It matters what Jesus walked on. Some translations say water, some say the lake. The translations I look at most frequently say the sea. For translators who choose that term, the distinction between the sea and any other candidate is important.
It is important to note that “they saw Jesus walking on the sea” and not on water. The sea is an essentially different being from water. To walk on the sea is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all kinds of living beings… people who traveled over or worked on the sea literally put their lives in the hands of the spirit(s) or deity that revealed its moods in the varying movements of the sea…Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina and Rohrbaugh, page 82
We, today, know the sea is powerful. We know it can kill you. But when we hear this Bible story, we don’t think of the sea as a living being, so we don’t understand what early listeners understood immediately: By walking on the sea, Jesus dominates a dangerous, living power.
This scene establishes unmistakably that this rabbi is more than a very good man who taught people to be nice to each other.
He is not like other men.
He is somewhere in the realm of the divine.
His closest followers struggled to understand who he was; he did not provide them with a simple, easy answer, and sometimes his strangeness scared them. Now, when asked who Jesus is, we have 2,000 years of Christian catchphrases to draw on without skipping a beat. Then, the disciples had nothing except the witness of their eyes and ears, and their befuddled, astounded wits.
The pitfalls of understanding this tale are too great for us; we go down our opinionated, defensive, exhausted, or serene pathways and gain nothing new. How can we hear it freshly, how —
Jesus wrapped up a big meeting on Boston Common and the crowd began to disperse. But some people hung around, wanting to talk to him, so he told the disciples to go ahead to the AirBnB they’d reserved for the night; he’d catch up with them later.
After he spoke with the last people, he managed to take a walk by himself on the Esplanade. He looked like any other tired guy at the end of a long day; nobody paid any attention to him as he made his way to the dock by Community Boating, sat down, and prayed.
The disciples meanwhile walked down the long, grassy path alongside the Charles, to the Mass Avenue Bridge and beyond, into the netherworld of the Charlesgate overpass and the Muddy River, and alongside Boston University. Then, suddenly they see before them, high overhead, the BU Bridge, which they know they have to cross to get to the triple-decker in Cambridgeport where they will lay their heads.
The air has been humid all day; now it is even heavier. The evening sky turns dark. The disciples don’t know a tornado watch is in effect. They’ve overshot the pedestrian bridge that could get them safely across Storrow Drive, but being new in town, they don’t realize that. So they take their lives in their hands and race across both lanes of the highway, up the asphalt and concrete wasteland of University Road and Mass Ave, and onto the bridge.
They’re halfway across when wind comes out of nowhere, and rain crashes and whips through the air. They think it’s kind of funny, a wild predicament, but then a traffic sign whirls past them like a frisbee and smashes into the ground not 10 feet in front of them. A set of traffic cones lifts up and skitters towards them – sure, they’re made of flexible plastic, but at 70 miles an hour they can do a lot of damage.
There are no cars on the road, there’s nowhere to take shelter. They crouch beside the bridge walls. Peter pops his head over the rail and sees Jesus down below on the bike path. But then Jesus is rising, he is walking to them, calmly, on the air. Peter cries out, the others are looking, they are shouting, too. Jesus is walking to them, up, up through the air, unharmed as debris of all sorts flies past him, the rain sluices down, and the wind howls.
Peter, forgetting everything, stands up and shouts —