word He beckons each of us with.
The journey of contemplative prayer is our response to Jesus’ invitation to come and walk with Him on the waters of faith. As we pine for nearness with God we too can hear ourselves calling out, “Lord, if this is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” And as we grow in our attentiveness to Jesus we also hear His response, inviting us to come and join Him where He is (Jn. 17:24).
Peter, in such a faith response, leaves the security of his boat and steps onto the water. He is now without recourse to the self-support that the boat represented to him. All his skills as an oarsman are useless to him now as he ventures out to explore the properties of this new relationship to natural life. Wonder of all, in so doing he finds himself in the same element as His Lord, walking on the same water as Jesus.
Of course, we are well aware of the self-conscious moment that will soon cause Peter to sink. We can easily relate to this aspect of the story. We too suffer such lapses in our faith as we keep returning to the “normal” way of viewing ourselves and our lives. We too can find ourselves sinking in the midst of our prayer as we get caught up in the turmoil of our inner proclivities. But we too, as Peter did, can ask Jesus to rescue us from whatever distracts us from the assurance of His fellowship. As He did for Peter, Jesus reaches out, grabs our hand and saves us from our limited sense of self.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of this story however is the fact that, rather than continue to teach Peter and the others how to walk on the water, Jesus instead joins the disciples in their boat. He re-enters their world and, from the perspective of their own lives, He then settles the chaos around them. Jesus meets us where we are, but brings with Him the gift of peace that comes from where He is.
Peter has returned to his boat. But we are pretty certain that the boat no longer represents the same necessary security that it did before this episode began. Peter knows of another recourse that one can have in relationship to water. With God’s help, he knows that we too, with faith, can walk on the same waters that Jesus so easily travels.