Why did Jesus water-walk but not teleport?

Why did Jesus water-walk but not teleport?[1]

You know the report. After Jesus “fed the 5,000,” it was dark. But Jesus insisted[2] his disciples set off on a dangerous night journey across the sea (lake) of Galilee, without him, before he dismissed the crowds.

There was a terrible storm. The disciples rowed for hours. They got nowhere. They worried for their lives. Suddenly they saw someone “walking on the sea.” They cried out in fear. They thought it was a ghost. Until they heard the figure say “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Jesus was a miracle-worker. He healed people, fed people by multiplying food. Such as five loaves and two fish. But he never did things like turning stones into bread, like jumping off tall buildings. The gospel writers make this explicit by telling us Satan urged him to do so, but he refused.[3]   

Jesus, before his resurrection, never used his God-powers such as teleporting – which he used after his resurrection.[4] Except this one time. When he walked on water. And he even commanded Peter to do so.

Why did Jesus make this exception? Why did he break his rule of “no showy acts”? Why did he walk on water? Why didn’t he just pray for calm waters or pray for the storm to cease, to allay the fears of his disciples and save them? Why didn’t he go with them or take the next boat?

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder the story, in Matthew 14:22-32. The English Standard Version titles it “Jesus Walks on the Water.”[5]

Twenty centuries have passed. Millions have discussed it. I’ve read many writings about it. Typically, they present it as an account of God’s protection, of Peter’s faith, doubt, and God’s response. Rarely do they answer the question “Why did Jesus water-walk but not teleport?”

They rarely do so because they ‘forget’ the political reality. They ‘forget’ that thousands of oppressed peasants gathered around a charismatic leader – who healed wounds rooted in the occupier’s taxation and brutality. They ‘forget’ that such gatherings always elicit a response.

Matthew’s use of the word “immediately” offers a clue. It’s the only time Matthew uses the word – unlike Mark who uses it ten times in his first chapter alone. It’s the first word Matthew uses to introduce his report.

What was so urgent that even before he dismissed the crowd, Jesus sent his disciples off? What was so urgent that he sent them out in the dark, across a lake famous for its storms? What was so urgent that he had to pray all night?  What did he pray for?

Context is everything. If you’re on the phone with your daughter, and she says, “I went for a walk last night,” your response depends upon where she is. If she’s in Penang, you move to the next topic. But if she’s in Kyiv, the conversation continues about her walk.

What’s the context of Jesus walking on water?

The Romans are ever-watching, always quick to arrest any who gather crowds. Especially those who teach people to pray “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”[6] Did they get word that soldiers were coming to get them? If so, that would explain why Jesus immediately sent his disciples off, wouldn’t it?

Rome claimed to be “ruler of lands and seas and nations.”[7]

Did Jesus’ walk on the water and calm the storm to show who really ruled? Did his walk and words cause people to recall Job 9:8 “[He] … trampled the waves of the sea …” and Genesis 1:2 “the Spirit of God was hovering over the  face of the waters”? Did they recall a common motif in the psalms, in which water threatens to overwhelm, but God delivers?

Did Jesus’ flee a confrontation with Philip’s soldiers – just as he’d fled after Herod beheaded John Baptist? (See “Why did Jesus enact the miracle of the 5 loaves and 2 fish.” Did Jesus walk on water to reassure his disciples that he’d made them flee not because he was weak and fearful but because he was strategic?

What lessons do preachers normally draw from the passage? Professor Ian Paul of Fuller Seminary is typical. He draws from John Ortberg, an Evangelical scholar-pastor:

  • Life is a storm, yet Jesus calmly walks on the surface.
  • We think we can follow him, though it looks impossible.
  • Then he himself calls us, and as we hear his voice, we are filled with courage.
  • We step out of the metaphorical boat of our safe assumptions and self-made protection in order to follow him.
  • Our faith fails as we are distracted from looking at Jesus and instead look at the wind and waves around us, and we feel as though we are drowning.
  • Yet Jesus reaches out and rescues us and takes us once again to a place of safety.

Lovely! But is that a sufficient reading of the passage? I think not.

Why? Because it doesn’t explain the one-time Jesus apparently broke his “no showmanship rule.” It doesn’t explain why he walked on water, why he didn’t command the wind and waves from afar, why he didn’t take the next boat.

Because “being against” the oppressor is central to the story. They were supposed to say, “Caesar is Lord.” But they said, “Jesus is Lord.” Caesar and his forces said, “bow to Caesar.” But they said, “we bow to God.”

Caesar is the storm. But Jesus is God who stills the storm.

Why did Jesus water-walk? Was it to set the scene for a story of faith, failure, and restoration? Or was it to show the false claims of the oppressor, and the coming Kingdom of God, of no-more-oppression?

Peace be with you.

[1] Teleport means to be transported across space and distance instantly – like in Star Trek when Captain Kirk says, “Beam me up, Mr Scott.”

[2] “Immediately [the word is emphatic] he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” Matthew 14:22

[3] Matthew 4:1-10; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:1-13

[4] For example, when he met Mary outside his empty grave (John 20:11-18), when he appeared to the men on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35), when he suddenly appeared in their midst (Luke 24:36-38).

[5] Also in Mark 6:45-52 and John 6:16-21. Mark and John don’t mention Peter’s walk.

[6] Matthew 6:10

[7] As Juvenal put it in his Satires: https://www.tertullian.org/fathers/juvenal_satires_04.htm

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